1. An anatomy term referring to a person's general physical appearance and shape, particularly the person's face.

  2. A psychology term for a subfield which studied how one can tell the personality traits and attitudes of a person based on the shape of the person's head, face and other physical traits. (This is not a modern area of study).

From the BioTech Dictionary at http://biotech.icmb.utexas.edu/. For further information see the BioTech homenode.

Physiognomy was cobbled together in Switzerland by one Johann Caspar Lavater (1741 - 1801) at the same time Franz Joseph Gall was cooking up phrenology in Germany. Lavater was a theologian who can't be really said to have "invented" the ideas, but rather put them together from more ancient illustrated works, such as Giovanni Battista della Porta’s De Humana Physiognomonia (1586) in which he established physiognomic types by comparisons of humans with animals and Charles Le Brun's 1688 lecture notes from the Conférence sur L’expression générale et particulière. Le Brun produced very detailed drawings showing a range of human/animal comparisons and concluded that a range of "passions" could thereby be determined from the animal archetype.

In fact, the end of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 19th seems to have been a boom time for the invention of pseudosciences derived from anatomy and physiology. It is a trend worth remembering that this period which saw huge advances in both these sciences was marked by the development of an equally flourishing crop of nonsense based on them. There was also a corresponding revival in older anatomy-based divination techniques like palmistry.

In one sense it's humanizing to realise that our age didn't invent the line "Scientists are just now coming to understand these ancient truths" and in another very real way it's sad. Witness the half-baked stuff out there today referencing quantum physics and genetics.

One of the more striking tales of physiognomy in use comes from an attempt by Captain Fitzroy, the commander of HMS Beagle, to deny Charles Darwin his post as botanist on that famous voyage, because he had the wrong shaped nose, which clearly indicated to a trained physiognomist that he had little or no scientific talent or ability for critical thinking. Whatever your personal view of the Theory of Evolution, Darwin can certainly not be seen as lacking in these two qualities!

But let us not think for a moment that we can blithely consign this pseudoscience to the anecdote cupboard of history. In researching physiognomy on the web, I found this:

The term personology was coined in the mid-twentieth century by Dr Edward Vincent Jones, a United States Superior Court Judge, who, having dealt with thousands of court cases displaying every conceivable type of personality from genius to criminal, compiled a list of physical traits which he was eventually able to confidently relate to human character and behaviour. He tried to the best of his ability to disprove these correlations, finally accepting only those which seemed infallible.
Now, it should be clear from the description that "personology" is simply physiognomy warmed over. The text above is taken from Who We Are written by Paul B Elsner of the Personology Foundation. Alarmingly, the website of that organisation suggests that personology is currently in use in selling and jury selection. Considering Captain Fitzroy's success with Darwin, that might explain a few things.

Phys`i*og"no*my (?), n.; pl. Physiognomies (#). [OE. fisonomie, phisonomie, fisnamie, OF. phisonomie, F. physiognomie, physiognomonie, from Gr. ; nature + one who knows or examines, a judge, fr. , , to know. See Physic, and Know, and cf. Phiz.]


The art and science of discovering the predominant temper, and other characteristic qualities of the mind, by the outward appearance, especially by the features of the face.


The face or countenance, with respect to the temper of the mind; particular configuration, cast, or expression of countenance, as denoting character.


The art telling fortunes by inspection of the features.




The general appearance or aspect of a thing, without reference to its scientific characteristics; as, the physiognomy of a plant, or of a meteor.


© Webster 1913.

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