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physiognomy The study of expression, primarily of the emotions, and principally via the face, has a long and complex history. From Aristotle onwards, physiognomy has been the means of reading and judging character based on the expressions of the face. In sum, physiognomists recognized the face as an index of emotion and (moral) character; and physiognomy offered a way of conceptualizing these particular observations in terms of general categories or theories. The purpose of physiognomy was to identify and to describe the common forms that organized the diversity of appearances, and, as such, it functioned in a profoundly normative manner — as the determinant of what was common to all people and all things in the physical world. At best, physiognomy provided an explanation of human nature in terms of a uniform order of types or kinds, which worked by translating particular observations into general theories of character and emotion. At worst, it was disparaged as a mystical and highly deterministic practice, more akin to fortune-telling than to science, and cast as a poor resemblance of its family relation, phrenology.

A number of thinkers have attempted to describe and explain how the desire to see the workings of the mind, and ultimately the soul, through the face answers these questions about man, mind, and nature. Aristotle, Charles Le Brun, Johann Caspar Lavater, and Charles Darwin are the most notable. The challenge they faced was how to establish the grounds upon which their teachings could be viewed as true or rejected as false. One of the earliest philosophical treatises on physiognomy, and the first attempt to present physiognomy as a hermeneutic, and possibly scientific, method, was a work thought to be written by Aristotle, Physiognomica, which identified three categories of physiognomic judgement — the zoological, the ethnological, and the pathognomical. Yet what emerges after Aristotle is a complex relationship between the classical mode of reading and judging character — physiognomy — and the rise and triumph of inner, scientific understandings of expression based on physiology. Such a relationship originates with the work of Charles Le Brun, who believed an understanding of expression was the key to discerning the passions or the activities of the mind (soul). Based on Descartes' theory of the passions, Le Brun's Conférence sur l'expression générale et particulière (1668) sought to present a rational and coherent theory of expression. Le Brun wanted to demonstrate the necessary and natural correspondence between the movements of the passions and the movements of the facial muscles, and, from this, to deduce the laws of expression. A knowledge of the principles, psychological and physiological, which directed these activities and their external appearance would, he claimed, release the artist from simply copying nature and allow him to create his own images, which would be directed by, and maybe even improve on, the processes of nature.

This notion of ‘improvement’ was of crucial importance to Johann Caspar Lavater in his Essays on Physiognomy (1789–93). In his hands, each and every attempt to read and judge character was a means of ascribing an essence to human nature that imagined there was something hidden from external appearances, which, once discovered, made them more purposeful and more substantial. One could arrive at a definition of man by imputing a certain kind of ‘spirit’ from the ‘surface’ appearance of an individual. But the point was that Lavaterian physiognomy enabled the impressions of sense to be translated into common sense — an essential and ideological form, which comprehended order and unity from the appearances of things. The appeal of essentialism for Lavater lay in its capacity to validate a ‘science’ of man based on a theory of natural kinds. But the problem of essentialism for physiognomy was that it imagined its ‘science’ as the result of an intuitive understanding of the intrinsic properties and purposes of things. So, whilst essentialism underwrote Lavater's ‘science’ of man, it was also, and not incidentally, the cause of its many inconsistencies.

There is no doubt that Charles Darwin was sceptical about the claims of physiognomy with regard to expression and emotion. Nonetheless, it is interesting that his study of expression makes a number of contradictory claims about the possibility and plausibility of conducting a scientific analysis of expression. Darwin's oft-neglected work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), was self-consciously presented as the cornerstone of his evolutionary theory — the means of demonstrating once and for all that man was not a separate and divinely created species but continuous with other species. An evolutionary account of expression was not concerned with teleological explanations of physical attributes; rather, it was directed towards finding a means of understanding the process through which expressions are acquired. The result was a study of expression that tried to identify specific mental and emotional states as well as their corresponding expressions (by concentrating on their motor activity), and then map their common descent through groups of related organisms. If this could be done, then human feelings like love, anger, fear, and grief could be treated as habits and shown to have clearly recognizable parallels, perhaps even origins, in the animal world.

The rise and triumph of these inner, scientific rationales for the expression of the emotions placed the study of expression on new ground. Indeed, the evolutionary explanation of expression given by Darwin (and taken to its logical, albeit odious, conclusion by Francis Galton, father of eugenics) is both the long-term outcome of physiognomical teachings and the reason for their dissolution. As we reflect on the impact of physiognomy, there is much to suggest that its demise is no bad thing.

Lucy Hartley


Darwin, C. (1998). The expression of the emotions in man and animals, (ed. P. Ekman). Harper Collins, London.
Evans, E. C. (1969). Physiognomics in the ancient world. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 59, 5–97.
Lavater, J. C. (1789–93). Essays on Physiognomy; for the Promotion of the Knowledge and Love of Mankind; Written in the German Language by J.C. Lavater, and Translated into English by Thomas Holcroft, (trans. T. Holcroft London).
Montagu, J. (1994) The expressions of the passions: the origin and influence of Charles Le Brun's ‘Conférence sur l'expression générale et particulière’. Yale University Press, New Haven.

