Nov 252009
 
World of the Body: Physiognomy
The study of expression, primarily of the emotions, and principally via the face, has a long and complex history. From Aristotle onwards, physiognomy has been the means of reading and judging character based on the expressions of the face. In sum, physiognomists recognized the face as an index of emotion and (moral) character; and physiognomy offered a way of conceptualizing these particular observations in terms of general categories or theories. The purpose of physiognomy was to identify and to describe the common forms that organized the diversity of appearances, and, as such, it functioned in a profoundly normative manner — as the determinant of what was common to all people and all things in the physical world. At best, physiognomy provided an explanation of human nature in terms of a uniform order of types or kinds, which worked by translating particular observations into general theories of character and emotion. At worst, it was disparaged as a mystical and highly deterministic practice, more akin to fortune-telling than to science, and cast as a poor resemblance of its family relation, phrenology.
A number of thinkers have attempted to describe and explain how the desire to see the workings of the mind, and ultimately the soul, through the face answers these questions about man, mind, and nature. Aristotle, Charles Le Brun, Johann Caspar Lavater, and Charles Darwin are the most notable. The challenge they faced was how to establish the grounds upon which their teachings could be viewed as true or rejected as false. One of the earliest philosophical treatises on physiognomy, and the first attempt to present physiognomy as a hermeneutic, and possibly scientific, method, was a work thought to be written by Aristotle, Physiognomica, which identified three categories of physiognomic judgement — the zoological, the ethnological, and the pathognomical. Yet what emerges after Aristotle is a complex relationship between the classical mode of reading and judging character — physiognomy — and the rise and triumph of inner, scientific understandings of expression based on physiology. Such a relationship originates with the work of Charles Le Brun, who believed an understanding of expression was the key to discerning the passions or the activities of the mind (soul). Based on Descartes’ theory of the passions, Le Brun’s Conférence sur l’expression générale et particulière (1668) sought to present a rational and coherent theory of expression. Le Brun wanted to demonstrate the necessary and natural correspondence between the movements of the passions and the movements of the facial muscles, and, from this, to deduce the laws of expression. A knowledge of the principles, psychological and physiological, which directed these activities and their external appearance would, he claimed, release the artist from simply copying nature and allow him to create his own images, which would be directed by, and maybe even improve on, the processes of nature. This notion of ‘improvement’ was of crucial importance to Johann Caspar Lavater in his Essays on Physiognomy (1789-93). In his hands, each and every attempt to read and judge character was a means of ascribing an essence to human nature that imagined there was something hidden from external appearances, which, once discovered, made them more purposeful and more substantial. One could arrive at a definition of man by imputing a certain kind of ‘spirit’ from the ‘surface’ appearance of an individual. But the point was that Lavaterian physiognomy enabled the impressions of sense to be translated into common sense — an essential and ideological form, which comprehended order and unity from the appearances of things. The appeal of essentialism for Lavater lay in its capacity to validate a ‘science’ of man based on a theory of natural kinds. But the problem of essentialism for physiognomy was that it imagined its ‘science’ as the result of an intuitive understanding of the intrinsic properties and purposes of things. So, whilst essentialism underwrote Lavater’s ‘science’ of man, it was also, and not incidentally, the cause of its many inconsistencies. There is no doubt that Charles Darwin was sceptical about the claims of physiognomy with regard to expression and emotion. Nonetheless, it is interesting that his study of expression makes a number of contradictory claims about the possibility and plausibility of conducting a scientific analysis of expression. Darwin’s oft-neglected work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), was self-consciously presented as the cornerstone of his evolutionary theory — the means of demonstrating once and for all that man was not a separate and divinely created species but continuous with other species. An evolutionary account of expression was not concerned with teleological explanations of physical attributes; rather, it was directed towards finding a means of understanding the process through which expressions are acquired. The result was a study of expression that tried to identify specific mental and emotional states as well as their corresponding expressions (by concentrating on their motor activity), and then map their common descent through groups of related organisms. If this could be done, then human feelings like love, anger, fear, and grief could be treated as habits and shown to have clearly recognizable parallels, perhaps even origins, in the animal world. The rise and triumph of these inner, scientific rationales for the expression of the emotions placed the study of expression on new ground. Indeed, the evolutionary explanation of expression given by Darwin (and taken to its logical, albeit odious, conclusion by Francis Galton, father of eugenics) is both the long-term outcome of physiognomical teachings and the reason for their dissolution. As we reflect on the impact of physiognomy, there is much to suggest that its demise is no bad thing. — Lucy Hartley
Be Sociable, Share!