Hegel on Physiognomy and Phrenology

(Chinese translation 中文翻譯)

For those of you who actually read Hegel’s Phenomenology in its entirety it will not come as news that there is a chapter on physiognomy & phrenology, but if you are like me and never made it that far on your first try, discovering his unique approach to criticizing these pseudosciences for the first time is quite an eye opener. I have been listening to Jay Bernstein’s two-semester course on the Phenomenology ever since Ann Stoler mentioned it in her conversation with Rex and I absolutely love it. In his lecture on this chapter Bernstein draws on Alasdair MacIntyre’s essay “Hegel on faces and skulls” which can be found in the book Hegel on Action and I thought Savage Minds readers would be interested in a summary of MacIntyre’s argument, especially since he makes an important comparison to the kind of neuroscience reductionism which is still so popular today. (And which is the whole raison d’être for the wonderful Neuroskeptic blog.)

Illustration in a 19th-century book about physiognomy
Illustration in a 19th-century book about physiognomy


The central claim of physiognomy was that character was systematically revealed in the features of the face. Character consists of a set of determinate traits, and the face of a set of determinate features. In some cases the cause of the face’s being as it is the character’s being as it is, but in other cases certain experiences, such as the experiences incurred in certain occupations, may leave their marks both on the character and on the face.1

Hegel points out the contradictions between how physiognomists read facial expressions and how we interpret them in daily life. While the physiognomist sees facial expressions as revealing the true expression of inner character, in daily life we treat expressions as “parts or aspects of actions.” This leads Hegel to make the following four points:

  1. Expression is a form of action.

    It is not what the face is, its bone structure or the way the eyes are set, that is the expression of character or action; it is what the face does that is such an expression.”

  2. Character is the sum total of those actions.

    A man’s character is not something independent of his actions and accessible independently of his actions. There is nothing more to his character than the sum-total of what he does.

    MacIntyre explains that the process of interpreting expressions is not automatic, but culturally and historically contingent, and they have to be learned. This leads to point number three:

  3. We are prone to make mistakes.

    the rules that we use in everyday life in interpreting facial expression are highly fallible. . . . if someone is apparently glaring at me and I accuse him of being angry with me, he has only to retort that he was thinking of something quite different and I shall have no way to rebut him . . .

  4. Character is malleable in a way that bone structure is not.

    My bone structure can be altered by surgery or violence, but at any given moment it is simply what it is. But my character is not determinate in the same way as my bone structure, and this in two respects. First, a disposition to behave in a particular way always has to be actualized in some particular context, and the nature and meaning of the action that manifests the disposition is in many cases unspecifiable apart from that context.

This last point is key, and also (according to Bernstein) one of the key elements of Hegel’s philosophy of action. For Hegel, as with much contemporary social science, action is only meaningful in light of it’s social context, and we (as actors) become aware of it as self-conscious beings only in light of the prevailing social norms which make such action intelligible. As Bernstein moves on to the later chapters, on Antigone, he argues that all action for Hegel is essentially “tragic” in that it is backward-looking, unlike the forward-looking concepts of intentionality which still govern so much of positivist philosophy. Hegel’s argument against physiognomy can thus be understood as part of the setup for this tragic notion of intentionality.

Another key feature of human self-consciousness is that character is “never simply fixed and determinate” but is open to the “possibility of exchanging what he [sic] is for what he is not.”

Moreover, the agent who does not change his traits may change their manifestations. Indeed, for him to become conscious that he manifests certain traits and so appears in a certain light is to invite him to do just this.

Here Hegel quotes one of Lichtenberg’s aphorisms:

Suppose the physiognomist ever did have a man in his grasp; it would merely require a courageous resolution on the man’s part to make himself again incomprehensible for centuries.

Phrenology diagram
Phrenology diagram


MacIntyre highlights three claims phrenology makes about the brain:

  1. Localization

    It was, for instance, a central thesis of phrenology that different types of activity were localized in different areas of the brain.

  2. Bumps

    that the different areas of the brain correspond to different areas of the cranial bone, and that the shapes of these areas, the famous bumps of the phrenologists, reveal the different degrees of development of each area of the brain.

  3. Cranial determination of behavior

    local activity of the brain is the sufficient cause and explanation of behavior, and that therefore the shape of the cranium allows us to predict behavior.

