The human face is commonly seen as the key to identifying individuals and comprehending their emotional states and intentions. Its characteristic structures and expressions have been the focus of much of culture, both East and West, making the face perhaps the most important anatomical subject of mythology, religion, art, and literature. When Marlowe had Faustus ask of Helen,
‘Was this the face that launched a thousand shipsAnd burnt the topless towers of Ilium?’,he echoed the elders of Troy, whom Homer had murmur,
‘Terrible is the likeness of her face to immortal goddesses.’
The terrible beauty of the human face, its potential to reveal and to conceal, its alleged power to disclose essential features of the individual, the race, or the species, its ability to inspire love and motivate acts of utter unreason, together with its capacity for pretence and deception, mark it as a subject of unending interest and complexity.
Physiological and evolutionary developmentThe human face begins in fetal development as a forehead protrusion above an incipient mouth at approximately four weeks gestational age. At seven months the face has achieved much of its early development — though the proportion of facial surface to cranium; the growth of nasal structures; the eruption of teeth; the fusion of facial skeletal sutures; and the relative facial dimensions in depth, height, and width continue to develop, some well into adolescence.
While it is possible to find evolutionary traces of the modern human face at each stage from early vertebrates to Homo sapiens, facial structures are important boundaries between humans and our prehuman ancestors. The Australopithecenes and other prehumans had relatively large faces in proportion to the size of their heads, whereas modern humans have proportionally smaller faces and larger braincases filled with larger brains. Jaw and tooth structure are less complex and smaller in modern humans, resulting in less protrusive jaws and a more vertical profile. Prominent and distinctive in this profile are the nose and the well-defined chin separating modern humans both from prehuman ancestors and from other, contemporary primates.
Evolutionary variation in facial features has helped physiognomy and physical anthropology attempt to define racial categories. While certain features are more prominent in one geographic racial group than in another, such categorization is not definitive or entirely reliable. Attempts to make such judgments have had profound social consequences, however.
The face in the mirrorThe idea that the face both reveals and conceals or masks identity is a very ancient one. In classical drama, great literature, and bank robbery alike, masks obscure or conceal facial features and thus conceal identity. Facial recognition is an early and primary skill; very young infants have been shown to prefer the sight of the human face to other images.
Facial cues have been shown to be vital in several areas of recognition, including age, sex, ethnicity and race, emotional state, honesty and deception, and personal identity. The most important aspect of recognition is that of individual identity. While individual features of a face are important in recognizing other aspects of a person, identifying an individual flows largely from identifying their face as a whole. The ability to pick out one's adult friend from a group photograph taken in his youth seems an unremarkable task and yet requires remarkable powers of discernment. Family resemblance marks faces as of a type, allowing identification of siblings and different generations, but recognizing individuals requires more than specific features. This ability is strongest when one identifies individuals within one's own racial group; research has shown that cross-racial and perhaps cross-ethnic recognition is more difficult than identification within one's own race or ethnicity. Psychologist Leslie Zebrowitz hypothesizes that facial recognition is much like language acquisition, and that early immersion in another racial group may be necessary to facilitate cross-racial identification.
Facial recognition of personal identity appears to have a specific location within the brain. Prosopagnosia, a disorder in which there is a deficit of facial recognition, is caused by lesions in a specific part of the visual system of the brain. Prosopagnosics are often able to identify aspects of faces, but they are unable to recognize persons — sometimes even themselves — by using facial cues. In such cases, identity reverts to other cues, including voice.
Reading facesChildren are usually taught ‘not to judge a book by its cover’, and most adults recognize the ability of a façade — architectural or otherwise — to misrepresent in Potemkin-village fashion what it seeks to conceal. Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa is a commonly-cited example of both the centrality of reading faces for the meaning they represent and the difficulty of doing so. Despite this, psychological research and the clear evidence of artistic and literary experience demonstrate that our judgments of physical, mental, and moral health often proceed from the first glance of facial appearance.
