Tuesday, 17 March 2015


How materialism clings with almost rapacious tenacity to our very nature in the present enlightened age, often under the cloak of science and the advancement of popular knowledge! Every silly opinion that catches the vulgar mind, from the multitudinous phases of German pantheism to the absurdities of table-turning, gets its votaries and admirers. By those who doat on phrenology in its attractive semblances of truth, or who are bumptious enough to believe in its reality as a science, from Gall and Spurzheim down to George Combe and his followers, man, to say the most of it, is treated in his nature merely as if he were considered as the highest development of the animal creation — simply as possessing a higher and fuller organization of brain than other living creatures of God's earth. The illustrations of this new science, as it is called, brought before the public notice in all apparent truthfulness, and plausible explanations of its principles, is just the thing suited to captivate the illiterate multitude, to whom this wonderful discovery is so complete a novelty. So is it with every new opinion that is started, and which bears on its front the bright colours of attraction, to suit the vanity, the feelings, or the misguided religious principles of men. "Hence we see," says a modern philosopher and an able critic, refuting the absurdities of George Combe and his Phrenology, "why a new and quack science is so popular. People soon get sick of subjects they cannot use for small talk, and on which they know their opinions are worthless. A new system arises, of which nothing is known ; about which any spoony may be as wise as the wisest, and every sciolist may chatter : it is the harvest field of humbug, the arsenal of ignorance ; so it becomes at once the talk of the nation. In our own days we have seen the rise of such new sciences. Take, for example, in medicine Morrison's hygeian system in metaphysics, positivism ; and in morals, phrenology.
 What makes phrenology so popular, but because there is free exercise allowed to man, by science, for his judgment upon his fellow-man ? Who can not trump the quackery in every crowd, if he will but take the trouble to examine into the lives of men whose skulls may happen to lie at hand, and exemplify their misdeeds and their vices by appealing to their bumps ? What wonder is it that thousands of people are gulled, when the science of phrenology, as it is told them, will reign supreme, and that the development of the future man is to depend on the bumps that undulate his skull? The simple inspection of bumps is to determine the future statesman, the science of politics — is to regulate the whole system of religion, education, and morality. In fact, it is to be the real key by which we are to learn how to put in practice tho precepts of the Gospel, how to acquire virtue, practice charity, and regulate our intercourse with our fellow-mortals ; and all by the delicious rule of private judgment which phrenology affords. Its blinded votaries, alas ! do not consider for a moment how it materializes what ought to be spiritual, and how it reduces to sight and the perception of the external senses what ought to be only the objects of thought. We do not see how we can arrive at the knowledge, as phrenologists would have it, of human nature, by gauging the skull and brain. We can look upon phrenology as assuming the brain to be the organ of the thinking soul, whose different faculties act through, and use as instruments, the different cerebral convolutions. Every one who believes in the existence of a soul believes that it is one and the same soul that thinks, perceives, and feels, and that these feelings and perceptions are as intimately a part thereof as thought itself. These feelings and perceptions of the soul act through certain media or organs ; why therefore may not thought do the same ? The soul acts through the brain ; the brain being matter, consists of parts ; why then may not each part of this organ be appropriated to a different act or faculty of the soul ?
 Admitting that this is the assumption of the phrenologist, he has yet to determine the peculiar localization and division of thought — that tho brain is a necessary appendage to a thinking being. We see organs in some of the animal creation which serve the purpose of brain, and yet the same manifestations are made by the former as by the latter. Could not then the soul of man think without organs, or at least with organs of a totally different composition from that of the brain ?
 In its practical application to individual cases the difficulties of phrenology are yet more insurmountable. Who can tell whether the bumps of the skull correspond to the rises and falls of the surface of the brain ? who knows whether these rises and falls are always sure indications of the volume of the brain beneath ? who can decide what allowance is to be made in each case for "temperament," for coarse or fine fibre, for high or low organisation ?
 Yet phrenology is "the most complete and correct exposition of the nature of man yet given." Then what are its peculiar virtues ? First, it alters the field of observation : instead of examining the faculties of the mind, as expressed in actions, thoughts, and words, it dissects the organs of the brain, through which it assumes these manifestations to be made. Not that it goes so far as to affirm that mere examination of the brain can reveal its use. " No person by dissecting the optic nerve could predicate that its office is to minister to vision," nor deduce the laws of vision, and still less find out what the man had seen, from the appearance of tho fibre ; any more than by examining a brick he could tell whether it had been made by a man or a boy, whether it had arrived by water or by rail, and whether the cart which conveyed it was drawn by a horse or a mule. The phrenologist must therefore either take the old " exposition of human nature" ready made from the metaphysicians — and then what becomes of his new discoveries in that line ? — or else he must put away phrenology for the