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(2009) Psychology and philosophy, Dordrecht, Springer.

Physiognomy as science and art

Martina Reuter

pp. 159-177

The chapter examines Johann Caspar Lavater's studies of physiognomy. Lavater attempted to systematize principles on which we could detect human character traits and dispositions by observing the physical appearance of persons. His optimism regarding the possibility to "read" a person's character from the person's bodily features was based on his understanding of the individual as a unique whole. Lavater combined this holism, anticipatory of Romanticism, with an Enlightenment ideal of systematization and geometrical exactness. The chapter focuses on three aspects of Lavater's conceptual framework: his view of the soul, the relation between the particular and the universal, and the relation between necessity and accidentiality, including the possibility of freedom. It is claimed that Lavater's attempt to conceptualise the relation between the particular and the universal interestingly resembles the view later systematised by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790). A comparison with Kantian aesthetics will illuminate more closely why and how Lavater's theory is pseudo-scientific. When considering the relation between necessity and freedom, Lavater defends the view that necessity is inherent in the constitution of a person's physiognomy, and he takes a critical distance from the Enlightenment belief in the power of education. The chapter concludes by examining to what extent Lavater's physiognomical theory influenced the thought of the early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft. It is claimed that Wollstonecraft emphasises the role of education also in relation to bodily constitution and questions Lavater's preference of necessity over freedom.

Publication details

DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4020-8582-6_9

Full citation:

Reuter, M. (2009)., Physiognomy as science and art, in S. Heinämaa & M. Reuter (eds.), Psychology and philosophy, Dordrecht, Springer, pp. 159-177.

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