Good History, Bad Science: an Examination of Hegel’s Perspectives on Physiognomy, and Phrenology (Original Essay)steemCreated with Sketch.

Good History, Bad Science: an Examination of Hegel’s Perspectives on Physiognomy, and Phrenology

In his chapter of Phenomenology of Spirit titled “Reason,” Hegel entertains and dissects two “sciences”—physiognomy and phrenology. Although these sciences are entirely outdated and considered by modern psychologists to be no more than “pseudo-sciences,” (of which Hegel would not entirely disagree) they do hold historical relevance to ancient times as well as to their brief revival during the eighteenth century and should be valued as such, but only as such.

In his essay titled “Hegel on Faces and Skulls,” Alasdair MacIntyre does just that, critiquing Hegel and his ideas on physiognomy and phrenology. Here, his intent is to analyze Hegel’s work insofar as to learn from it historically so as not to repeat the same philosophical mistakes:

"[…] so many philosophical problems lie so close to permanent characteristics of human nature and human language […] and it is in this light that I want to consider Hegel’s arguments on two bad sciences—physiognomy and Phrenology—and their claims to lay bare and to explain human character and behavior, and the relevance of those arguments to certain contemporary issues." (MacIntyre, 74).

Thus MacIntyre is not looking to completely discredit Hegel’s arguments, but rather to dissect them accordingly so as to not reject essential philosophical thought with the inessential “bad science.”

Exactly what are, then, the “bad” sciences here? Firstly, let’s examine Physiognomy. It claims that one can tell another’s character or ethnic origin through their facial features or expressions. Hegel writes: “[A man’s] body is also the expression of himself which he has himself produced; it is at the same time a sign, which has not remained an immediate fact, but something through which the individual only makes known what he really is, when he sets his original nature to work” (Hegel, par. 310). The emphasis here, MacIntyre would say, is on expression. Although our experience (and maybe even astrology) has an effect on our character, our face is one way we express such effects. However, because facial expressions are read as movements, just as a motion from the hand is, the expressions of our character are not looked at as signs from the inner self, but rather as mere actions, as Hegel writes: “The true being of man is rather his deed” (Hegel, par. 322).

MacIntyre interprets that “It is not what the face is, its bone structure or the way the eyes are set, but what the face does that is the expression of character” (MacIntyre, 75). However, these expressions must be interpreted relative to one’s societal and cultural norms. (I disagree with Hegel here to a degree, as I feel as though there can be some very intense, intrinsic, biologically animalistic expressions we make regardless of the culture we have learned from or take part in. This is not to say one cannot lie, betray, or be trained out of such expressions, however when one is acting true to one’s self and those around him or her, I feel as though these expressions cannot be denied).

Consequently, expressions (and their origins and interpretations (infinite regress?)) must be interpreted on a “to each his own” basis. Thus we find one way in which physiognomy can be highly fallible. Another point MacIntyre makes on the fallibility to physiognomy is that character as expressed through action is highly contextual in any situation. Murder as self-defense is very different from murder out of jealous rage. (MacIntyre, 76)

Enter phrenology; the “bad” science that tells us the shape of one’s skull can be interpreted as an expression of one’s inner self or character. “The skull-bone does have in general the significance of being the immediate actuality of Spirit” (Hegel, par. 332). The idea is that our experience has an affect on different areas of our brain, and that our brain influences the shape of our skull, thus our experiences and our individuality have an effect on the shape of our skull, and that one may “read” an individual’s spirit by feeling for bumps (or the lack thereof) on his or her skull.