See also facial expression; phrenology; smiling.
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Physiognomy, also known today as personology, is an ancient form of divination based upon reference of the physical appearance of the individual. It was a widespread practice in the ancient Mediterranean Basin and in China, and also appears in India and the ancient Arab world. During the Renaissance, Gerolamo Cardano and Giovanni Battista della Porta emerged as popular exponents. As did other forms of divination, it came under heavy attack by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and following the work of J. C. Lavater largely died. Its post-Enlightenment revival was delayed by the emergence of phrenology, which could be seen as a form of physiognomy that concentrated attention on the shape and appearance of the head.

In China, a form of physiognomy, called Siang Mien, developed that concentrated on face readings tied to the acupuncture points. Each of the 100 points on the face are numbered and named, assigned to a year in one's life, and carry a range of meanings. The Chinese measure life from conception, hence one must add a year to one's age to find the applicable point. At age 41, for example, one can make reference to point 42, the Delicate Cottage. It represents a place of seclusion and may be interpreted as an appropriate time to shift concentration from outer to inner concerns. A variety of face readers may be found throughout Chinese ethnic communities in the West.

In the mid-twentieth century new attention to physiognomy was proposed by Edward Vincent Jones, a judge with the U.S. Superior Court who did his primary research on defendants brought before him over a number of years. His modern development of physiognomy was called personology. During World War II (1939-45) he founded the Personology Foundation of California, which graduated its first class in 1942. Jones' work is being carried on by Paul Eisner, who founded the Personology Foundation of the Pacific. Its Learning Center is located at P.O. Box 3301, Honokaa, HI 96727. It has a website at

The measurable growth of interest in physiognomy associated with the New Age Movement can be traced both to Personology and to the influx of Chinese into North America since 1965. Pushing the practice of physiognomy ahead is Rose Rosetree, a former Transcendental Meditation instructor who now teaches both aura readings and face readings and trains teachers in suburban Washington, D.C. Based on her initial study of both European and Chinese texts, she developed her own new system of physiognomy. She is the author of one of the most popular contemporary texts in the field, The Power of Face Reading. She may be contacted through her webpage at


Lin, Henry B. What Your Face Reveals. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1999.

Personology Foundation of the Pacific. April 23, 2000.

Rose Rosetree. April 23, 2000.

Rosetree, Rose. The Power of Face Reading for Sales, Self-Esteem, and Better Relationships. Women's Intuition Worldwide, 1998.

Yong, Wu. Face Reading. Longmead, Dorset, UK: Element Books, 1998.

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phys·i·og·no·my / ˌfizēˈä(g)nəmē/ • n. (pl. -mies) a person's facial features or expression, esp. when regarded as indicative of character or ethnic origin. ∎  the supposed art of judging character from facial characteristics. ∎  the general form or appearance of something: the physiognomy of the landscape. DERIVATIVES: phys·i·og·nom·ic / ˌfizēəˈnämik/ adj. phys·i·og·nom·i·cal / ˌfizēəˈnämikəl/ adj. phys·i·og·nom·i·cal·ly / ˌfizēəˈnämik(ə)lē/ adv.

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physiognomy (in ecology) The overall size and shape of an organism. Descriptions such as ‘trees’, ‘shrubs’, and ‘herbs’ are frequently used to characterize the general appearance of the vegetation of a region. Moreover, plant physiognomy can be broadly correlated with environmental conditions, so that regions of the world with similar climates tend to have a dominant vegetation of similar life forms. Various attempts have been made to refine this approach by defining physiognomic categories, or life forms, most notably by the Danish ecologist Christen Raunkiaer (1876–1960). His system of classifying life forms is based on the way in which plants survive harsh conditions, particularly the position of their perennating (or overwintering) buds in relation to the soil surface. He proposed five classes: therophytes (annual plants); geophytes (plants that produce underground perennating organs); hemicryptophytes (herbaceous perennials); chamaephytes (small shrubs); and phanerophytes (large shrubs and trees).

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physiognomyfumy, gloomy, plumy, rheumy, roomie, roomy, spumy •excuse-me • mushroomy • perfumy •Brummie, chummy, crumby, crummy, dummy, gummy, lumme, mummy, plummy, rummy, scrummy, scummy, slummy, tummy, yummy •academy • sodomy • blasphemy •infamy •bigamy, polygamy, trigamy •endogamy, exogamy, heterogamy, homogamy, misogamy, monogamy •hypergamy • alchemy • Ptolemy •anomie • antinomy •agronomy, astronomy, autonomy, bonhomie, Deuteronomy, economy, gastronomy, heteronomy, metonymy, physiognomy, taxonomy •thingummy • Laramie • sesame •blossomy •anatomy, atomy •hysterectomy, mastectomy, tonsillectomy, vasectomy •epitome •dichotomy, lobotomy, tracheotomy, trichotomy •colostomy • bosomy •squirmy, thermae, wormy •taxidermy

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physiognomy The form and structure of natural communities. Compare morphology.

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physiognomy The form and structure of natural communities. Compare MORPHOLOGY.

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physiognomy The form and structure of natural communities. Compare MORPHOLOGY.

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