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Tory Hoff

York University

Psychology Department

Ph.D. Dissertation

July 17th, 1990


    This dissertation documents the decline of physiognomical theory and the rise of theories pertaining to expressive movement. The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century laid the foundation for an objective and technological approach to the world that viewed material being, including the human body, in terms of quantifiable objects. Supported by the semiotical framework of external signifier and internal signified, the Scientific Revolution ushered in the no­tion that the body is an instrument that accurately represents the nature and states of the internal mind and is therefore expressive. The spread of the Cartesian and Lockean philosophies challenged the Aristotelian notion of substantial form and hence the belief that the shape of the body and its parts convey personality. This new per­spective comprises a first step in the decline of physiognomical theories, especially those containing astrological notions

    A revival of physiognomical theory occurred in the second half of the eighteenth century, above all, due to the acceptance of the notion that the expression of the passions has a cumulative effect on the shape and features of the body, especially of the face. Support­ing this idea of an acquired physiognomy was the notion that the body is not a mechanical object but operates according to vital properties such as nervous sensibility and muscular irritability. The body was thought to start out as a psychological blank slate, but over time Greater emphasis on the role of the brain in animal life inevitably led to the idea that physiognomical expression is limited to the skull. But the phrenological movement, initiated by Gall's theory of the expressive physiology of the brain, proved to be the last major contribution to the physiognomical tradition prior to its final decline. Greater objectification in the first half of the nineteenth century led to a physiology which rejected earlier notions of sensi­bility and therefore removed all psychological notions from its terrain. The expressive aspects of the body were not a primary concern of the psycho-physiologists before 1860.

    When the subject of body expression again reappeared in the 1860's within established scientific and academic circles, it was further removed from anatomy and especially physiology as well as from the arts and semiotics. It was for the most part limited to theories on the expression of the emotions. Darwin, in particular, established a new approach when he presented a theory of how various expressive movements may have developed in the course of phylogenetic evolution. Wundt, however, placed emotional expression, and particu­larly gesture, within a theory of interpersonal communication.

    For the most part, North American psychologists of the twentieth century continued to theorize in the traditions of Darwin and Wundt, but they limited their topic to the judgement of facial expression, sometimes concluding that it was not particularly accurate. Theories imported from Europe, however, took an entirely different approach. The gestalt psychologists posited isomorphic structures between mind, brain and expressive behaviour. At the same time the psychoanalytic theory of Freud presented a radically new approach to the psychological meaning of the body. Erotogenic parts of the body were thought to contribute to personality development and idiosyncratic gestures were thought to reflect unconscious conflict. Only Sheldon was able to produce a research methodology which suggested that the overall shape of the body might correlate with personality.

    An historical survey of theories of body expression reveals that certain modern psychological terms at one time referred indiscriminately to somatic and psychological aspects. It appears that concepts of body expression constitute the origin of some current psychological terms, notably character, temperament, passion, emotion and attitude. Up to the eighteenth century 'character' referred to the signs and marks in the form and figure of the body. During the Medieval period 'passion' referred to transitions as a result of being the passive recipient of an external agent, while 'emotion' referred to feeling from the viewpoint of its body movement. By the nineteenth century 'character,' 'emotion' and 'passion' generally referred to that which is exclusively psychological yet which nevertheless correlates with certain physiological states. During the Renaissance 'temperament' referred to the humourally-based colour, shape and mental dispositions of a person. A mental definition of 'temperament' started at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but it re­mained a psycho-physical concept among popular physiognomists and phrenologists who still thought that the form of the body had something to do with the nature of the person. Most twentieth century theorists held that 'temperament' is primarily mental but that it is in rapport with 'constitution' which is physical. Up to and including the nineteenth century 'attitude' almost always referred to psychologically meaningful postures and actions. It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that academic psychologists de­fined attitude as a mental orientation, and not until the 1930's that this orientation was considered to be independent of the postures of the body.


   I first of all want to thank Kurt Danziger for all the time, effort and guidance that he has put into this dissertation. He read several drafts sentence by sentence. Each time I was given clear indication of what improvements needed to be made.

