AskDefine | Define physiognomy

Dictionary Definition

physiognomy n : the human face (`kisser' and `smiler' and `mug' are informal terms for `face' and `phiz' is British) [syn: countenance, phiz, visage, kisser, smiler, mug]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. 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.
  2. The face or countenance, with respect to the temper of the mind; particular configuration, cast, or expression of countenance, as denoting character.
  3. The art of telling fortunes by inspection of the features.
  4. The general appearance or aspect of a thing, without reference to its scientific characteristics; as, the physiognomy of a plant, or of a meteor.


Related terms

Extensive Definition

Physiognomy (Gk. physis, nature and gnomon, judge, interpreter) is a theory based upon the idea that the assessment of the person's outer appearance, primarily the face, may give insights into one's character or personality. The term physiognomy can also refer to the general appearance of a person, object or terrain, without reference to its implied or scientific characteristics.
Physiognomy is not a strict science, but rather a method of analysis that proponents say indicates a variety of correlations in its subjects. Hence, physiognomy is not used as the basis of biological or psychological theory. Physiognomic applications can be considered folk science or pseudoscience, and were once used with other tools of scientific racism, in order to promote discriminatory ideas.
The term was common in Middle English, often written 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"). Physiognomy's 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. 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, a disproven concept which poses that there are invariable 100% correlations between physical features (especially facial features) and character traits.
  • 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 form of physiognomy has generally been disproven as well , the concept has been revived as personology, which is premised on the (widely deemed pseudoscientific) idea that different physical makeups correlate with different behaviors. For example, an illegal drug user often has a gaunt/desperate appearance, people who appear frail are unlikely to be demanding, and more generally, a life of smiling (or frowning) may leave a physical mark (especially on older people).

Ancient physiognomy

Notions of the relationship between an individual's outward appearance and inner character are historically ancient, and occasionally appear in early Greek poetry. The first indications of a developed physiognomic theory appear in fifth century Athens, where one Zopyrus was said to be expert in the art. By the fourth century, the philosopher Aristotle makes frequent reference to theory and literature concerning the relationship of appearance to character. Aristotle was apparently receptive to such an idea, as evidenced by a passage in his Prior Analytics (2.27). Ancient Greek mathematician, astronomer and scientist Pythagoras, believed by some to be the originator of physiognomics, once rejected a prospective follower named Cylon simply because of his appearance, which Pythagoras deemed indicative of bad character
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
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 suggests might be analysed for correspondences — for example, the koala's fondness for eucalyptus leaves.
The first systematic physiognomic treatise to survive to the present day is a slim volume, Physiognomica (English: Physiognomics), ascribed to Aristotle (but probably of his "school" rather than created by the philosopher himself). The volume is divided into two parts, conjectured to have been originally two separate works. The first section discusses arguments drawn from nature or other races, and concentrates on the concept of 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 in physiognomy are:

Modern physiognomy

The principal promoter of physiognomy in modern times was the Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater (17411801) who was briefly a friend of Goethe. Lavater's essays on physiognomy were first published in German in 1772 and gained great popularity. These influential essays were translated into French and English. The two principal sources from which Lavater found 'confirmation' of his ideas were the writings of the Italian Giambattista della Porta (15351615) and the English physician-philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (16051682), whose Religio Medici discusses 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, writing in his Christian Morals (circa 1675): 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 movement's pseudo-learning attempted to entrench 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 a person's temperament which influences facial appearance and character. In his book De humana physiognomia (1586), Porta used woodcuts of animals to illustrate human characteristics. His works are well represented in the Library of Sir Thomas Browne; both men 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 medicinal potentials.
Even the great inventor, scientist and artist, Leonardo Da Vinci, was an avid researcher of physiognomy in the early 16th century.
The popularity of physiognomy grew throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth 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 travelling linguist George Borrow. A host of other nineteenth century English authors were influenced by the idea, notably evident in the detailed physiognomic descriptions of characters in the novels of Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Charlotte Brontë. Physiognomy is a central, implicit assumption underlying the plot of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. In 19th century American literature, physiognomy figures prominently in the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe
Phrenology was also considered a form of 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.
A physiognomist named Yoshito Mizuno was employed from 1936 to 1945 by the Imperial Japanese Naval Aeronautics Department, examining candidates for the Naval Air Corps, after - to their surprise - Admiral Yamamoto's staff discovered that he could predict with over 80% accuracy the qualifications of candidates to become successful pilots.
Practitioners of the personality type theory socionics use physiognomy as a personality identification technique.

References and further reading

  • Claudia Schmoelders, Hitler's Face: The Biography of an Image. Translated by Adrian Daub. University of Pennsylvania Press: 2006. ISBN 0812239024.
  • Liz Gerstein, About Face. SterlingHouse Publisher, Inc. ISBN 1-58501-088-X

External links

physiognomy in Arabic: فزيوجنومية
physiognomy in Danish: Fysiognomik
physiognomy in German: Physiognomik
physiognomy in Spanish: Fisionomía
physiognomy in Persian: چهره‌خوانی
physiognomy in French: Physiognomonie
physiognomy in Icelandic: Útlitsfræði
physiognomy in Italian: Fisiognomica
physiognomy in Dutch: Fysionomie
physiognomy in Norwegian: Fysiognomikk
physiognomy in Portuguese: Fisiognomia
physiognomy in Russian: Физиогномика
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