Phrenology (Craniology)

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Description, Precursors and Philosophical Background

(Gr: phren – mind + logy – theory, science) Phrenology (or craniology) is a discipline that held that individual traits or characters could be deduced from the shape of the skull, and was a mode of mediation which claimed it could read and analyze the brain through access to the medium of the skull. As a medium, it consisted of a series of instruments: a craniometer, topographical maps of the brain, and a system of classification which was used to gain data on the subject and interpret the findings (the terms mind and brain are used interchangeably). It was developed in 1796 by Viennese physiologist and neuroanatomist Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) while the term phrenology was popularized by Gall’s disciple Johann Spurzheim. (Sewall 1839: 8) They argued the mind was composed of independent and discernable organs (faculties) originally organized into twenty-seven traits or functions (although expanded upon by later theorists). Depending upon the individual, these organs would vary in size and affect the contours of the cranium, which could be examined through the fingers and hands of phrenologists, and through observation.

Phrenology is therefore a method by which one can read the face and skull, using this information to analyze and classify individuals and groups and oneself. (Lokensgard 1940: 712) While the criteria were standardized or automated, both the subjects and the phrenologists become variables of this mode of mediation; the subject provided the data, but the phrenologist was equally engaged, and accuracy depended on training. As a classification system for individuals it is a remediation of humorism, and roots of this theory can also be found in Aristotle who argued the brain had multiple parts, each accorded a function. (Sewall 1839: 11) The head was therefore used because it was a material representation of the mind. Working within an empirical and mechanical framework, Gall argued that mental phenomena have causes which can be determined and classified empirically. This was largely considered a materialist theory of the mind, however this position was not advocated by Gall himself. Phrenology has been further remediated within both neuroscience and personality theory. (Simpson 2004: 475)
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Topographical Map of the Mind
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Franz Joseph Gall
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Craniometer and Topographical Map

Phrenology as a System of Encoding/Decoding the Mind and Skull

The formation of the brain was thought to be inscribed in the skull, which could then be digitally decoded through the use of the fingertips of the phrenologist. Therefore the body relayed the message like Iris, internalized in the body, which was then relayed by the phrenologist by decoding these messages in the fashion of Hermes. Inscription was due to both inherited attributes of the individual, as well as interaction with the environment. They protrusion indicated an organ which was used to a greater degree. Since organs were represented relatively, their graphic representation would have assumed an analogue function, in terms of a wave.

Phrenology and Classification: Deviance and Racial Stereotyping

Phrenology was intertwined with the study of deviance. The first studies were conducted in prisons, and it was a method of early criminology in that its measurement was done through areas of the skull associated with criminal behaviour. (Zielinski 2006: 215) Since it depended on the physical attributes of the face and skull, criminality became associated with race. Cornel West argues that phrenology was the systematization of a racist ideology in the Enlightenment and early modern period. (West 1999: 80) The relationship between the organs in the brain and the system of classification meant that colonialists were able to 'hack' into this system and use it as a basis to argue for cultural hierarchy and racial stereotyping. (Bank 1996:394) Although originally framed as a psychology of the individual, the measurement of the brain based on race and gender played an obvious role in phrenology, as skulls were measured against an ideal skull which represented the white, European male and his concurrent socio-historical values. The map of the skull which resulted from this investigation represented a type of signature of the face, confirming a particular origin, a particular legibility of the face. Agamben argued the face represented the possibility of communication; phrenology used the face as a means, as a way in which to construct boundaries, examining it in terms of particular points (bumps) which represented a particular identity. (Agamben 2000:92-3) Photography eventually took the place of this medium in criminology, as it was assigned the same degree of truth as this measurement of the body. (Zielinski 2006: 215)

Phrenology rested on the assumption that the guts of the brain was open, and were represented through indentations in the skull. (Cooter 1984: 110) The distribution of phrenological pamphlets and charts within the mid-nineteenth century meant that anyone could be subject to the phrenological judgments of others. However, although the medium could be felt or seen by anyone, it needed to be analyzed by the phrenologist or in conjunction with a phrenological chart in order to be rendered legible.
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Gall's Terminology

