04 Mar What’s Written All Over Our Faces
Johann Caspar Lavater, Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe
Published by Weidmanns Erben und Reich und Heinrich Steiner und Compagnie (Leipzig and Winterthur), 1775
Hardly any present-day blockbuster of criminalistics does without a profiler, the investigator who analyzes the socio-economic patterns of a criminal offense so as to identify the type of person behind it. Inferring the inner motives of a person from his or her actions is a method we take for granted nowadays.
This was not always the case, however. Starting in antiquity, physicians and philosophers have questioned which, if any, regularities underlie the human being. Among those looking for an answer was Johann Caspar Lavater. In his main work “Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe” (translates as “Physiognomic Fragments for the Advancement of the Knowledge and the Love of Man”), he stated that the external form of a human being is a direct expression of his character. The theologian, philosopher and pedagogue considered the facial features “letters of the divine alphabet” which could be measured and deciphered.
Lavater took up an idea that had been familiar already to the ancient Greeks. They held the “kalokagathia” ideal in high esteem, meaning the highest moral virtues embodied in a flawless physical appearance. Despite these prominent thought leaders, the theses of the Zurich scholar came under fire. Following some initial sympathy, Goethe turned away from Lavater, and the Göttingen-based Professor Georg Christoph Lichtenberg even attacked him openly in satirical rebuttals.
With the general public, on the other hand, Lavater set off a trend. Entire soirees suddenly discussed the features of famous personalities. Silhouette portraits became increasingly popular and formed a new field of collecting.
We do not know for sure whether Charles Darwin was also interested in silhouette portraits. What we do know, however, is that he took up the approach of Johan Caspar Lavater. He was also interested in the concept of man as an animated machine. Thus, he investigated how and why emotions express themselves in the body, especially in the face.
19th century anthropology and biometrics also worked with Lavater’s theories. Countless measurements, taken of skulls in particular, resulted in extensive statistics. In the course of racial theories, they then served to underpin the alleged beauty and superiority of individual species or groups. That found a sad climax in the insane Nazi ideology in the Third Reich.
In today’s science, the physiognomy, as Lavater understood it, hardly matters anymore: too difficult to objectify the criteria, too great the scope for interpretation.