A remark to a friend that she doesn't ‘look’ well is usually an elliptical reference to the friend's facial appearance. Traditional Japanese and Chinese medicine use facial appearance as a key diagnostic indicator. In contemporary Western medicine, the term ‘facies’ is used to describe the general facial appearance of a patient, especially useful in the diagnosis of disorders marked by phenotypic facial characteristics. Some of these conditions (for example, Down's syndrome and Patau syndrome), are caused by genetic anomalies and produce serious physical and mental abnormalities, while others (fetal alcohol syndrome, for example) are congenital in nature, and still others (syphilis and measles, for example) are caused by infectious agents.
Genetically-linked and congenital disorders are often associated not only with specific facial anomalies but also with a general tendency toward facial asymmetry. Many infectious diseases produce distinctive facial appearances that are helpful and sometimes central to diagnosis. Parents know that, at first (facial) glance, the indication of a child's common cold or fever is found in changes in facial appearance. Beyond changes in appearance caused by diseases or disorders, correlations have been suggested between specific facial structural types and certain diseases, including polio and some types of ulcer. Some evolutionary theorists have gone beyond these results in asserting a correlation between facial asymmetry and an increased susceptibility to infectious and genetically-linked disease. The experimental evidence for this claim is inconclusive.
The evidence linking specific facial appearances both with underlying causal disorders and increased vulnerability to specific conditions is slightly better, however, especially where the facial characteristics and expressions are indicative of living patterns and personality types. The veined, red nose associated with chronic alcoholism and the frequent scowls, raising of upper eyelids, and tensing of eyes of a ‘Type A’ personality can help diagnose their immediate causes. Even here, however, one must be careful, since these same facial characteristics can be caused by other conditions: the red nose of the ‘alcoholic’ could indicate instead the skin disease rosacea, or even something as simple as a bad cold or allergies. Likewise, the scowls and other features of the ‘Type A’ may indicate specific neurological damage or, if one is observing a single instance, simply a bad case of indignation or even indigestion.
Ordinary experience and results in experimental psychology demonstrate that many people judge the mental or moral health of others by their facial structures and expressions. Classical Greek medicine attributed many mental (especially emotional) disorders to an imbalance of the four humours (blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile) and, in a forerunner of the contemporary use of ‘facies’, diagnosed mental and physical disorders in part by the surface expressions of the imbalance of colour or physical shape in the face. The development of physiognomy as an explanatory framework for describing and predicting psychological (and later social and moral) conditions on the basis of facial and other physical conformation provides a more subtle if no less flawed understanding than the theory of the four humours. A work attributed to Aristotle (Physiognomonica) gives the first recorded systematic treatment of physiognomic principles, with both a description of the diagnostic method and a catalogue of results. Aristotle's treatment of the topic relies on analogies to the facial characteristics of animals, a practice nearly universal in human culture. Greek mythology and art, astrological traditions, medieval bestiaries and heraldry, children's fables, personal naming practices in Native American and other cultures, and many colloquial expressions (‘a face like a dumb ox’) all make use of such analogies. Classical references attempt to describe the systematic correlation between face and mind, while medieval efforts joined description to prediction.
By the eighteenth century, physiognomy had assimilated many modern advances in biology, especially improvements in anatomical knowledge. By the end of that century and throughout the nineteenth century, physiognomists developed a theory of mental, moral, and especially evolutionary fitness that could be determined in large part by facial characteristics. Swiss physiognomist J. C. Lavater's 1772 work on reading faces was very influential. ( Charles Darwin relates the story of how he was nearly denied passage on HMS Beagle because the captain, influenced by Lavater's views, was convinced that the shape of Darwin's nose indicated insufficient ‘energy’ and ‘determination’ for the voyage.) Textbooks in psychiatry and criminology regularly assumed the truth of these theories. In one recently cited example, Krafft–Ebing's 1879 textbook on insanity claimed that ‘every psychopathic state, like the physiologic states of emotion, has its own peculiar facial expression and general manner of movement which, for the experienced, on superficial observation, makes a probable diagnosis possible.’ Illustrations in such texts provided carefully categorized examples of such correspondences.
