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Physiognomy is the interpretation of outward  appearance, especially the features of the face, to discover a person's predominant temper and character.

Physiognomy has also been used as a kind of divination and is often associated with astrology. The faces depicted to the right are from Barthélemy Coclès Physiognomonia (1533) and show eyelashes of men who are proud, vainglorious, and audacious.

Coclès, like others before and after him, tried to create a science out of something each of us does from time to time: judge a person by his or her facial characteristics. from M.O. Stanton, The Encyclopedia of Face and Form Reading, 1920Physiognomists like Coclès are wont to say things such as "people with snub noses are vain, untruthful, unstable, unfaithful and seducers." The snub-nosed of the world tend to snub their noses at such pseudoscientific drivel.

Three hundred years later, M. O. Stanton would write of the pug type nose:

the interpretation of character is in consonance with the peculiarities of the form [of the nose], whether it be rounded, blunt, pug or a sharpened narrow pug. In regard to its meanings, it indicates lowness, coarseness, or commonplace mentality. If it be relatively sharp, the character is more acute and the subject quicker in his perceptions than where a blunt pug is exhibited, yet all of this class of noses have the same general meaning in absence of reasoning power, pugnacity, irritability, quarrelsomeness, and opposition. (The Encyclopedia of Face and Form Reading, 6th revised ed., 1920)

Stanton’s musings are clearly based on sympathetic magic.

"acquisitive eyes" from M.O. Stanton, The Encyclopedia of Face and Form Reading, 1920

In the 18th and 19th centuries, physiognomy was used by some of its proponents as a method of detecting criminal tendencies. Many bigots and racists still use physiognomy to judge character and personality. This is not to say that there are not certain physiognomic features associated with certain genetic disorders such as Down syndrome or Williams Syndrome.

See also magical thinking, metoposcopy, personology, phrenology, and rumpology.

further reading

Ekman Paul & Erika L. Rosenberg, eds. 1997. What The Face Reveals : Basic and Applied Studies of Spontaneous Expression Using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). Oxford University Press.

Last updated 01-Dec-2013

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