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Illustration from The Physiognomist's Own Book , 1841; Original caption: “Similarity between humans and monkeys. - Aristotle refused very small eyes. Galen says that very small eyes are a sure sign of despondency. […] Anyone with a flat nose, said Aristotle to Alexander, is lascivious. A short and flat nose, says Polemon , suggests a tendency to steal. […] According to Aristotle, small ears are common in people who, like monkeys, are naturally sluggish and addicted to theft. [...] Adamantius assures that they are the cunning and malicious man's own. […] Adamantius assures that a small face marks the clever and flattering man. [...] "

As physiognomy (from . Give a wiki φύσις physique , 'nature', 'shape', and γνώμη gnome , knowledge ') refers to the attempts of the physiological exterior of the body , especially the face , the soul qualities of a human being - that particular whose character traits and / or temperament  - close.

Having since antiquity circulated as a secret knowledge and the Age of Enlightenment to a popular science came bloom, it was in the 19th and 20th centuries as a scientific foundation for racism and eugenics used.

Traditionally, physiognomy is often distinguished from

A special form of physiognomy is the palmistry .



From antiquity , sources on physiognomy have been preserved from Aristotle , Cicero , Quintilian , Pliny , Seneca and Galenus . They may have come from popular knowledge or they may have been part of a priestly secret knowledge that was reserved for mantics .

The probably oldest representation of physiognomic knowledge can be found in the writings of Aristotle . According to Max Schneidewin and Valentin Rose , however, it is likely that only small parts of it came from Aristotle himself and that ancient scholars compiled the text from at least three different sources ( pseudepigraphy ). Nevertheless, the text offers information about the type of knowledge that was considered worth preserving under the heading of physiognomics in antiquity and has been received time and again by physiognomics theorists over the centuries.

The pseudo-Aristotelian text contains two case reports : On the one hand, different "characters" should be recognizable by the typical properties of body color, hair, posture or movement. For example, in a "coward [...] the hair growth is soft, the body crouched, not hasty, the calves pulled back; somewhat pale in the face; the eyes weak and blinking and the extremities weak and the thighs small and the hands thin and long ”etc. The remainder of the text is a paratactic list, which assigns a physical characteristic to a mental property in almost tabular form. There is no fundamental distinction between physiological and pathological (affective) body signs. A purple face, for example, suggests modesty; black eyes are a sign of cowardice, etc. There is also the possibility of inferences by analogy. For example, hair on the head that curls at the tip like a lion indicates special courage - the quality of the lion. Animals and humans are treated mixed in the pseudo-Aristotelian physiognomics.

Aristotle can be ascribed the methodological part of "Physiognomonic" (as he is called) with greater certainty . The scientific ability of physiognomonic is given as long as it follows the " method ". This means that conclusions should not be drawn on the basis of individual cases and superficial similarities, but many cases would have to be collected and compared in order to obtain general physiognomic rules. (This view is in accord with the Aristotelian organon of the sciences.) The “ ontological prerequisite” for its correctness, as the text further analyzes, is the mutual dependence of body and soul. Changes in the body also cause mental changes and vice versa, so they would be in an isomorphic correspondence relationship.

Middle Ages and Renaissance

Physiognomics belonged to the occult arts in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance for centuries along with alchemy . Giambattista della Porta included them in the spectrum of the Magia Naturalis ( De Humana Physiognomia , 1586). Porta's work is based on an anonymous text Physiognomika from the 2nd century AD , which already contained a system of physiognomic findings. Physiognomic considerations can also be found in the writings of Albertus Magnus , Agrippa von Nettesheim , Girolamo Savonarola , Alexander Achillini , Tommaso Campanella , and Rudolf Goclenius .

The physiognomics of the Renaissance must be seen in the context of the humoral pathology , which was the authoritative medical dogma since Galen (2nd century AD). According to galenic medicine, the human temperament was dependent on the ratio of the four juices (blood, yellow bile, black bile, phlegm) and the qualities of the four elements (warm, cold, moist, dry). The character also had its counterpart in different body types. Accordingly, the temperament should be recognizable from the body type. Albrecht Dürer even developed an elaborate theory of proportions in order to be able to adequately represent the different body types of the temperament theory in art.

Giambattista della Porta, for example, was convinced - based on Aristotle - that the whole world was a network of secret analogies : forms of the plant kingdom, animal kingdom and human body that are similar suggest related properties. A person whose face resembles a sheep therefore also has the mind of a sheep, etc.