   I also want to thank others on my committee, Ray Fancher, David Bakan, Gary Brooks and Peter Alexrod for reading the dissertation and making comments. Other professors in the Department of Psychology at York University contributed to the dissertation and to my graduate training. Deserving recognition are Dave Wiesenthal and Peter Waxer who read an earlier paper which proved to be the prototype of this dissertation. Thanks to Mac and Paige Westcott and Fred Weismann for taking an interest in my work and for the encouragement they gave me.

   So many others deserve acknowledgment. Writing these paragraphs give me the opportunity to reflect back and recall with some fondness the numerous people who helped. Perhaps at the top of the list should be the librarians working out of Interlibrary Loans at York University, namely, Gladys Fung, Mary McDowell, John Carter, Joan McConnell, the late Gary MacDonald and in particular Mary Hudecki. The secretaries for the Graduate Program in Psychology, Marg Lewis and Connie Scalzullo, led me by the hand through many procedural labyrinths and bureaucratic mazes that were beyond my present level of institutional acumen. Special thanks goes to fellow graduate student, Jim Parker, for helping me master the CMS mainframe at York, for coming to the rescue on numerous occasions, and for delivering numerous copies of drafts to Kurt and other members of my committee when I doing re-writing in Saskatoon but using iNet to print copies at York. I also want to thank Daniel Bloom and Jamie Savage of York Computing Services for helping me with embedded commands on the York CMS System and for setting up my iNet phone line to my York computer account. Perhaps I should thank York University for providing me with this free service.

   Here at the University of Saskatchewan I want to congratulate Elena Corrigan of St. Thomas More College for winning our race to see who would finish their dissertation first and to thank her husband, Kevin Corrigan, for reading a portion of the dissertation. In the Department of Psychology in Arts and Sciences I thank Norv Spence for making detailed comments on a last draft and Jim Cheesman for telling me to get the dissertation done or else. I also want to thank Maria Fortugno for doing some of the library research necessary for writing the last chapter. Lastly, may Jonathan Dent successfully complete his dissertation.


   This dissertation, which slowly materialized over a seven year period, finally came to a quick completion due to the care of my friends. To them this dissertation is dedicated.
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Section One: Ancient Theories on the Significative Body
Section Two: The Medieval System of Correspondences
Section Three: Metoposcopy as a Planetary Physiognomy
Section Four: The Signatures and Characters of the Body
Section Five: The Temperaments of the Body
Section Six: The Passions and Emotions
Section Seven: The Physiagnomical Theory of Porte


Section One: The Late-Medieval Anatomy of Mondini
Section Two: The Renaissance Anatomy of Vesalius
Section Three: Santorio on the Objective Weight of the Body
Section Four: Descartes on the Body as Res Extensa and on the Passions of the Soul
Section Five: La Chambre as Representative of Theories of Body Expression in the Seventeenth Century
Section Six: Expressive Passion and Physiognomy according to Le Brun
Section Seven: Bulwer on Gesture as a Natural Language


Section One: Medical Theory and the Arts in the First Stage of the Enlightenment
Section Two: The Mental Philosophy and Semiotics of Locke
Section Three: The Rejection of Traditional Physiognomies
Section Four: A New Habitude of the Passions
Section Five: The Acquisition of an Individual Character and Physiognomy
Section Six: Parsons and Buffon on the Cumulative Influence of Pathognomical Expression


Section One: The Sensibility of the Scientific Body
Section Two: The Revival of Expressive Movement in the Arts
Section Three: Natural and Cultured Body Expression according to Chodowiecki
Section Four: The Semiotics of the Natural Body
Section Five: The Role of Imitation and Sympathy in Natural Expression and Communication
Section Six: The Revival of a Language of the Body based on Form
Section Seven: Lavater's 'Physiognomische Fragments'
Section Eight:
Lichtenberg's Critique of Lavaterian Physiognomy
Section Nine: The Notion of a Reciprocal Relation between the Mind and its Signs


