Godwin investigates the convincing truths and falsehoods behind one of modernity’s more pernicious pseudosciences: phrenology.

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

William Godwin was a revolutionary figure in a transitional era. His lifetime spanned from the height of rationalistic, Enlightenment thought both on the Continent and in Britain through the great (and not‐​so‐​great) democratic revolutions, up to the boom days of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. The sometimes universalistic, but always highly rationalized Enlightenment gave way to the often ruthlessly pragmatic Industrial era. Just as democracy was an industrialized form of governance–dehumanizing and thoughtless as a machine–new sciences like phrenology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and others industrialized the study of human beings. Why take the time to understand individual experiences, thoughts, and perspectives when you could make a few key measurements and infer away? For his own commentary on phrenology (the classification of persons according to skull size and shape), Godwin targets the field’s founders, Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828) and Johann Spurzheim (1776–1832). While Godwin is convinced that the brain is of central importance to thought–it is the ‘seat of the soul’–he classes phrenology with chiromancy (or palmistry), augury (reading bird flights or burnt animal entrails), and astrology. All are part of the broad realm of pseudosciences which feed off the ignorance of the public and the arrogance of exploitative elites and scammers. “But it is not to be wondered at,” Godwin concludes, “that these disorderly fragments of a shapeless science should become the special favourites of the idle and the arrogant.” Industrialized pseudoscience spread like wildfire through democratizing societies where “Every man (and every woman), however destitute of real instruction, and unfitted for the investigation of the deep or the sublime mysteries of our nature, can use his eyes and his hands.”

The following remarks can pretend to be nothing more than a few loose and undigested thoughts upon a subject, which has recently occupied the attention of many men, and obtained an extraordinary vogue in the world. It were to be wished, that the task had fallen into the hands of a writer whose studies were more familiar with all the sciences which bear more or less on the topic I propose to consider: but, if abler and more competent men pass it by, I feel disposed to plant myself in the breach, and to offer suggestions which may have the fortune to lead others, better fitted for the office than myself, to engage in the investigation. One advantage I may claim, growing out of my partial deficiency. It is known not to be uncommon for a man to stand too near to the subject of his survey, to allow him to obtain a large view of it in all its bearings. I am no anatomist: I simply take my stand upon the broad ground of the general philosophy of man.



It is a very usual thing for fanciful theories to have their turn amidst the eccentricities of the human mind, and then to be heard of no more. But it is perhaps no ill occupation, now and then, for an impartial observer, to analyse these theories, and attempt to blow away the dust which will occasionally settle on the surface of science. If phrenology, as taught by Gall and Spurzheim, be a truth, I shall probably render a service to that truth, by endeavouring to shew where the edifice stands in need of more solid supports than have yet been assigned to it. If it be a falshood, the sooner it is swept away to the gulph of oblivion the better. Let the inquisitive and the studious fix their minds on more substantial topics, instead of being led away by gaudy and deceitful appearances. The human head, that crowning capital of the column of man, is too interesting a subject, to be the proper theme of every dabbler. And it is obvious, that the professors of this so called discovery, if they be rash and groundless in their assertions, will be in danger of producing momentous errors, of exciting false hopes never destined to be realised, and of visiting with pernicious blasts the opening buds of excellence, at the time when they are most exposed to the chance of destruction.

I shall set out with acknowledging, that there is, as I apprehend, a science in relation to the human head, something like what Plato predicates of the statue hid in a block of marble. It is really contained in the block; but it is only the most consummate sculptor, that can bring it to the eyes of men, and free it from all the incumbrances, which, till he makes application of his art to it, surround the statue, and load it with obscurities and disfigurement. The man, who, without long study and premeditation, rushes in at once, and expects to withdraw the curtain, will only find himself disgraced by the attempt…

The exterior appearance of the scull is affirmed to correspond with the structure of the brain beneath. And nothing can be more analogous to what the deepest thinkers have already confessed of man, than to suppose that there is one structure of the brain better adapted for intellectual purposes than another. There is probably one structure better adapted than another, for calculation, for poetry, for courage, for cowardice, for presumption, for diffidence, for roughness, for tenderness, for self‐​control and the want of it. Even as some have inherently a faculty adapted for music or the contrary.

But it is not reasonable to believe that we think of calculation with one portion of the brain, and of poetry with another.

It is very little that we know of the nature of matter; and we are equally ignorant as to the substance, whatever it is, in which the thinking principle in man resides. But, without adventuring in any way to dogmatise on the subject, we find so many analogies between the thinking principle, and the structure of what we call the brain, that we cannot but regard the latter as in some way the instrument of the former.

Now nothing can be more certain respecting the thinking principle, than its individuality. It has been said, that the mind can entertain but one thought at one time; and certain it is, from the nature of attention, and from the association of ideas, that unity is one of the principal characteristics of mind. It is this which constitutes personal identity; an attribute that, however unsatisfactory may be the explanations which have been given respecting it, we all of us feel, and that lies at the foundation of all our voluntary actions, and all our morality.

Analogous to this unity of thought and mind, is the arrangement of the nerves and the brain in the human body. The nerves all lead up to the brain; and there is a centrical point in the brain itself, in which the reports of the senses terminate, and at which the action of the will may be conceived to begin. This, in the language of our fathers, was called the “seat of the soul.”