He points out that 1 and 3 are very close to reductionist conceptions of neuroscience which are still common today. Both the idea that there is a specialized location of the brain for each aspect of human behavior and the idea that our behavior can be explained entirely by “biochemical or neural states of affairs, processes, and events” make for some of the more popular clickbait science stories shared on my Facebook feed.

Hegel’s arguments against phrenology are similar to those against physiognomy. Hegel is making an argument about what it means to be a “rational agent” and any argument which reduces human rationality to a set of physical traits is problematic for him. Hegel was not alone in criticizing these pseudosciences, but his approach differed from those of Francis Jeffrey and Henry Brougham who “fastened all their attention on the alleged causes, seeking to show that the mental cannot have a physical, or more specifically a physiological cause.” In making this argument they reiterated the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter, a dualism which the Phenomenology was supposed to bury once and for all.

Hegel compares the case of a murderer and a poet, arguing that the same underlying traits and qualities might lead one man to murder his beloved and the other to write her a sonnet. Here it is interesting to look at Hegel’s text:

The skull of a murderer has — not this organ or sign — but this “bump”. But this murderer has in addition a lot of other properties, and other bumps too, and along with the bumps hollows as well. Bumps and hollows, there is room for selection! And again his murderous propensity can be referred to any bump or hollow, and this in turn to any mental quality; for the murderer is neither this abstraction of a murderer, nor does he have merely one protuberance and one depression.

I was caught by the phrase “the murderer is neither this abstraction of a murderer.” It made me think of Hegel’s famous lecture, “Who Thinks Abstractly?” where he describes the procession of a convicted murderer to his place of execution.

For the common populace he is nothing but a murderer. Ladies perhaps remark that he is a strong, handsome, interesting man. The populace finds this remark terrible: What? A murderer handsome? How can one think so wickedly and call a murderer handsome; no doubt, you yourselves are something not much better!

He contrasts this with “a common old woman who worked in a hospital” who, looking on the severed head of a murder on a scaffold said “How beautifully . . . the sun of God’s grace shines on Binder’s head!” For Hegel this old women ‘kills’ the abstraction that reduces everything about the dead man to a single act by granting him his individuality and particularity in death.

MacIntyre argues that, for Hegel, universals are “particularized in their concrete occurrence to which we respond in our actions.” Hegel is not denying that human actions might have physiological causes, but arguing that humans are historically and culturally constituted agents who will respond to the same physiological causes differently depending on the particular context. Hegel’s critique of Hume’s empiricism means that human subjectivity cannot be reduced to “merely the sum of the movements that we observe” but must always take into account “the expression of rational activity.”

neuroscience image


MacIntyre concludes by highlighting three features of Hegel’s argument:

  1. The backward-facing (“tragic”) nature of human action.

    the way in which each stage in the progress of rational agents is seen as a movement towards goals that are only articulated in the course of the movement itself. Human action is characteristically neither blind and goalless nor the mere implementation of means to an already decided end. Acting that is the bringing about of such an end by a calculated means certainly has a place, but a subordinate place, in human activity.

  2. The role of rationality in shaping future action.

    Hegel [sees] history as composed of sequences in which the actions that constitute later stages of sequences involve reference to, and thus presuppose the occurrence of, actions that constituted earlier stages of the same sequences.

  3. Self-knowledge is always historically constituted.

    The past is present in the self in so many and so important ways that, lacking historical knowledge, our self-knowledge will be fatally limited.

I don’t know how everyone else feels after reading this, but it is stuff like this which makes me really appreciate how relevant Hegel still is and has me kicking myself for not having tried to tackle his work earlier. To be fair, it really is rather opaque. Even MacIntyre starts his essay with the following complaint:

The Phenomenology of Spirit was written hastily. It is notorious that one outcome of this is that arguments are compressed, that the relation of one argument to another is often unclear, and that paragraphs of almost impenetrable obscurity recur.

It is only thanks to Bernstein’s lucid lectures (including the one that pointed me to MacIntyre’s essay) that I have been able to begin to appreciate both Hegel’s brilliance and his continued relevance.

  1. Unless stated otherwise, all quotes are from MacIntyre.