Another system was metoposcopy, the art of reading from the lines of the forehead. According to the Metoposcopia (1658) of the Italian scholar Hieronymus Cardanus , certain forehead wrinkles corresponded to the planets (sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn), which in turn have an influence on temperament and fate. Certain forms of forehead wrinkles could also be important. Alternatively, he developed a system of birthmarks that corresponded to certain signs of the zodiac depending on their placement on the face .

These occult arts are related to the contemporary notion of a kind of secret writing of nature, which should emerge like a divine cryptogram in all forms of plants, animals and humans. Prominent advocates of this view were u. a. Paracelsus and Jakob Böhme . With certain reading skills such as chiromancy (hand), metoposcopy (forehead), geomancy (ground), hydromantic (water), pyromancy (fire) and physiognomy (facial reading ), this thousand-letter alphabet of God (Lavater) should be able to be deciphered. Paracelsus calls these signs "signatures" ( doctrine of signatures ), because the inconceivable influence of the stars should materialize in them in the form of writing. Systems of this type come in numerous designs and degrees of complexity.

However, there were also doubters, such as Leonardo da Vinci . For him, physiognomics could only take on descriptive tasks; For him, conclusions about the soul were only possible through pathognomics, which deals with expressions of feeling.

18th century

The Age of Enlightenment was increasingly skeptical of the secret knowledge of hermetics and the humoral pathology of Galen. Nevertheless, the Swiss pastor Johann Caspar Lavater achieved a great book success with his four-volume Physiognomic Fragments (1775–1778). Lavater did not get involved in methodical discussions, as demanded by his fiercest opponent, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg , but instead merged the emotional empathy of sensitivity , Protestant revelation rhetoric with the contemporary search for a universal language of nature. Lavater created a huge archive of images, including silhouettes of famous people, portrait drawings of nobles, citizens and common people, writers and criminals, even animals. In a religiously ecstatic style , he describes the individual physiognomies , which he himself understood as "letters of the divine alphabet":

“I do not promise (because to promise such a thing would be folly and nonsense) to deliver the thousand-letter alphabet for the removal of the involuntary natural language in the face, and the whole external of man, or even just the beauties and perfections of the human face; but to mark out some letters of this divine alphabet so legibly that every healthy eye will find them and can recognize where they appear again. "

- JC Lavater : Physiognomic fragments for the promotion of human knowledge and human love , Reclam: Stuttgart 1984, p. 10)

The terms “natural language” and the “divine alphabet” corresponded to the widespread belief that nature and the world must be just as legible as the “artificial signs” in books and pictures; nature must be organized symbolically and this natural language is in turn more universal than any human language. This theory was controversial; However, it was very well received in the aesthetic of genius and in Sturm und Drang .

Lavater's physiognomy was so successful that it became fashionable to draw silhouettes of the guests in company and to interpret them. Portraits of famous people and close friends were collected because it was believed that they could read out the excellent character traits of the people.

A prominent representative of physiognomics was Alexander von Humboldt , who extended the term to the plant world and made it acceptable for a long time. But he also shaped the discussion on humans through word creations:

“I have already noticed earlier that it is primarily the formation of the spirit that makes human faces different from one another. Barbaric nations have a tribe or horde physiognomy rather than one that would belong to this or that individual. "

- Alexander v. Humboldt : Journey to the equinoctial regions of the new continent. Volume 2. Cotta: Stuttgart 1859, p. 16

Lavater's physiognomy also earned criticism and ridicule from contemporaries. The Göttingen scholar Georg Christoph Lichtenberg wrote several polemics and satires against the "physiognomic frenzy". The alternative theory of pathognomics was represented by both Lichtenberg and Goethe after he had distanced himself from Lavater . Goethe, initially a contributor to Lavater's physiognomics, later distanced himself from Lavater and turned to pathognomics. The soul of a person, according to Goethe, can perhaps be read from his appearance, but only if traces of illness or fate have left traces on his body. Rather, clothing, home furnishings, habitus etc. should be included in the observations. Pathognomics does not start from the unchangeable properties of the bone structure, but from the traces that emotions , lifestyle and social status leave on the body.

19th century

Typical illustration in a book on facial expressions in the 18th century (left: “Eusserste Desperation”, right: “Anger mixed with fear”). In contrast to phrenological and biometric approaches, it is not the skull shape but the facial muscles that carry the meaning.

