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Physiognomy Navigator

The Nature of Physiognomy

The term "physiognomy" refers to features of the face, especially so skull - basis of physiognomy when, in the narrow sense, these features are used to infer the relatively enduring character or temperament of an individual. On this site, physiognomy connotes a broader meaning, i.e., it refers to relatively unchanging facial features that might convey messages about any inner or hidden aspect of the person. Most of these facial features have as their basis the bony structure of the skull, on which the soft tissues lie. These features include the shapes and positions of major areas and landmarks of the face, such as the forehead, eyebrows, nose, cheeks, and mouth. The important facial features can be fairly accurately reconstructed by experts from the skull alone. A diagram of the human cranium shows the major features of the skull, from which much of the visible appearances of the face can be extrapolated. Other physiognomic features are not directly linked to the bony skull, such as skin texture and coloration, hair placement and texture, and detailed shapes of fleshy features. All of these features change slowly and relatively little over time, and they are the sign vehicles for physiognomic messages. Proposing an association between these facial features and other aspects of the person, including personality, character, outcomes of medical treatment, romantic compatibility,or the destiny of the person, is a physiognomic approach. The validity of the association or inference based on physiognomy is a separate issue that can be established or discredited by empirical evidence. Accurately face reading these signs depends upon knowing which relations are valid and which are spurious.

Types of Messages

What might such physiognomic messages be about? Well, logically, as the signs of physiognomy change little or slowly, they can only be about characteristics that are relatively enduring and that change little or not at all. Such messages might include a person's genetic background (e.g., race, ethnicity, and family membership), genetic diseases (e.g., Down's syndrome), and more fuzzy concepts such as personality, character, and temperament. These facial features are unlikely to convey messages about characteristics that change rapidly or often, such as a transient emotions, because they cannot capture such rapid changes in their time scale of change. However, the possibility remains that repeated transient experiences, such as an often elicited emotion, might cumulate an effect on such slowly changing features. Also, observers often confuse some of these permanent signs with transient signs that actually do convey information about rapidly changing characteristics.

Topics related to physiognomy have a very long history in human cultures. In China and other Asian cultures, formal Chinese use face readingsystems of face reading techniques developed sometime in the first millennia b.c.e., integrated with religious beliefs such as Confucianism. Substantial confidence in such methods developed in these cultures, and physiognomic inferences included descriptions of character, suitability for certain positions, and predictions about life and death. In Western cultures, the association of facial features with a person's characteristics also has a history, first noted in the writings of the ancient Greeks. Much later, several pseudo-scientific and cultish movements exploited the inference of character from physiognomic features. The physiognomy movement proper (which cultivated the narrow connotation for this term) was Phrenology, popularized by the 18th century Swiss philosopher Lavater. Some other applications of physiognomy are discussed further on the Physiognomy Applications page.

The face, despite recent advances in assessing identity such as biometrics and DNA testing, remains paramount in ordinary experience for identifying a individual person. The relatively permanent features of the face convey most of the information about George Washington's facial features identity, although styles in the production of more transient signals and other body shapes and sizes may also contribute to identity information. The signs of identity can be preserved in representations as schematic as the monochromatic drawing at the right, which Americans can easily identify as George Washington. Such permanent features of the face also convey information about the genetic background of the individual, including ancestry and ethnicity.

Tools for Studying Physiognomy

Visage is a project that attempts to represent the features that are used to describe the face and the characteristics that are associated with such facial features. A relational database stores the feature names, the characteristics, and the relations among them. You can get an idea of what this database contains from the Visage applet. It shows illustrations of a limited set of facial features that you can use to describe a face, then retrieves some of the descriptions that have been associated with these features.

Images copyright © Corel Corp. - do not copy.

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