empirical psychology 1755

Through physiognomy people thought they could find out more about the inner workings of man. In the 18th century, theologian Johann Casper Lavater caused the popularization of physiognomy. His physiognomy is a first attempt towards empirical psychology.

“A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”

Roald Dahl – The Twits

For many years, people tried to read what goes on in the minds of others by their outward appearance. Pythagoras refused entry to a student, because he claimed to see by his appearance that this student had a bad personality. Reading people’s looks remained a popular activity over the centuries, even though, in the late Middle Ages, the Catholic Church regarded it as witchcraft.

However, the astounding progress achieved in natural science in the 17th and 18th centuries brought physiognomy back from oblivion. By studying a person’s external features, analysts thought they could also penetrate their psyche. Physiognomy was a science which, in those days, was used to serve a theological purpose. It was thought that God did not just create people randomly, but that he etched a message about their character in their faces. It was the job of the physiognomist to identify these messages.

The popularisation of physiognomy was chiefly due to the Swiss theologian, Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801). Around 1775, he developed a new physiognomic system, fully in keeping with the latest scientific methods – anatomy held a prominent position, with diagrams of noses and mouths, and a plethora of instruments. However, his whole theory was based on ethical prejudices, which is why it could not be substantiated. But no one seemed to mind in the beginning. Reading people’s faces became a popular pastime all over Europe. Physiognomic correspondences, pocket books and numerous publications flooded the market.

Lavater’s physiognomy can be considered as a first attempt towards empirical psychology. His analyses were mostly based on silhouette portraits and very soon a host of specialists emerged. For a fee, you could have your portrait or face analysed by a face reader – the psychiatrists of the physiognomic age.