Tag Archives: neuroscience

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
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Don’t Trust Your Memory!

While this Slate article uses the recent news about Brian Williams as a hook, I think the advice it gives is very useful for anthropologists doing fieldwork. Whatever you think about Brian Williams, there is more and more evidence that human memories can’t be trusted. This is important for anthropologists who often rely upon their memories as a research tool. The article gives some good advice for avoiding that problem, much of which most anthropologists are probably already doing (keeping notes!) but it helps make clear just how important these practices are.

After decades of well-documented, prominent cases of memory distortion, people whose professions put a premium on facts and truth—journalists, politicians, business leaders, judges, lawyers, and public figures—should be aware of these limits. In fact, they have a responsibility to understand the fallibility of their memories and to take steps to minimize memory mistakes. If you are relying exclusively on your own memory when saying anything of consequence, especially when someone’s reputation is at stake, you must think twice.

I especially like the point that our most vivid and frequently recalled memories may be the most subject to distortion because “each recounting has the potential to introduce new distortions.” Worth keeping in mind!