The main difference here between physiognomy and phrenology is that physiognomy is based on movement and action, whereas phrenology is based on simply being, how one is shaped, not what one does. However, just as with physiognomy, there are many aspects of phrenology that make this “science” an easy target to be argued against. One example is that there is such a vast array of factors that go into what each of us as individuals experience. One experience is determined by another experience is determined by another experience. Thus what one bump means on one man’s head surely cannot mean the same thing on the head of another man. Likewise, two men who might experience the same moment (witness to the same murder, or reading of the same poem) simply will not be affected the same way, thus they simply cannot be given the same cranial bumps. Hegel writes, “[t]he many-sidedness of Spirit gives its existence a corresponding variety of meanings” (Hegel, par. 332). He continues:

"Feeling as such is something indeterminate, and feeling in the head as the centre might be a general sympathetic feeling accompanying all forms of suffering, so that mixed up with the theif’s, murderer’s, poet’s, head-itching or headache are other feelings which could as little be distinguished from one another and also from those we can call merely bodily feelings, as an illness can be diagnosed from the symptom of headache[.]" (Hegel, par. 334)

However, just because these two “sciences,” or “theories dressed in scientific clothing” (MacIntyre 78) are proven to be bad over and over again, (hence much of Hegel’s modern day ridicule) it is safe to say there is much valuable philosophy within this text. MacIntyre notes: “what I do want to do […] is to try to characterize Hegel’s alternative mode of understanding enquiry into human action” (MacIntyre, 84). He goes onto illustrate three points of this text of which are notable on a philosophical level.

The first is “the understanding of human beings is not predictive like natural science is” (MacIntyre, 84). This is to say that in science, we can see the course of progress rationally, however not so much in human behavior. As opposed to how we can determine actions and their predetermined “goals” in science, we can understand the means to an end in human behavior only after the goal of that behavior is reached, hence its unpredictable-ness.

The second noteworthy philosophical idea MacIntyre illustrates on Hegel’s account is the “role of rational criticism of the present in the emergence of the future” (MacIntyre, 84). This means that historically, moments and situations in sequence can and do stand on their own, but do somehow also make rational sense to one another in a way that it seems as though there is one motion, one direction, one goal. “The doctrine that all the sequences of history constitute a single movement towards the goal of consciousness of the whole that is absolute spirit is a thesis certainly held by Hegel to be the key to his whole doctrine” (MacIntyre, 85).

Which leads us to MacIntyre’s third and final conclusive point of valuable philosophical thought within the text, which more directly relates to physiognomy and phrenology:

"Historical narratives are for Hegel not a source of data to be cast into theoretical form by such would-be-sciences. Instead, Hegel sees our understanding of contingent regularities as being always contributory to the construction of a certain kind of historical narrative. History, informed by philosophical understanding, provides a more ultimate kind of knowledge of human beings than enquiries whose theoretical structure is modeled on that of the natural sciences." (MacIntyre 85)

A self-conscious being must interpret his or her self historically. Really, when we look at ourselves, we write a story in order to believe or understand who we are in the present. One may say to another, “this is me in second grade, this is me graduating high school, this is me when I almost died, this is me when I fell in love, this is me when I got married, this is me when I lived in San Francisco, etc. And now, here I am!” It is our past that makes us who we are in the present. As MacIntyre writes: “The self knowledge of a self conscious rational agent has always to be cast in a historical form. [Thus} phrenology and neurophysiology may explain the aptitudes and conditions of the human body, but not those of human spirit” (MacIntyre 85).

Let’s face it. Physiognomy and Phrenology are outdated pseudo-sciences and have no place in scientific academia. However, they are of worth in a historical sense, and Hegel’s philosophical interpretation of them should not be entirely thrown away as “bad science.” Although phrenology had it wrong in that spirit is a bone literally (scientifically), it may have had something right, in that spirit is figuratively (philosophically) a bone, that spirit is something as palpable as that of a skull, something of which we can grasp and hold onto, something that does exist, more than an idea, more than a memory, more than a future moment.

Works cited
G. W. F. Hegel and A. V. Miller, Phenomenology of Spirit. Nov 30, 1976

“Hegel on Faces and Skulls,” Alisdaire MacIntyre

Thank you for reading,


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I disagree with Hegel here to a degree, as I feel as though there can be some very intense, intrinsic, biologically animalistic expressions we make regardless of the culture we have learned from or take part in.

Indeed, studies on children born blind show that they have the same expressions as sighted children despite having no way to acquire them through social imitation. See:

Love your concluding paragraph!