time, turn metaphysician, observe his own consciousness and the laws of his reason, and thus, without phrenology, concoct a new "exposition of human nature" on the old metaphysical principles. But, objects Mr. Combe, this will not teach us phrenology; "by reflecting on consciousness, which the metaphysicians chiefly did as their means of studying the mind, we can discover nothing concerning the organs by which the faculties act, and run great risk of forming erroneous views of human nature by supposing mankind in general constituted like ourselves." But does not the phrenologist run the same risk ? does he not put forth a model head, with all the divisions marked ? and does he not assume that every man approaches more or less to that standard, has at least the germs of every organ, and a high development of several of them? The "metaphysician" runs no other risk ; he never supposes that all men are equally endowed by nature; but he supposes that each man, qua man, has a certain complexus of faculties, all of them existing at least in their rudiments, some highly developed ; the difference between him and the phrenologist is in their respective methods of estimating this development. The old-fashioned philosopher judged of a man's capacity by his works, of what he is by what he does, of what he can do by what he has done ; the phrenologist pure puts all such considerations aside, and determines a man's whole value by an inspection of his bumps.
 Man is composed of a body and soul. Phrenology establishes a sort of link between them. It does not advance our knowledge of what human nature is, but tells us only how it acts, just as the examination of the optic nerve is no revelation of what the sense of vision is, but only of the organs through which it acts. Its mode of action remains undetermined.
 The same writer continues :—
 Phrenology, then, is only the science of the organs of the brain, the uses of which are not discovered by phrenology, but by a previous meta physical analysis. But if so, what did Mr. Combe mean by asserting that his science showed "the subordination of the animal propensities to the moral and intellectual faculties?" or that all the faculties of man are in themselves mere instincts, mere emanations of the organism ; the moral sentiments and intellect being only superior secretions, as bile might be superior to mucous ? that will or volition is nothing in itself, but only a result of the action of several of these instincts in combination, the choice necessarily following the preponderating pleasure? that the higher instincts seek the welfare of others as their aim, and desire purely and disinterestedly the happiness of their objects? We should have liked to see Mr. Combe behind his lecturing table, with a brain before him and a scalpel in his hand ; and to hear him demonstrate from the size of the convolutions, the direction of the fibres, the colour of the material, or any other sensible quality of the brain, any one, or any fragment of any one, of the above propositions. To any man acquainted with the forms of logic the attempt is as evidently futile as that of a poor crazy antiquary named Pococke, who a few years ago professed to prove that the centaurs were real beings, "not by any rationalising process, but by the very unpoetic evidences of latitude and longitude." It is just as rational to divine the future by pitch and toss, as to determine whether benevolence is purely disinterested, or is only a more refined selfishness, by tracing the course of a nerve or comparing the bulk of a couple of bumps. Mr. Combe came to phrenology with a mind already imbued with the then current Scotch psychology, and soon became unable to separate what he owed to the one from what was due to the other. He had already learned to cut up the mind into a number of faculties, before phrenology taught him to cut up the brain into a similar number of organs. Dugald Stewart had taught him to omit will from the list, before he thought of proving its non-existence by his having failed to establish a bump of will. Calvinism had taught him that our faculties are mere instincts, and that we had no self-determining and controlling power over them, before he drew the same conclusion from their acting through organs which are necessarily put in motion by external impulses. He had learned from the civilisation in which he was nurtured that the passions are subordinate to the intellect and the moral faculties, before he boldly ventured on proving the same proposition by the fact that the organs of passion occupy more space in the skull, and are heavier and larger than the organs of intellect and the moral faculties united. So, when he said that "phrenology shows the relations  and uses of the faculties of mind," he did not mean phrenology, but that compound of metaphysics, psychology, Calvinistic tradition, and civilised opinion, with which his head was furnished before he applied himself to his favourite study.
 We cannot consider phrenology as aught else than the philosopher's stone of the materialist. It is a science unestablished, undetermined, and one that has exhausted its popularity in England and on the continent. Its professor has still the freest scope for opinion, though beyond the limit of the corporal organs of the brain he cannot enter ; he cannot by phrenology investigate the modes of consciousness, nor arrive at a know ledge of the soul's anatomy. There are certain fundamental truths which form the basis of the science, but which are no more novel to us in the nineteenth century than they were in the time of Æschylus. It only helps us to form an estimate of people's characters, or of those of our sheep, dogs, and horses, when safer and surer grounds are wanting. It is a mischievous quackery to suppose that it ought to enter into the business of education, or the vocation of children to the varied walks of life, for of all sciences, if it is deserving of such a title, it is decidedly the most fallible, and often most unjust in its results.

Freeman's Journal 30 April 1859

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