A Medium and an Inventory of the Body

Jonathan Crary argues that the first half of the nineteenth century in European physiology was engaged in an “exhaustive inventory of the body.” (Crary 1992: 81) Gall and Spurzheim contributed to this fragmentation and classification of the early modern subject by decentralizing or localizing functions in specific areas of the brain. In phrenology, the object (or rather subject) is completely unhidden; one could visibly see the attributes of the face and skull when looking at the subject. After being “read” by the phrenologist, the information is interpreted through a series of traits which are determined a priori. (Fig: Gall's Terminology) Since measurement normally used the hands of the observer, vision was combined with a sense of touch which could apprehend evidence about the identity of the subject; Crary argues this was indicative of the eighteenth century mentality. (Crary 1992: 59)

However, it was also integral in measures of subjective vision, as it was thought to be possible to be able to examine the face of an individual to determine their abilities of sensory perception; colour, sound and depth were spatially represented in the brain and skull. (Simpson 2004: 476) Phrenology attempted to divide the subject into a mechanical system which was represented by the phrenological chart. However, it was from a unified structure (the face and skull) that they made these measurements of perception, as opposed to those done by empiricists like Purkinje who worked from the discrete perceptions into a unified system of the eye. (Crary 1992: 104) Phrenological studies were measured in terms of a classical ideal, instead of statistical norms of behaviour. Physiological research like Purkinje in effect rendered the medium obsolete; research which began at the level of subjective perception was determined to be more scientific and empirically valid. Phrenology was composed of both objective and subjective views of perception; the phrenologist existed apart from the subject, however was intertwined through his own faciality and subjecthood. Although Gall argued argued that he made his observations inductively, his system of classifations, so closely tied to to a socio-historic circumstances, appears to have shaped his evidence. Since it did not have a way in which to isolate the structures of the brain in terms of its experimental practice, it can be read more as a medium by which the ideas of one age and class were transmitted to succeeding generations. (McLaren 1974: 87)

Phrenology attempted to determine an ideal of the mind and argued that organs could be exercised to limited exposure to stimuli which would then exercise the organ. This early modern technique is thus indicative of the emerging modernized subject. Foucault argues that these "disciplinary" apparatuses are indicative of nineteenth century modernity and constituted a policy of the body which was docile, useful and modifiable. (Crary 1992: 15)

Phrenological distinctions acted as a container for mental energy, through a system of classifications it was in-formed with material from the skull. Vilém Flusser would argue the form of the system of classifications can be argued made the material appear; each theorist adopting a different system which would classify the phenomenon under different characteristics and localities in the brain. (Flusser 1993: 25-7) The nomenclature was also in-formed by the conditions of culture; Gall’s own classification system was specific to the socio-historical circumstances existing in Vienna at the turn of the century. The classifications were separated by Gall between animal and human qualities, and subsequently hierarchized in terms of their functions, emphasizing the mental faculties over the manual and postulated an ideal of the human individual. One of its criticisms, was that the mapping of these traits onto the brain was arbitrary, the semiotic content of the discipline meaning more than its material constitution, or its representation of the brain. (Sewall 1839: 94)


1835. Manual of Phrenology being An Analytical Sumary of The System of Doctor Gall on the Faculties of Man and the Functions of the Brain. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard.

Agamben, G. 2000. "Notes on Gesture, Face." In Means Without Ends. Minneapolis, University of Minneapolis Press.

Bank, A. 1996. "Of Native Skulls and Noble Caucasians: Phrenology in Colonial South Africa." in Journal of Southern African Studies." 22(3): 387-403.

Cooter, R. 1984. The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crary, J. 1992.Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. MIT Press.

Davies, J. 1955. Phrenology Fad and Science. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Flusser, V. The Shape of Things. Reaktion Books.

McLaren, A. 1974. "Medium and Message." in The Journal of Modern History. 46 (1): 86-97

Lokensgard, H. 1940. "Oliver Wendall Holme's Phrenological Character." in The New England Quarterly.13(4): 711-718.

Sewall, T. 1839. Examination of Phrenology in Two Lectures. Boston: D.S.King.

Simpson, D. 2004. "Phrenology and the Neurosciences: Contributions of F.J. Gall and J.G. Spurzheim." in Colishaw Symposium.75: 475-482.

West, C. 1999. The Cornel West Reader. Civitas Books.

Zielinski, S. 2006. The Deep Time of Media. Camridge, MA: The MIT Press.