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ABSTRACT: Whenever we meet an unknown person, our first judgment, even unwillingly and often subconsciously, starts from his or her external appearance. Since character can be properly recognized only from words and deeds observed over some time, at first sight we have to rely on what we immediately can see. This physiognomical first approach to each other is as old as humankind, and, though it has never been able to be proved a proper science, in everyday life we all believe in and use physioculture. The earliest extant written work on the subject is the pseudo-Aristotelian treatise Physiognomonica. The author of its first part, in discussing the methodology of the art, refers to Aristotle, who develops the logical foundation of physiognomical inference: as an enthymeme, a syllogism from signs. Yet, concentrating solely on the formal logical analysis, Aristotle does not touch the central point of physiognomics; it C. S. Peirce’s discovery of the triadic relation of the sign that was able to shed new light on this central problem and to see physiognomics as a process of semiosis. Thus, Aristotle founded the formal logical basis, from which modern semiotics developed new approaches to physiognomics, taking them in account in several strands of their research.
Whenever we meet an unknown person, our first judgement – unwillingly and often subconsciously – starts from his or her external appearance. Almost every aspect of it can be regarded as some kind of clue: for instance, clothing and hairstyle tell something about social status and personal fashion, facial expression and gestures indicate the emotional state of mind, and clinical symptoms allow to diagnose a disease. Yet all those features are superficial and changeable, and therefore don’t tell anything about the inner nature and character of a person, by which we define personality and identity. Since character shows itself only in words and deeds, it would need a long-term observation to detect it (always unrealistically assuming that the character be constant), and still there is hardly a safeguard against wilful deceit. Here, as a short-cut method, physiognomics is used: the art of inferring character from the physique of body and face – especially from those features that can hardly be influenced by their bearer like bone-structure, stature, voice, and the supposedly unconscious parts of body language.
An immediate physiognomical inference is necessary for survival in the animal world: to decide at first glance whether the other is prey or predator, friend or foe, that is: whether it is save to stay and to approach or better to flee, to defend or attack.
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That physiognomics has always been practiced can be seen in all kind of evidence in literature and art. Certain character types are cross-cultural and over the centuries surprisingly stable, like, for instance, the brave good man with a lion’s mane and bodily strength, in whom good looks and good character, outer beauty and inner excellence are combined. In Archaic Greece, for instance, this human ideal is personified in the statue-type of the naked male youth or in Homeric heroes like Achilles, Hector and Odysseus, and he is still alive in the heroes of sports and movies of our time. His counterpart is the ugly base villain like the vile Thersites in Homer’s Iliad (2,211–224) who dares to argue with his leaders and to abuse them – a befitting behaviour indeed for "the ugliest man who ever came to Troy. Bandy-legged he was, with one foot clubbed, both shoulders humped together, curving over his carved-in chest, and bobbing above them his skull warped to a point, sprouting clumps of scraggly, woolly hair." But already in Homer it is clear that there is not always a physiognomical equivalence between good looks and good character, and Odysseus points this out quite clearly several times. Euripides’ Medea phrases this thought quite distinctly in her despair about Jason’s treason: "O Zeus, why have you given to men conclusive signs whether a coin is false, but in a man there is no mark by nature on his body by which to recognize the base one?" (Eur. Med. 516–519).
Physiognomical correlations between particular body signs and character traits are often established by means of a comparison with animals. This method is based on a vast range of ascriptions of character types to animal species which we find in all kinds of ‘high’ literature and art, but especially in folkloristic tradition: proverbs, swearwords, fables, fairy tales, myths, etc. The brave lion, the timid hare, the cunning fox, the silly ass and other character types are common features indeed. Two main problems in this approach cannot be discussed here at lenght, but ought at least to be mentioned in passing: Firstly, an entire animal species, assumed to be constant in character and physique, is being compared with an individual human being; and secondly, the decision where exactly the analogy between the animal and the person lies – in nose, hair, eyes, shape of head, or any other –, is entirely up to the arbitrition of the artist or rather physiognomist.
The earliest extant work written exclusively on physiognomics is a treatise transmitted under the name of Aristotle, yet quite certainly not written by himself but in the Peripatos in the decades around 300 B.C. This text contains both: lists of correlations between particular body and character traits, and also theoretical discussions on the presuppositions and methods of physiognomics. The treatise seems to be based on two diverse sources: on a vast variety of physiognomical material, stemming largely from common-sense everyday physiognomics as we’ve seen it from Homer to della Porta, and on Aristotle’s theoretical discussion of the logical functioning of physiognomical inference from signs.
