From Academic Kids

A 19th century Phrenology chart
A 19th century Phrenology chart

Phrenology (from Greek: φρην, mind and λογος, study) is a theory which claims to be able to determine character, personality traits, and criminality on the basis of the shape of the head (reading "bumps"). Developed by German physician Franz Joseph Gall around 1800, and very popular in the 19th century, it is now discredited as a pseudoscience. Phrenology has however received credit as a contribution to medical science by stating the idea that the brain is the organ of the mind and that certain brain areas have specific functions, and was thus a protoscience.

Its principles were that the brain is the organ of the mind, and that mind has a set of different mental faculties, each particular faculty being represented in a different part of the brain. These areas are proportional to a given individual's propensities and importance of a mental faculty, and the overlying skull bone reflects these differences.

Phrenology, which focuses on personality and character, has to be distinguished from craniometry, which is the mere study of skull size and shape (particularly the statistically varying proportions of length to width), once intensively practised in anthropology/ethnology and sometimes utilised by racist theorising.


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A definition of phrenology with chart from Websters Academic Dictionary, circa 1895

Phrenology is a very ancient object of study. Aristotle of ancient Greece attempted to locate faculties of personality within the head. The study of the face, physiognomy, has been particularly studied by the 18th century Swiss author Johann Kaspar Lavater.

The German physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) is considered the founding father of phrenology. Gall was one of the first to consider the brain as the home of all mental activities.

In the introduction to his main work The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular, Gall makes the following statement in regard to the principles on which he based his doctrine:

  • That moral and intellectual faculties are innate
  • That their exercise or manifestation depends on organisation
  • That the brain is the organ of all the propensities, sentiments and faculties
  • That the brain is composed of many particular organs as there are propensities, sentiments and faculties which differ essentially from each other.
  • That the form of the head or cranium represents the form of the brain, and thus reflects the relative development of the brain organs.

These statements can be considered as the basic laws on which phrenology was built. Through careful observation and extensive experimental measurements, Gall believed he had linked aspects of character, called faculties, to precise locations in the brain. The most important collaborator of Gall was Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), who successfully disseminated phrenology in the United Kingdom and the United States. Spurzheim also coined the term phrenology.

Other significant authors on the subject include the Scottish brothers George Combe (1788-1858) and Andrew Combe (1797-1847). George Combe was the author of some of the most popular works on phrenology and the hygiene of the mind, like The Constitution of Man or Elements of Phrenology.

The American brothers Lorenzo Niles Fowler (1811-1896) and Orson Squire Fowler (1809-1887) were the leading phrenologists of their time. Orson, together with his associates Samuel Wells and Nelson Sizer ran the phrenological firm and publishing house Fowlers & Wells in New York City. Lorenzo spend much of his life in England where he set up the famous phrenological publishing house of L.N Fowler & Co; he acquired fame with his phrenology head, a china head on which the phrenological faculties were indicated. This item has become the symbol of phrenology.

In the 19th century, phrenology gained a rapidly growing interest. In the Victorian period, it was taken quite seriously, and many people consulted a phrenologist to get advice in matters like hiring personnel or finding a marriage partner. With the theory of phrenology being rejected by official academia however, the phrenological parlours remained popular for some time, but they were to be considered more close to astrology, chiromancy, and the like. Eventually phrenology went down to the level of a fairground attraction.

In the early 20th century however, phrenology benefited of a new interest, particularly in the viewpoint of evolutionism on one hand and of criminology and anthropology (as studied by Cesare Lombroso) on the other hand. The most important British phrenologist of this century was the famous London psychiatrist Bernard Hollander (1864-1934). His main works, The Mental Function of the Brain (1901) and Scientific Phrenology (1902) are an appraisal of the teachings of Gall. Hollander also introduced a quantitative approach to the phrenological diagnosis, defining a methodology for measuring the skull and comparing the measurements with statistical averages.

Phrenology was also very popular in the United States, where even automatic devices for phrenological analysis were devised. One such Automatic Electric Phrenometer is on display in the Science Museum ( of Minnesota in Saint Paul.

In Belgium, Paul Bouts (1900-1999) started working on phrenology from a pedagogical background, using the phrenological analysis to define an individual pedagogy. Combining phrenology with typology and graphology, he coined a global approach called Psychognomy.

Prof. Bouts has been the main promoter of the renewed interest in phrenology and psychognomy in Belgium. He has also been active in Brazil and Canada where he founded institutes for caracterology. His works Psychognomie and Les Grandioses Destinées individuelle et humaine dans la lumière de la Caractérologie et de l'Evolution cérébro-cranienne are considered as standard works in the field. Besides his works in the field of caracterology, he has written some works about what he believes to be healthy lifestyles (Modern Hygiene for Intellectuals, stating advice about physical exercise and healthy food) and a number of spiritual-philosophical essays (Bouts was a Catholic priest). Paul Bouts died on March 7, 1999. After his death, the work of Bouts has been continued by the Dutch foundation PPP (Per Pulchritudinem in Pulchritudine) animated by Anette Müller, a pupil of Bouts.

Phrenology came however once again under attack because of the ongoing development of psychoanalysis, the introspective and subjective methods of which were in opposition with the "objective method" the phrenologists claimed to use. Furthermore, fascist ideologies like Nazism have misused some elements of craniometry in the framework of their infamous racist doctrines. A popular American hip-hop group called The Roots politicized these racial undertones in their album entitled Phrenology.

Related Discplines

External links

de:Phrenologie fa:جمجمه‌خوانی fr:Phrénologie is:Höfuðlagsfræði he:פרנולוגיה pl:Frenologia fi:Frenologia sv:Frenologi


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