Section One: The Craniology and Pathognomy of Gall as Two Kinds of Language of the Body
Section Two: Bell's Respiratory System of Nerves in Relation to his Theory of Expression
Section Three: The Aesthetics of Gall and Bell in Relation to a New Concept of Imitation
Section Four: The New Physiology Begun in France
Section Five: The End of the Doctrine of the Temperaments
Section Six: The Divergence of Romantic Art and Semiotics from Objective Science
Section Seven: The Relocation of Body Expression in the Imagination


Section One: The Re-marginalization of Theory
Section Two: A Tripartite Theory of the Temperaments
Section Three: The Return of Phrenology to Physiognomy
Section Four: Esoteric Physiognomies plus a Silent Majority
Section Five: Popular Theories of Body Expression in the Graphic and Performing Arts


Section One: The Continuation of Theory in Germany
Section Two: The Revival of Theory in France
Section Three: Expression according to the British Psycho-physiologists
Section Four: Darwin on the Origin of Emotional Expression among Species
Section Five: Wundt's Classification of Gesture
Section Six: The Decline of the Traditional Concept of Expression


Section One: Theories of Expression in Germany
Section Two: The Gestalt Theory of Body Expression
Section Three: Freud's Theory of Body Expression
Section Four: Sheldon in Defence of Constitutional Psychology
Section Five: Psychologists Against the Physiognomists
Section Six: The Emergence of a Mental Concept of Attitude
Section Seven: Debate Regarding Facial Expression
  Primary Material: Up to the Twentieth Century
  Primary Material: Twentieth Century
  Secondary Source Publications


   Body language is a subject which interests most of us. We are fascinated with what the expressive body reveals about the person and sometimes wonder what a certain nuance in posture and gesture discloses. Some people are surprised when told that the discussion of body language has a long history, that in the past far more people attended to the matter and put their ideas in print than academic psychologists have done in twentieth-century North America. It is also not widely known that many theorists from previous centuries thought that the lines, shape and figure of the body and its parts are indicative of personal qualities. Nowadays most educated people would find this tradition amusing, although some might suspect it of fostering stereotyping and prejudice.

   The goal of this dissertation is to trace the decline of theories about what we would call the disclosure of personality through the form of the body and its parts, a subject known over the centuries as physiognomy and the rise of theories about expressive movement, a subject once known as pathounomy because it was thought that the most expressive movements are those involving the passions. My main purpose, in other words, is to describe and partially explain the gradual shift from a broad concept of body expression to one which attributes communicative meaning primarily to certain movements of the body. How might one go about accomplishing this goal? I have chosen to document the changes in theories of body expression from one historical period to the next, and to take steps towards an explanation of this slow transformation in Western thought by demonstrating that these changes occurred within the context of concurrent changes in concepts regarding the body and, secondarily, theories of signs and language. For each historical period prior to the last third of the nineteenth century, I show how scientific and artistic theories of the body as well as theories of signs influenced theories of body expression. Hence this dissertation includes a historical study of theories of the body and of language to the extent that they supported various theories regarding the 'language of the body.' A history of theories of body expression, however, also requires a consideration of changing ideas about what is expressed. One cannot discuss theories of body expression, past or present, without involving the categories used to discuss the nature of a person. Any theory of body expression at least assumes a given psychological theory, in particular a theory of personality. In the process of identifying changes in theories of body expression from one period to the next, I necessarily make reference to changes which have occurred regarding various psychological concepts. What becomes apparent is that certain psychological concepts, namely, character, temperament, passion, emotion and attitude, have their origin as concepts directly referring to the expressive body. In sum, theories of the body, of its semiotic capabilities, and of the psychological nature of the person provide a context within which to understand the history of theories of body expression.