The Phrenology , emerged from the theory of localization of the German physician Franz Joseph Gall , was soon able to undertake the "successor" Lavater. Gall divided the human brain into different areas. Each of these areas should then, by exerting pressure from the inside, lead to a bulge or dent on the outer skull and thus indicate a deficiency or excess of a certain mental quality. Gall was so well known that he got access to the European aristocratic courts and to the skulls of famous people, such as that of the philosopher Immanuel Kant . Though phrenology was quickly considered "unscientific," Gall's theories had considerable success in the 19th century.

The triumphant advance of statistics , however, made biometrics (measurement of quantitative characteristics of living beings) the successful heir to the throne of physiognomics. In contrast to physiognomics, the racist biometrics or anthropometrics of the 19th century did not try to find evidence of the soul on the outside of the body, but wanted to gain objective information about the connection between body shape and intellectual ability from quantitatively collected measurement data.

The Dutch doctor Petrus Camper is considered to be the founder of biometrics. He saw animal and human skulls and measured longitudinal sections as early as the 18th century. Camper measured the angle between a horizontal line, which should run from the bridge of the nose to the opening of the ear, and the "line of face" from the tip of the nose to the apex of the forehead. From comparative studies he believed he could conclude that this angle could be used to read off the level of development and the objective beauty of the human being. The results corresponded to the racist expectations: it measured 58 degrees for orangutans , 70 for “black people”, 80 for “Europeans” and even 100 degrees for ancient statues . With the increasing popularity of racial theories , biometrics increasingly managed to develop political effects. In Italy, the doctor Cesare Lombroso developed in his book L'uomo delinquente (1876, German: Der Verbrecher ) a craniology by means of which potential criminals should be recognized in advance. An objective type of criminal was to be determined through systematic photographs and measurements of the body dimensions of prisoners. Paroscientific theorems of this kind persisted for a long time and flourished again, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, until they were increasingly replaced by genetics ( hereditary theory , eugenics / racial hygiene) as the racist lead discipline under National Socialism .

The second successful approach, which has continued to the present day, came from the new disciplines of psychology and behavioral biology . Philosophers and researchers such as Carl Gustav Carus , Charles Bell , Charles Darwin ( The Expression of Emotional Movements in Humans and Animals , 1872) and Theodor Piderit tried to place physiognomics in the context of expression research or the anatomy of the facial muscles . On the pathognomics of the 17./18. Building on the 19th century, a systematic research into facial expressions was undertaken . Biometric and phrenological approaches were rejected here or viewed as secondary. The facial muscles, which can be deformed by expression, were seen as the primary bearer of meaning. The facial signs, in the 18th century still often understood as a universal constant superior to language, was now increasingly classified as an ethnic, sometimes also trans-ethnic variable and understood as a link between animal and human behavior.

20th century

Front view of a book by Amandus Kupfer, photo: R. Schleevoigt

Under the keyword “ knowledge of human nature ”, physiognomics - or rather: physiognomics - experienced new popularity in the 1920s and 1930s. Together with the graphology that the philosopher Ludwig Klages had developed, compilations of old and new writings on physiognomics became bestsellers in popular science. It also became an important catchphrase in the theory of film, for example with Rudolf Arnheim . One suspected here on the one hand the possibility of a universal, wordless artistic means of expression ( expressive dance , pantomime , silent film ), on the other hand a complexity-reducing navigation possibility in the big city "mass", in which traditional social orientation possibilities seemed to fail. This flourishing of physiognomy was only partially driven by racist motives.

The historian Oswald Spengler also uses the term physiognomics in his Philosophy of History ( The Decline of the Occident ). What was meant by this was the morphology of history, i.e. the history of cultural forms that are born, develop and die like organisms . By comparing the history of cultures with the body of living things, he was able to speak of the historian's activity as a kind of physiognomy.

The essayistic physiognomics of the cultural philosopher Rudolf Kassner was different . Kassner tried in his writings a physiognomic interpretation of the "living and gestalt", both of nature and of humans. He understood physiognomic interpretation in strict contrast to the analytical dissection of the world. It must happen through "imagination" and comprehensive empathy for the subject. The “modern man” has a “torn” and “gaping” face; The various "types" that corresponded to the earlier class order are lost . The modern type of man is said to be the “actor”, while the old man was one with the world and therefore still had a “face”. Kassner's physiognomy therefore bears the traits of a cultural criticism of modernity from a conservative point of view.