Reading faces as a way of detecting criminality and moral or social degeneracy is an important aspect of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century physiognomy. The Italian physician and criminologist Cesare Lombroso saw criminality (for the most part) as an atavism, with the natural criminal one who ‘reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals.’ The marks, the stigmata — as Lombroso revealingly termed them — of the criminal type once again reflect the analogy with animal types. Lombroso found the stigmata concentrated both in ‘primitive’ non-European races and in Europeans from the lowest socio-economic classes. While the stigmata include features of the feet, arms, hair type, etc., the most significant are facial or facially-related. The frontispiece to his work Criminal Man is a veritable rogue's gallery of facial types, arranged by the type of crime to which their anatomical destiny condemned them. Stephen Jay Gould's critique of Lombroso lists the facial stigmata of the criminal man, including large jaw size, high face-to-cranium proportions, pronounced wrinkles, a less prominent forehead, large ears, and darker skin. This last feature reveals the assumptions colouring much of Lombroso's pseudo-science and by extension much of criminal anthropology and physiognomy: natural criminality and natural superiority coincided very nicely with then-existing assumptions about natural hierarchies in intellectual, social, political, and economic life. One's face, together with other salient physical features, truly was one's destiny, and while the natural criminal is not to be blamed in any ultimate sense, neither could he be changed. ‘We see in the criminal man,’ Lombroso wrote, ‘a savage man and, at the same time, a sick man.’ These ‘sick men’ were ‘true savages in the midst of our brilliant European civilization’. Such biological determinism was very influential at the end of the nineteenth century and helped pave the way for the early-to-mid twentieth-century eugenics movement that marked the naturally (physiologically, culturally, morally, racially) defective for passive elimination by controlled breeding or, as in the hands of Nazi racial theorists, for active elimination in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
While the theory of the humours is a quaint antiquity and the sometimes pernicious theories of physiognomy have been dismissed by modern science, it is clear that many continue to read physical, mental, and moral health in faces. The long and deeply held view that the face reveals essential aspects of the self, that facial cues tell us more than science is willing to admit, remains. Schopenhauer's comment on the subject, that ‘as a rule a man's face … is the monogram of all his thoughts and aspirations’ is more reflective of how we actually live than many of us care to acknowledge.
A smooth impostor or the motions of the mind?The face has been exploited in its essential ambiguity in culture generally, and in art and literature in particular. Portraiture no less than caricature draws upon generalizations about human nature and character to depict the face as concealer and revealer, and Western literature has used the set of a face to paint the intellectual, emotional, and moral scenes of its dramas. To be faceless is to be without identity and thus without weight, and yet artistic and literary portrayals of the face often fail to deliver on the promise of portraying a clear and unambiguous identity. Da Vinci's characterization of his portraits as depicting ‘the motions of the mind’ sits face-to-face with Pierre Corneille's remark that:The face is often only
A smooth impostor.
In addition to the attempt to describe through portrayal the emotional reality of the subject, the art of the face has been put to other purposes. Idealized political types, psychological traits, and moral principles have been conveyed through artistic representations of the face since ancient times, serving political, religious, and commercial ideals. From the distorted Paleolithic faces on the cave walls at Les Trois Frères in southern France, which may have had a magical function; to ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian use of the face in art, serving in large part religious and political purposes; to classical Greek depictions of an aesthetic ideal; to iconography and religious art in the Christian world; to nineteenth- and twentieth-century ‘faces’ of liberty and revolution; to the modern use of well-scrubbed young faces in commercial advertising, the human face has been a vehicle for both artist and society, giving form to their ideals.
In some contemporary philosophy the face has taken on a new and important role, though one that echoes earlier humanisms. In the twilight of postmodernism, some philosophers in the European continental tradition are looking to the human face as a, if not the, mark of the ethical. Emmanuel Levinas has stated that
‘the other becomes my neighbor precisely through the way the face summons me, calls for me, begs for me, and so doing recalls my responsibility, and calls me into question.’
Levinas points to the twentieth century's remarkable accomplishments in defacing or effacing individuals, both in body and in spirit, and points out that ethical individuality is accomplished — if it is accomplished — only in the gaze of the other, of the ‘epiphany of the face as a face’. Perhaps the terrible beauty of the face can find its ethical reflection in the mirror of the other. It is sure to retain its ambiguity, its complexity, and its centrality in human life.
Jeffrey H. Barker
Davies, G. et al. , (1981). Perceiving and remembering faces. Academic Press, London.
