Universität Bielefeld

International Network for the History of Physiognomy

The idea that a visible surface corresponds to a hidden interior is a conception dating back to antiquity and also the basis of many scientific disciplines. Like almost no other intellectual tradition, physiognomics has, from its origin, been situated between the subsequently differentiated sciences and humanities. For example, Hippocratic medicine and Theophrastus’s poetic Characters both make physiognomic thought a subject of discussion. Physiognomy can be seen as a decoding of the other—whether psychic, mental, invisible, physical, or material—and which has to be objectified through hermeneutics of sensually perceptible signs. The physiognomic objective has often been to recognize an individual entity in contrast to systematic and normative knowledge, especially in regard to phenomena which cannot be reduced to a single concept. In premodern eras, such different emerging fields of knowledge as anthropology, botany, or psychology, and in the modern era history and visual studies used physiognomic methods or referred to them by criticizing their presuppositions. In the visual arts of nineteenth-century Europe, artists and intellectuals discovered the individual as a natural and unique entity by studying his facial and physical expressions and habitus. At the same time, the individual was also understood to be a product of social and economic conditions and constraints. In such a context, uniqueness served as a means to identify and classify.
Physiognomic thought, seen as a nonverbal production of physical ‘textuality’, has been particularly investigated in the 80s and 90s (Gombrich 1977; Mattenklott 1982; Blankenburg 1988; Käuser 1989; Braungart 1995; Campe/Schneider 1996; Schmölders 1994 & 1997). The focus of more recent research has instead been on individual subfields of physiognomic history, for example in literary studies (Mraz/Schögl 1999; Breitenfellner 1999; Bühler 2004; Pabst 2007). Furthermore, other investigations analyze the ‘medical view’ of physiognomic thought (Foucault; Didi-Huberman 1997), epistemological conditions (Christians 2000), the history of institutional knowledge (Bohde 2012), and finally the problems of cultural history (Gray 2004), in particular the cultural function of the face (Beilenhoff 2006; Weigel 2013).
Thus, while the discourse on physiognomics has been widely treated across disciplines, the interdisciplinary academic communication about physiognomic thought, its contents, history and methodologies, has not kept up with this development. The International Network in Physiognomic Studies aims to contribute to and intensify this discussion by engaging in a constant interdisciplinary dialogue between scholars in the field of physiognomic research.


    Alle News