We may therefore, without departing from the limits of a due caution and modesty, consider this as the throne before which the mind holds its court. Hither the senses bring in their reports, and hence the sovereign will issues his commands. The whole system appears to be conducted through the instrumentality of the nerves, along whose subtle texture the feelings and impressions are propagated. Between the reports of the senses and the commands of the will, intervenes that which is emphatically the office of the mind, comprising meditation, reflection, inference and judgment. How these functions are performed we know not; but it is reasonable to believe that the substance of the brain or of some part of the brain is implicated in them.

Still however we must not lose sight of what has been already said, that in the action of the mind unity is an indispensible condition. Our thoughts can only hold their council and form their decrees in a very limited region. This is their retreat and strong hold; and the special use and functions of the remoter parts of the brain we are unable to determine; so utterly obscure and undefined is our present knowledge of the great ligament which binds together the body and the thinking principle.

Enough however results from this imperfect view of the ligament, to demonstrate the incongruity and untenableness of a doctrine which should assign the indications of different functions, exercises and propensities of the mind to the exterior surface of the scull or the brain. This is quackery, and is to be classed with chiromancy, augury, astrology, and the rest of those schemes for discovering the future and unknown, which the restlessness and anxiety of the human mind have invented, built upon arbitrary principles, blundered upon in the dark, and having no resemblance to the march of genuine science…

Science, to be of a high and satisfactory character, ought to consist of a deduction of causes and effects, shewing us not merely that a thing is so, but why it is as it is, and cannot be otherwise. The rest is merely empirical; and, though the narrowness of human wit may often drive us to this; yet it is essentially of a lower order and description. As it depends for its authority upon an example, or a number of examples, so examples of a contrary nature may continually come in, to weaken its force, or utterly to subvert it. And the affair is made still worse, when we see, as in the case of craniology, that all the reasons that can be deduced (as here from the nature of mind) would persuade us to believe, that there can be no connection between the supposed indications, and the things pretended to be indicated.

Craniology, or phrenology, proceeds exactly in the same train, as chiromancy, or any of those pretended sciences which are built merely on assumption or conjecture. The first delineations presented to the public, marked out, as I have said, the scull into compartments, in the same manner as a country delineated on a map is divided into districts. Geography is a real science, and accordingly, like other sciences, has been slow and gradual in its progress…

The majority of the judgments that have been divulged by the professors of this science, have had for their subjects the sculls of men, whose habits and history have been already known. And yet with this advantage the errors and contradictions into which their authors have fallen are considerably numerous…

It is to be regretted, that no person skilful in metaphysics, or the history of the human mind, has taken a share in this investigation. Many errors and much absurdity would have been removed from the statements of these theorists, if a proper division had been made between those attributes and propensities, which by possibility a human creature may bring into the world with him, and those which, being the pure growth of the arbitrary institutions of society, must be indebted to those institutions for their origin…

It is all a system of fatalism. Independently of ourselves, and far beyond our control, we are reserved for good or for evil by the predestinating spirit that reigns over all things. Unhappy is the individual who enters himself in this school. He has no consolation, except the gratified wish to know distressing truths, unless we add to this the pride of science, that he has by his own skill and application purchased for himself the discernment which places him in so painful a preeminence. The great triumph of man is in the power of education, to improve his intellect, to sharpen his perceptions, and to regulate and modify his moral qualities. But craniology reduces this to almost nothing, and exhibits us for the most part as the helpless victims of a blind and remorseless destiny.

In the mean time it is happy for us, that, as this system is perhaps the most rigorous and degrading that was ever devised, so it is in almost all instances founded upon arbitrary assumptions and confident assertion, totally in opposition to the true spirit of patient and laborious investigation and sound philosophy.

It is in reality very little that we know of the genuine characters of men. Every human creature is a mystery to his fellow. Every human character is made up of incongruities. Of nearly all the great personages in history it is difficult to say what was decidedly the motive in which their actions and system of conduct originated. We study what they did, and what they said; but in vain. We never arrive at a full and demonstrative conclusion. In reality no man can be certainly said to know himself. “The heart of man is deceitful above all things.”

But these dogmatists overlook all those difficulties, which would persuade a wise man to suspend his judgment, and induce a jury of philosophers to hesitate for ever as to the verdict they would pronounce. They look only at the external character of the act by which a man honours or disgraces himself. They decide presumptuously and in a lump, This man is a murderer, a hero, a coward, the slave of avarice, or the votary of philanthropy; and then, surveying the outside of his head, undertake to find in him the configuration that should indicate these dispositions, and must be found in all persons of a similar character, or rather whose acts bear the same outward form, and seem analogous to his.

Till we have discovered the clue that should enable us to unravel the labyrinth of the human mind, it is with small hopes of success that we should expect to settle the external indications, and decide that this sort of form and appearance, and that class of character, will always be found together.

But it is not to be wondered at, that these disorderly fragments of a shapeless science should become the special favourites of the idle and the arrogant. Every man (and every woman), however destitute of real instruction, and unfitted for the investigation of the deep or the sublime mysteries of our nature, can use his eyes and his hands. The whole boundless congregation of mankind, with its everlasting varieties, is thus at once subjected to the sentence of every pretender:

And fools rush in, where angels fear to tread…