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Physiognomy (Greek Language physis, nature and gnomon, judge, interpreter) is a theory and a folk science based upon the idea that the study and judgement of a person's outer appearance, primarily the face, may give insights into their character or personality. The term physiognomy is also used to refer to the general appearance of a person, object, or terrain, without reference to its underlying or scientific characteristics. This article will deal with the theory of character evaluation.

The word was in common use in Middle English as fisnamy or visnomy (as in the Tale of Beryn, a 15th Century sequel to the Canterbury Tales: "I knowe wele by thy fisnamy, thy kynd it were to stele"). Its validity was once widely accepted, and it was taught in universities until the time of Henry VIII of England, who outlawed it (along with "Palmestrye") in 1531[1]. Around this time, scholastic leaders settled on the more erudite Greek form 'physiognomy' and began to discourage the whole concept of 'fisnamy'.

The following types of physiognomy may be distinguished:

  • absolute predictive physiognomy, in which there are believed to be invariable 100% correlations between physical features (especially facial features) and character traits; this has been disproven
  • scientific correlation physiognomy, in which there are believed to be rough statistical correlations between physical features (especially facial features) and character traits due to a person's physical preferences that are caused by corresponding character traits, such that gene mixing causes the correlations; this type of physiognomy is therefore allegedly based on genetic determinism of character. Although this type of physiognomy has generally been disproven as well, the idea has been revived as personology. The main explanation of personology, also a pseudoscience, is cultural/subcultural association with specific values and habits. For example, most Communist leaders in the world have narrow eyes. This is because the physical trait of narrow eyes just happens to occupy much the same geographical range as does the cultural world-view of Communism (East Asia), not because narrow eyes cause communist ideologies. See also: Post hoc, Non sequitur.

Ancient physiognomy[]

Ancient Physiognomy is pure fiction:It is possible to infer character from features, if it is granted that the body and the soul are changed together by the natural affections: I say 'natural', for though perhaps by learning music a man has made some change in his soul, this is not one of those affections which are natural to us; rather I refer to passions and desires when I speak of natural emotions. If then this were granted and also that for each change there is a corresponding sign, and we could state the affection and sign proper to each kind of animal, we shall be able to infer character from features. (Trans. A. J. Jenkinson)

Koala eating eucalyptus - has it affected his physiognomy?

The Greek here is quite hard to express, but Aristotle seems to be referring to characteristics in the nature of each kind of animal thought to be present in their faces, that he is suggesting might be analysed for correspondences — for example the noticeable fondness of the Koala for eucalyptus leaves.

The first systematic treatise on physiognomy to survive to the present day is a slim volume Physiognomica (English: Physiognomics), ascribed to Aristotle, but probably of his "school" rather than by the philosopher himself. It is divided into two parts, conjectured to have been originally two separate works. The first section passes over arguments drawn from nature or other races, and concentrates on human behavior. The second section focuses on animal behavior, dividing the animal kingdom into male and female types. From these are deduced correspondences between human form and character.

After Aristotle, the major extant works are:

  • Polemo of Laodicea, de Physiognomonia (2c. A.D.), in Greek
  • Adamantius the Sophist, Physiognomonica (4c. A.D.), in Greek
  • An anonymous Latin author de Phsiognomonia (ca. 4c. A.D.)

Modern physiognomy[]

Johann Kaspar Lavater

The principal promoter of physiognomy in modern times was the Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801). Lavater's essays upon physiognomy were first published in German in 1772 and gained great popularity. His essays upon physiognomy were translated into French and English and were highly influential. The two principal sources from which Lavater found 'confirmation' of his ideas were the writings of the Italian Giambattista della Porta (1535-1615) and the English physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), whose Religio Medici Lavater read and praised. Browne discusses in this work the possibility of the discernment of inner qualities from the outer appearance of the face thus:

there is surely a Physiognomy, which those experienced and Master Mendicants observe....For there are mystically in our faces certain Characters which carry in them the motto of our Souls, wherein he that cannot read A.B.C. may read our natures. (R.M. part 2:2)

Late in his life Browne affirmed his physiognomical beliefs stating in his Christian Morals (circa 1675):

Sir Thomas Browne

Since the Brow speaks often true, since Eyes and Noses have Tongues, and the countenance proclaims the heart and inclinations; let observation so far instruct thee in Physiognomical lines....we often observe that Men do most act those Creatures, whose constitution, parts, and complexion do most predominate in their mixtures. This is a corner-stone in Physiognomy...there are therefore Provincial Faces, National Lips and Noses, which testify not only the Natures of those Countries, but of those which have them elsewhere. (C.M. Part 2 section 9)

Sir Thomas Browne is also credited with the first usage of the word caricature in the English language, whence much of physiognomy's pseudo-learning attempted to base itself by illustrative means.

Browne possessed several of the writings of the Italian Giambattista della Porta including his Of Celestial Physiognomy which argued that it was not the stars but the temperament which influences both man's facial appearance and character. In his book De humana physiognomia (1586) Porta used woodcuts of animals to illustrate human characteristics. Porta's works are well-represented in the Library of Sir Thomas Browne and both sustained a belief in the doctrine of signatures — that is, the belief that the physical structures of nature such as a plant's roots, stem and flower, were indicative keys or signatures to their medical potential.

The popularity of physiognomy grew throughout the 18th century and into the 19th century. It influenced the descriptive abilities of many European novelists, notably Balzac, and portrait artists, such as Joseph Ducreux; meanwhile, the 'Norwich connection' to physiognomy developed in the writings of Amelia Opie and the traveller and linguist George Borrow, besides a host of other nineteenth century English authors, notably the highly descriptive passages of characters and their physiognomical appearance in the novels of Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Charlotte Brontë. In 19th century American Literature, physiognomy figures prominently in the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe[2]

Typical illustration to be found in a 19th century book on Physiognomy (to the left "Utter despair" and on the right "Rage mixed with fear")

Phrenology was also considered a physiognomy. It was created around 1800 by German physician Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Spurzheim and was widely popular in the 19th century in Europe and the United States.

Facial and body type categorization continues in modern popular psychology. For example, the personality type theory Socionics uses physiognomy quite prominently in its personality type descriptions, and pseudoscientific subjects such as Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) make common reference to body types, and eye movements, in combination with language styles in order to categorize individual's mental strategy or way of thinking.

See also[]


  1. 22 Henry VIII cap. 12, sect. 4 [1]
  2. Erik Grayson. "Weird Science, Weirder Unity: Phrenology and Physiognomy in Edgar Allan Poe" Mode 1 (2005): 56-77. Also online.

Related disciplines[]

External links[]

da:Fysiognomik de:Physiognomik fa:چهره‌خوانی is:Útlitsfræði no:Fysiognomikk

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