Physiognomy Defined: A picture is worth a thousand assumptions

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.

—Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) in Religio Medici.

Physiognomy is defined as the art of judging ones character through outward appearances, most notably the face. This form of character analysis has come in and out of favor since its inception prior to the middle ages. It makes claims that such traits as trustworthiness, social dominance and aggression can be determined and measured by the appearance of people’s faces.

The ancient Greeks had realized this form of character analysis and heightened its popularity. Eventually though, physiognomy fell out of favor as a result of its misuse by vagabonds and swindlers looking to turn a profit.

However, it seems physiognomy has gaining popularity once again. In a recent study published by Justin Carré and Cheryl McCormic of Brock University in Ontario, Canada they found that by looking at a man’s face one can determine his predisposition to aggression. Through their research they determined that aggressiveness is predictable from the ratio between the width of a person’s face and it’s height. They concluded that the cause of this seems to be exposure to testosterone, which is also known to make people aggressive.

A written portrait of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell
Smokes tobacco; fears madness; benevolent; fond of dress: has suit of sea-green and sliver; another of scarlet and gold; makes toothpicks; fond of billiards but thinks them blackguard; given to matrimonial schemes; schemes; strong feeling of family; vain; likes to wash his feet in warm water; likes to sing; has a good ear; can’t resist anything laughable’ has an excellent memory; is a monarchist; treasures romantic associations’ indolent; things he was badly educated; kind to servants; plays the flute; honest and good natured; fickle in love; fond of money; likes to sleep with his head high; given to whims of regularity; has great difficulty in rising’ a man of strict probity; likes novelty only in matters of imagination’ subject to low spirits; allows himself three hours each evening for amusement; eats too much; gloomy, peevish, splenetic; sits seven hours at cards; happier in vice than virtue; has sad dreams; represses thoughts of whoring; awakes thinking he is dying.

In the words of Ben Maddow the author of Faces, A Narrative History of the Portrait in Photography, “Just as two points determine a line, three a plane, and four a solid, so with five or more points of character we begin to imagine a human being.”

We can ascertain a lot about Samuel Johnson and nearly as much about the author by reading the detailed description of his character. A portrait of the face reveals much the same insight. One way to think about how much value in recognition we place on our perception of the face is to think about someone you know but have not seen, whether in person or in picture. A radio talk-show host for example; when listening to their voice come over the radio we connect some visual qualities to this person that resemble a portrait in our minds. This helps to form a connection to the host. If we agree with the message they are transmitting to the masses, our tendency is to associate qualities we consider respectable, beautiful, and proper. If we disagree with their message, we will assign unfavorable visual qualities to their portrait, describing them as ugly, aggressive, and possibly grotesque.

Another example of our natural tendency to form a relationship through facial recognition are the countless and centuries old depictions of God, Christ and the angelic figures of Heaven. Due to our need for connection and therefore recognition we now associate Christ as a long-haired, youthful, fair-skinned, strong, slender, and handsome young man.

The portrait speaks volumes about the person it depicts, greater still are our assumption about that person. The color and texture of their skin, the shape of their smile (or the lack thereof), the color of their eyes, the clothes they wear, or the look on their face all communicate to the viewer various levels of connotative messages.

Many of these messages are shaped by our preconceived notions of race, gender, age, and beauty. Physiognomy aims at ascribing a scientific formula to each of the aforementioned qualities in such as way as to determine ones trustworthiness, aggressiveness, and social dominance.


. . . since through the eyes the heart is seen in the face . . .
—Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1533

~ John Trefethen

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