Ekman, P. (1973). Darwin and facial expression. Academic Press, New York.
Gould, S. J. (1981). The mismeasure of man. W. W. Norton and Company, New York.
Zebrowitz, L. A. (1997). Reading faces. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado.
See also physiognomy; skull.
face / fās/ • n. 1. the front part of a person's head from the forehead to the chin, or the corresponding part in an animal. ∎ the face as expressing emotion; an expression shown on the face: the happy faces of children. ∎ a manifestation or outward aspect of something. ∎ a person conveying a particular quality or association: this season's squad has a lot of old faces.2. the surface of a thing, esp. one that is presented to the view or has a particular function, in particular: ∎ Geom. each of the surfaces of a solid: the faces of a cube. ∎ a vertical or sloping side of a mountain or cliff. ∎ the side of a planet or moon facing the observer. ∎ the front of a building. ∎ the plate of a clock or watch bearing the digits or hands. ∎ the distinctive side of a playing card. ∎ the side of a coin showing the head or principal design.• v. [tr.] 1. be positioned with the face or front toward (someone or something): he turned to face her. ∎ [intr.] have the face or front pointing in a specified direction. ∎ [intr.] (of a soldier) turn in a particular direction.2. confront and deal with or accept: honesty forced her to face facts. ∎ (face someone/something down) overcome someone or something by a show of determination: he faced down hecklers at the rally. ∎ have (a difficult event or situation) in prospect: each defendant faced a 10-year sentence. ∎ (of a problem or difficult situation) present itself to and require action from (someone): suddenly faced with an emergency.3. (usu. be faced with) cover the surface of (a thing) with a layer of a different material: basement walls faced with granite slabs.PHRASES: face down with the face or surface turned toward the ground: he lay face down on his bed.face the music be confronted with the unpleasant consequences of one's actions.face up with the face or surface turned upward to view: place the panel face up before cutting.get out of someone's face [usu. as imper.] inf. stop harassing or annoying someone: shut up and get out of my face.in one's face directly at or against one; as one approaches: she slammed the door in my face.in the face of when confronted with: resolution in the face of the enemy. ∎ in spite of: reform introduced in the face of considerable opposition.lose face suffer a loss of respect; be humiliated: the code of conduct required that he strike back or lose face.make a face (or faces) produce an expression on one's face that shows dislike, disgust, or some other negative emotion, or that is intended to be amusing.put a good (or brave or bold) face on something act as if something unpleasant or upsetting is not as bad as it really is: he tried to put a good face on the financial picture.save face retain respect; avoid humiliation: an outcome that allows them all to save face.throw something back in someone's face reject something in a brusque or ungracious manner.to one's face openly in one's presence: you're telling me to my face I'm a liar.PHRASAL VERBS: face off take up an attitude of confrontation, esp. at the start of a fight or game.DERIVATIVES: faced / fāst/ adj. [in comb.] red-faced.
in-your-face blatantly aggressive or provocative; impossible to ignore or avoid.
lose face be humiliated.
see also Monday's child is fair of face, don't cut off your nose to spite your face, fly in the face of.
Face ★★ 1997 (R)
A violent Brit-take on “Reservoir Dogs” has a group of East End armed robbers realizing someone in their gang has betrayed them after a heist goes wrong. Chief among the crooks are Ray (Carlyle) and his partner Dave (Win-stone), plus three rookies and the unexpected involvement of a crooked cop. Lots of energy but not much that's new. 107m/C VHS, DVD . GB Robert Carlyle, Steven Waddington, Ray Winstone, Philip Davis, Damon Albarn, Peter Vaughan, Lena Headey, Andrew Tiernan; D: Antonia Bird; W: Ronan Bennett; C: Fred Tammes; M: Andy Roberts.
The external appearance or surface of anything; that which is readily observable by a spectator. The words contained in a document in their plain or obvious meaning without regard to external evidence or facts.
The term is applied most frequently in business law to mean the apparent meaning of a contract, paper, bill, bond, record, or other such legal document. A document might appear to be valid on its face, but circumstances may modify or explain it, and its meaning or validity can be altered.
Hence vb. XV. facial †(in f. sight, vision) face-to-face XVII; pert. to the face XIX. — medL. faciālis.