For in Prior Analytics II.27 Aristotle discusses physiognomics as an application of the enthymeme, the rhetorical form of inference from signs. Aristotle explains a standard example of animal comparison as first form syllogism:
Minor premiss: the lion has large extremities (among other body traits)
Major premiss: large extremities are a convertible sign of bravery
Conclusion: therefore the lion is brave
This formal syllogism is, beware, not a physiognomical inference proper, because the human individual as object of the physiognomical assessment is not even mentioned. A truly physiognomical syllogism would read, on the basis of the syllogism stated by Aristotle:
Minor premiss: this particular man has large extremities
Major premiss: large extremities are a convertible sign of bravery
—as can be concluded from the analogy to lions—
Conclusion: therefore this particular man is brave
Even more important than this formal phrasing of the physiognomical inference is Aristotle’s short list of logical presuppositions:
"The practice of physiognomics is possible,
(1.) if one grants that the body and the soul change together, so far as the natural affections go (i.e. passions and desires, not learning). If this were granted and
(2.) if for each <change or affection> there is one sign, and
(3.) if we were able to grasp the affection and the sign proper to each kind <of animal>,
then we shall be able to practice physiognomics." (An. pr. II.27, 70b 7–14).
The first of Aristotle’s three presupposition deserves to be especially stressed, for it is the essential basis of physiognomics: that there actually is an interrelation or rather interdependence between body and soul. Not surprisingly, this statement is also emphasised in the very first sentence of the Aristotelian treatise Physiognomics:
"Dispositions follow bodily characteristics and are not in themselves unaffected by bodily impulses. This is obvious in the case of drunkenness and illness; for it is evident that dispositions are changed considerably by bodily affections. Conversely, that the body suffers sympathetically with affections of the soul is evident in love, fear, grief and pleasure." (Phgn. 1, 805a 1–8)
Yet, given that one accepts this general interdependence between body and soul – how can each single correlation between a particular character trait and its bodily sign be proved, i.e. the major premisses be established? All these physiognomical correlations remain merely postulated – in contrast, for instance, to medicine where a common cause for disease and symptom can be detected and thus the correlations can be scientifically established. Physiognomists also try to establish such correlations by several methods, all of which are applied in the Aristotelian treatise: comparison with animals or with ethnic groups, the analogy to gender difference (i.e. basically the general weakness of the female sex), or physiological explanations (like the continous paleness of the timid person who is constantly in fear, referring to acute fear as causing acute paleness). Yet each of these methods has its own problems which are ignored by Aristotle and his pupils on the grounds that they firmly hold on to the general interdependence between body and soul, under which they seem to subsume the specific cases.
The problems involved can be seen clearly with the help of modern semiotics. According to Charles S. Peirce, semiotics is the doctrine of the nature of semiosis. Semiosis for Peirce is "an action, or influence, which is, or involves, a cooperation of three subjects, such as a sign, its object, and its interpretant, this tri-relative influence not being in any way resolvable into actions between pairs." (Peirce, Collected Papers 5.484). This triadic relation of the sign means for physiognomics: every body trait is nothing but a mere body trait, unless an interpretant regards it as a sign for a particular character trait – by a process of semiosis based on whichever theory or method the interpretant, i.e. the physiognomist, choses to apply: animal comparison, physiological explanation, or any other.
Thus the triadic relation of the sign stresses the overall importance of the physiognomist: without him, there is no triadic sign, i.e. no correlation between body and character trait – which both would still be there, but not interrelated as signifier and signified. Starting from this notion of semiotics, the modern interest in physiognomics doesn’t focus any more on the object, the individual human being, but on the subject, i.e. the physiognomist who creates the rules of his assessments, who invents the major premisses of the physiognomical syllogism according to Aristotle.
This shift of focus renders physiognomics nowadays a field of studies for anthropologists and cultural historians. For physiognomics proper has turned out to be a pseudo-science, with no way to establish scientifically acceptable correlations between particular body signs and character traits. But just because of this, the methods by which these correlations have been assumed are all the more interesting.
These two approaches can be correlated with two major semiotic theories of physiognomics which I have connected with the names of Aristotle and Peirce: For it was Aristotle who provided physiognomics with a solid logical foundation in describing its syllogistic structure and discussing its logical presuppositions. He thus defined physiognomics as a semiotic technique. But Aristotle didn’t touch the central point of physiognomics, namely the question of how to formulate the major premisses of the syllogism from bodily signs. It was Peirce’s notion of the triadic relation of the sign, which shed new light on this central problem, namely to regard physiognomics as a process of semiosis. Thus, the focus has shifted from applying physiognomical inference on to the study of physiognomists and physiognomics, i.e. from the functioning of the technique itself to the history of its practitioners.