In the National Socialist “racial hygiene” , Lombroso's racist hypotheses served as a pseudo-scientific underpinning of the eugenics program. Arbitrary rankings of skull shapes should represent the differences in value between "higher developed" and "lower" races as scientific facts. Jews and " life unworthy of life " should be recognized by the shape of the face and skull. However, the rapid development of genetics , which became the leading science, made a major contribution to racial hygiene ; leading National Socialist researchers hardly relied on classical physiognomic and phrenological theories, but mixed with approaches to graphology and phrenology, these classical physiognomic theories were also used to "prove" these racist delusions with obvious evidence .

One of the more recent studies on the subject is About face. German physiognomic thought from Lavater to Auschwitz. Here, the American German scholar Richard T. Gray shows that, for example, the alleged evidence of racial inferiority in people of the Jewish faith and in black people based on physiognomic characteristics can already be found in the writings of Johann Kaspar Lavater and Carl Gustav Carus.


Even today there are still attempts to establish statistical relationships between physiological features and character traits. Examples are the psycho-physiognomics founded by Carl Huter and the so-called pathophysiognomics .

In some cases, physiognomic methods are also used in personnel consulting. Werner Sarges said: "Unfortunately, the search for a secret system with which one can immediately recognize a person's character cannot be eradicated".

Even today, private and state actors are trying to categorize people on the basis of physiognomic characteristics - modern analysis methods such as computer-controlled facial recognition are used in particular. For example, a controversial study from 2017 states that analysis software can determine homosexuality in people, among other things, on typical facial features - in other words, on a criterion that "is not based on self-chosen styles, peer group-specific conventions or self-chosen means of expression. If it is true that computers can detect homosexuality based on facial proportions, that would mean that it is literally 'physical' - possibly down to the genetic level or developmental influences in pregnancy. There have been indications of this for a long time, conclusive evidence is pending. "

Although the corresponding dangers are discussed openly in public, physiognomics is again gaining greater economic and political importance thanks to the new technical possibilities of automated or computer-based body and behavior analysis. Frank Patalong, for example, states: “Can you read a person's basic sexual orientation on their forehead? According to Shai Gilboa, the head of the Israeli company Faception, it is like this: "Our personality is determined by our DNA and is reflected in our faces." His company markets software to do just that: identify potential violent criminals, divorce extroverts from introverts, find pedophiles. Or whoever. The software can be bought, it aims to prevent terrorism, which today justifies just about everything, but it is also 'versatile', as they say. "

Recent essay writing

Quite apart from the statistical and technically oriented type theories, there is also a cultural-scientific, essayistic physiognomics. Outstanding examples are Peter von Matt with his book Punkt, Punkt, Komma, Strich and Claudia Schmölders , who was inspired by him and who published several books on the subject.

Individual evidence

  1. Werner E. Gerabek : Physiognomics. In: Werner E. Gerabek, Bernhard D. Haage, Gundolf Keil , Wolfgang Wegner (eds.): Enzyklopädie Medizingeschichte. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin and New York 2005, ISBN 3-11-015714-4 , p. 1157 f .; here: p. 1157.
  2. Bärbel Schwertfeger: Personnel selection by facial analysis: telltale bump on the head. on: Spiegel Online. November 6, 2006.
  3. Yilun Wang, Michal Kosinski: Deep neural networks are more accurate than humans at detecting sexual orientation from facial images. September 7, 2017, accessed August 5, 2018 .
  4. a b Frank Patalong: Show me a photo and I'll tell you if you're gay. In: Spiegel Online. September 10, 2017, accessed August 6, 2018 .