    Any study of events prior to this century has to confront the problem of changing definitions of key terms. I know of no way to employ current definitions of terms and at the same time do justice to the historical material at hand. Use of current terms makes it more difficult to understand previous usage and the framework within which these terms then operated, and yet this dissertation is not the place to create new words. In particular, I need a term which pre­sumes that the features and shapes of the body as well as its postures, gestures, facial expression, colour, texture and vocalization other than speech all convey psychological (psycho-social or inter­personal) meaning about the person. The only candidates are 'physi­ognomy,' 'body expression,' 'body language' and 'non-verbal communication.' But they are all problematic.

    Prior to the middle of the eighteenth century, 'physiognomy' referred to the meaning of the lines and figures of the body and its parts. Since the eighteenth century, however, it has also referred, sometimes exclusively, to expressive movement, especially that of the face. Particularly in the twentieth century, the phrase 'body ex­pression' conjures up little more than expressive movement. The term is also troublesome because it does not necessarily include reference to the important topic of the perception of body expression.

    'Non-verbal communication' avoids this problem, but labels 'body expression' in terms of what it is not. It implies that body expres­sion is a secondary kind of communication to be defined through reference to verbal communication. Moreover, 'non-verbal communication' draws on the current notion that the communicative meaning of the body lies with posture, gesture and facial expression and not with the line and figure of the body. However, a historical treatment demands that the issue of a supposed psychological meaning of the form of the body be included within the subject of communication. The term 'body language' has the same problem, though at least avoids identifying its referent in the negative. A further difficulty, however, is that, ever since the middle of the nineteenth century, academics have challenged the idea that the meaning of the body can indeed be understood as a 'language.' The term 'body expression' does not seem to imply current notions which do not do justice to beliefs common during previous centuries. In this dissertation it first of all means the ability of the body to disclose and reveal the individual person in the broadest sense of disclosure and revelation. I employ the common designation for the term 'body language,' but use the phrase 'the language of the body' specifically in reference to the once predominant notion that the body contains a set, system or formal organization of signs which constitutes a language. l Reference to 'body expression' includes all aspects of the body that theorists at various times in Western history have believed communicates aspects of the person.

1   The idea that body expression indeed constitutes a language which can be 'heard' or 'read' has been around for centuries. From the Renaissance to the middle of the nineteenth century it was common for people to refer to a language of the body in the same sense that they spoke of the book of nature. For instance, Lavater" (1775-78; Eng. tr., 1789-98) referred to "the universal truth and language of Nature" Cvol. 2, p. 97) while the entry "Physiognomy" in Rees' Cyclopaedia (1807) equates the word with "the language of the face" (col. 2). The term closest to our present use of the phrase 'body language' was probably the word 'attitude' in its older meaning of posture.

   'Physiognomy' is used in its original, limited sense. The older assumption was that the relatively fixed form of the body and its parts indicate the relatively permanent nature of a person. The 'physiognomical tradition,' therefore, refers to theories about body form as distinct from those of expressive movement. From the seventeenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth most theories of expressive movement went under the term 'pathognomy' because of the connection made between body movement and the passions. My definitions of physiognomy and pathognomy are therefore consistent with those used by Lavater, Lichtenberg and Gall at the end of the eighteenth century. This choice of definitions, however, has its difficulties because other definitions of 'physiognomy' emerged in the nineteenth century that included or exclusively meant expressive movement.

   Theorists before the middle of the eighteenth century generally assumed that body expression includes its communication to an observer. Afterwards, theorists started to emphasize that miscommunication can occur via body expression, in part due to the cultural constraints against uninhibited expression and in part due to perceptual difficulties by an observer. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between expression and perception via the body. I conceive of 'body expression' as a reality submitted to the social arena. It is not communicated unless observers, for whatever reason, have the social skills to perceive it. This emphasis is different from that of the gestalt psychologist, Arnheim C1949), for instance, who refers to expression as "a product of perceptual properties" (p. 156) and "an integral part of the elementary processes of perception" (p. 167). While I support his desire to counter the scepticism toward body expression that he observed among his colleagues of the 1940's, the matter of communication between a subject and an observer raises the issue of projection and hence the involved question, "who expressed what?" (p. 158). Judgements regarding what another person's body expresses can reflect the personality of the observer more than that of the person observed. Recent discussion about 'body semiotics' or the 'semiotics of the body' (Mukarovsky, 1978; Sebeok, 1985; Poyatos, 1983, 1985) seems to offer a viable solution to the subject of body expression in relation to its perception by an observer because it attempts to place body expression where it belongs -- within the context of a relationship between subject and observer. A sign acts as a sign only when a match occurs between what is sent and what is received. This semiotical approach requires a clear distinction be­tween 'body expression' and 'body perception' and it is here employed as well.