  • Peter Gerlach: Bibliography of texts on physiognomics. 400 BC Chr. - 1999 (sources and literature) [1]

Historical sources

  • Aristotle: Physiognomics. In: Smaller Treatises on the Soul. 6. u. 7th chapter, trans. by FA Kreuz, 1847.
  • Aristotle: The Aristotelian Physiognomics: Conclusions from the physical to the soul. trans. u. a. by M. Schneidewin. Heidelberg: Kampmann 1929.
  • Petrus Camper: About the natural difference in facial features . Berlin 1792.
  • Giovanni Battista della Porta: De humana physiognom [on] ia. Book IV, 1601.
  • Johann Caspar Lavater: From Physiognomics. 1772. ( Project Gutenberg-DE )
  • Johann Caspar Lavater: Physiognomic fragments. 1775-1778
  • Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: About Physiognomics - Against the Physiognomen. 1778.
  • Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Fragment of tails. ( Gutenberg-DE project )
  • Charles Bell: Essays on the Anatomy of Expression. 1806.
  • Arthur Schopenhauer : On physiognomics. In: Parerga and Paralipomena. 1851.
  • Carl Gustav Carus: Symbolism of the human figure. 1858.
  • Theodor Piderit: Facial expressions and physiognomics. 2nd Edition. Meyer, Detmold 1886.
  • Cesare Lombroso: L'Uomo delinquente. 1876.
  • Carl Huter: Knowledge of human nature: through body, life, soul and face expression on a new scientific basis . Detmold 1904-1906.
  • Rudolf Kassner: The Basics of Physiognomics. Insel-Verlag, Leipzig 1922.
  • Rudolf Kassner: The physiognomic worldview. Delphin, Munich 1930.
  • Hans Kurella : Natural history of the criminal. Stuttgart 1893, here: pp. 180–192 ( Physiognomy and the typical appearance of the criminal )
  • Rudolf Arnheim: Film as Art. Rowohlt, Berlin 1932.
  • Norbert Glas: The face reveals people. Spiritual Physiognomics, Volume I. 1936.

Research literature

  • Karl Pestalozzi, Horst Weigelt (ed.): The face of God in the face of man: access to Johann Caspar Lavater . Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1994, ISBN 3-525-55815-5 .
  • Rüdiger Campe , Manfred Schneider (Ed.): Stories of Physiognomics. Text - image - knowledge . Rombach, Freiburg im Breisgau 1996, ISBN 3-7930-9117-1 .
  • Claudia Schmölders (Ed.): The eccentric view. Conversation about physiognomics. Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 1996, ISBN 3-05-002685-5 .
  • Gerda Mraz, Uwe Schögl (Ed.): The art cabinet of Johann Caspar Lavater . Böhlau, Vienna / Cologne / Weimar 1999, ISBN 3-205-99126-5 .
  • Claudia Schmölders: Hitler's face. A physiognomic biography. Beck, Munich 2000, ISBN 3-406-46611-7 .
  • Claudia Schmölders, Sander Gilman (ed.): Faces of the Weimar Republic. A physiognomic cultural history. DuMont, Cologne 2000, ISBN 3-7701-5091-0 .
  • Werner E. Gerabek : Physiognomics and phrenology - forms of popular medical anthropology in the 18th century. In: Dominik Groß and Monika Reininger (eds.): Medicine in history, philology and ethnology: Festschrift for Gundolf Keil. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2003, pp. 35–49.
  • Richard T. Gray: About face. German physiognomic thought from Lavater to Auschwitz . Wayne State University Press, Detroit 2004, ISBN 0-8143-3179-3 .
  • Wolfgang Zysk: Body Language - A New View . Dissertation. University of Duisburg-Essen, 2004, OCLC 76600482 .
  • AG Gender-Killer (Ed.): Anti-Semitism and Gender. About “effeminate Jews”, “masculinized Jews” and other gender images . Unrast-Verlag, Münster 2005, ISBN 3-89771-439-6 .
  • Claudia Schmölders : The prejudice in the body. An introduction to physiognomics. 3. Edition. Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 2007, ISBN 978-3-05-002722-7 .
  • Ulrich van Loyen, Michael Neumann (ed.): Facial fashions. (= Tumult. 31). Alpheus, Berlin 2008, ISBN 978-3-9811214-0-7 .
  • Uwe P. Kanning : From skull interpreters and other charlatans: dubious methods of psychodiagnostics. Lengerich, 2009, ISBN 978-3-89967-603-7 .
  • Hans Belting : Faces. A story of the face. CH Beck, Munich 2013, ISBN 978-3-406-64430-6 .
  • Bärbel Schwertfeger : The comeback of a pseudo-teaching. In: Skeptiker 4/2017 pp. 176–179, Roßdorf 2017.
  • Roland Meyer: Operative Portraits. A pictorial history of identifiability from Lavater to Facebook , Konstanz 2019, ISBN 978-3-8353-9113-0 .

Web links

Commons : Physiognomics  - collection of images, videos and audio files