    In order to set limits on an otherwise unmanageable dissertation topic, I have generally avoided what would be considered the medical, psychiatric, and legal aspects of body expression. That is, I pass by various theories regarding the possible role of the body in the diagnosis and treatment of various pathological states, even though the use of the normal body for diagnostic purposes is an important concern throughout the history of theories of body expression. For instance, I have left out Cesare Lombroso's atavistic theory of criminal types. Because of far reaching socio-political implications, this theory, as well as other late nineteenth and early twentieth century theories of physiognomic degeneracy, would have required the introduction of matters that transcend the defined scope of the dis­sertation. Furthermore, the extensive treatment that this topic de­serves would have significantly increased an already excessively long text.

   For the most part, I exclude from my topic extensions of body expression such as clothing, hair style and cosmetics. Nor do I discuss handwriting and its analysis, a subject which has generated a considerable amount of interest over the centuries. Moreover, I do not focus on the interesting subject of body expression as Practiced in Western culture, except to illustrate specific points about theory and to speculate occasionally on the historical relation between body expression as theorized and as actually practiced. This dissertation is necessarily limited to theories of body expression. However fascinating, a comprehensive history of the meaning of actual body shapes or movements is too large and difficult a subject to cover at the same time.

    What follows is primarily an intellectual history without reference to social history, even though any intellectual history should be placed within the context of social history. Indeed, the history of theories of body expression to a significant extent reflects changes in Western social organization and the psychological life which has emerged within it. But inclusion of the social context would take this dissertation beyond its goal, which is simply to present and discuss the relevant theories. Such a discussion, which has seemingly not been attempted before, is required before one moves to a fuller consideration of the more complex issues of why these theories arose when and where they did. My explanation of historical changes regarding theory extends only to a presentation of concurrent beliefs about the scientific and artistic body, about signs and language, and also about psychological concepts used to describe the person.

   Any historical survey must reckon with the issue of selectivity. Recognized works specifically on the expressive ability of the body of course demand coverage. However, in order to put these works in perspective, important theoretical contributions from anatomy and physiology, the fine arts and literature, philosophy, and linguistics must also be included. Examples are Aristotelian philosophy, the anatomy of Vesalius, the rationalism and mechanism of Descartes, the semiotics and Newtonian psychology of Locke, the physiologies of Haller and then Magendie, the evolutionary theory of Darwin and the psychoanalytic theory of Freud. 2

2   I make no claim to a scholarly contribution toward the various disciplines into which I enter in order to cover my topic thoroughly. Particularly treatment of the history semiotics and art, have relied on secondary sources.

    English, German, and French speaking regions present slightly different versions of the story about the decline of physiognomical theory and ascent of theories of expressive movement. Therefore, an attempt is also made to indicate regional differences from one historical period to the next. Because this dissertation was designed to end with a discussion of theories that circulated within North American academic psychology in the first half of the twentieth century, theorists writing in German and French after the beginning of the nineteenth century are given less coverage.

    A history of theories of body expression might make a contribution to the history of psychology for several reasons. Presently, psychologists doing research on non-verbal communication do not have access to a good presentation of the broad historical roots of their subject. In English they have available a few works which discuss research on expressive movement going no further back than Darwin. Therefore, few conduct their research with a good knowledge of the ascendance of theories of expressive movement over those of body form. Few have a sympathetic understanding of physiognomical theories, and most know only of the constitutional psychology constructed by Sheldon a few decades ago. This dissertation gently challenges those who study aspects of the communicative meaning of the body to consider their own research within the context of a broad concept of body expression

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