Head Masters: Phrenology, Secular Education, and Nineteenth-Century Social Thought

Head Masters: Phrenology, Secular Education, and Nineteenth-Century Social Thought

by Stephen Tomlinson

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Head Masters challenges the assumption that phrenology - the study of the conformation of the skull as it relates to mental faculties and character - played only a minor and somewhat anecdotal role in the development of education. Stephen Tomlinson asserts instead that phrenology was a scientifically respectable theory of human nature, perhaps the first solid…  See more details below


Head Masters challenges the assumption that phrenology - the study of the conformation of the skull as it relates to mental faculties and character - played only a minor and somewhat anecdotal role in the development of education. Stephen Tomlinson asserts instead that phrenology was a scientifically respectable theory of human nature, perhaps the first solid physiological psychology. He shows that the first phrenologists were among the most prominent scientists and intellectuals of their day, and that the concept was eagerly embraced by leading members of the New England medical community.

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“Stephen Tomlinson’s fascinating and very well-written study focuses on the evolution of phrenological ideas among leading thinkers and reformers in Europe and the United States and explores the impact of these ideas on a number of specific reforms, including public schooling and the care of the disabled. The author’s overarching argument is that while phrenology promised social progress—and helped propel a number of influential reforms—the doctrine also led in certain unhappy directions, such as racist theory and eugenics.”— Steven Mintz, author of Moralists and Modernizers: America’s Pre-Civil War Reformers

“This aptly titled book tackles an important subject: the influence of phrenology on educational and other social ideas in the nineteenth century. . . . Tomlinson’s thesis is that phrenology had a far greater impact of the development on the thinking and policies of nineteenth-century reformers than historians have recognized.”—Journal of Southern History

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University of Alabama Press
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1st Edition
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6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

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Head Masters

Phrenology, Secular Education, and Nineteenth-Century Social Thought

By Stephen Tomlinson

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2005 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8732-7


"The Science of Man"

The memoirs published at the beginning of this century by Cabanis on the connection between the physical and moral nature, are the first great and direct effort to bring within the domain of positive philosophy this study previously abandoned entirely to the theological and metaphysical methods. The impulse imparted to the human mind by these memorable investigations has not fallen off. The labours of Dr. Gall and his school have singularly strengthened it, and, especially, have impressed on this new and final portion of physiology a high degree of precision by supplying a definite base of discussion and investigation. Auguste Comte, System of Positive Polity, 1875

Postrevolutionary France, Frank Manuel claims, was the site of "one of the crucial developments in modern intellectual history ... the reversal from the eighteenth century view of man as more or less equal ... to the early nineteenth century emphasis upon human uniqueness, diversity, and dissimilarity" that culminated "in theories of inequality and organicism." This transformation, from the egalitarian sensationalism and laissez-faire liberalism of the philosophes to the more interventionist social behaviorism of the positive sociologists Claude Henri Saint-Simon and August Comte, comprised at least three distinct assumptions: Metaphysical speculation had to be replaced by an anthropological "science of man" that explained the mind through the vital property of sensibility; the population was divisible into distinct physiological types according to factors such as sex, age, temperament, and inherited capacities; and medical and pedagogic practices could be devised to perfect more rational, moral, and industrious citizens. Like the differentiation and integration of parts with a living organism, this vision of human nature and the social good suggested that a well-ordered state had to utilize biological difference and coordinate a sense of solidarity. Equality and freedom were no longer seen as conditions for society, but as ideals toward which the individual and the social organization must progress. Although Manuel does not mention the work of Gall or Spurzheim, Comte's own phrenologically grounded writings clearly indicate the important role neurological accounts human diversity played in this intellectual evolution. By 1828, when the first phrenological society opened in Paris, Gall's new science had become a practical moral philosophy, offering a physiologically based system of classification and powerful disciplinary practices to normalize the population—the immature, the deviant, and the degenerate—in line with liberal bourgeois values.

The pivotal figure in the rise of physiology in French social thought was Pierre Cabanis, one of a loose and often contentious group of liberal intellectuals, popularly known as the Idéologues, who came to power as the Directory (1795-99) struggled to reestablish public institutions and secure stability in the years after the Terror. From their seat in the Second Class on Moral and Political Sciences at the newly founded National Institute they sought to justify secular social policies that would help realize the rational and moral principles of the enlightenment. Civic laws, penal codes, welfare, health services, and especially education, they believed, had to be purged of the doctrinal dictates of the church and restructured in accordance with the natural laws governing the human mind.

A member of the Auteuil salon of Mme Helvétius, Cabanis was well acquainted with the materialist philosophers d'Holbach, Diderot, and La Mettrie, and had even met Condillac, the theorist from whom the Idéologues drew their central concepts of analysis and sensation. In a series of twelve reports, he fused Condillac's radical empiricism with advances in medical science to explain the relationship between the physical and the moral in human nature. Men and women were situated within the animal kingdom, organic phenomena were reduced to the universal principle of sensitivity, and the transmutation of species were explained through environmentally induced inherited changes. Most importantly, Cabanis's materialism eschewed all metaphysical categories. The distinctively moral qualities, traditionally associated with the cogito or immortal soul, had to be understood as properties of a living organization. The production of thought by the brain, he famously argued, could even be compared to the secretion of bile by the liver. No longer the domain of the theologian and the metaphysician, the mind was now open to scientific study and medical control.

Following Helvétius, the Idéologues understood that the purpose of government was education: the Republic existed to improve the physical, moral, and intellectual character of the population. Although rejecting Helvétius's extreme environmentalism, Cabanis and his coworker in reform, Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy, were convinced that rationally and physiologically informed legislation could elevate the mind and the morals of all citizens. This demanded a scientifically educated cadre of civil servants who understood how to regulate thought and desire through education and other social institutions—much as a doctor might balance bodily health through diet, exercise, and climate. Tracy spearheaded this drive to create a classe savante through the scientific curriculum of the elite central schools established by the Idéologues in 1795. Pedagogy was also of paramount concern. Here Cabanis and his followers looked to the disciplinary techniques of Philippe Pinel, whose pioneering work with the insane demonstrated the power of therapeutic practices to restore alienated minds to reason—a psychological method, it was recognized, whose practices could easily be applied to the education of children. Roch-Ambroise Sicard, who drew upon Condillac's epistemology to construct a language of gestures for the deaf, also generalized his instructional strategies for future teachers at the Ecole Normale, which opened earlier the same year. Accordingly, when in 1800, Jean-Marc Itard attempted to apply these techniques to the education of Victor, the Savage of Aveyron, the Idéologues expected spectacular proof of their theory of mind and the power of moral treatment to transform society. As it turned out, Itard taught the world a great deal about pedagogy, but the mixed results he achieved with Victor only served to fuel growing skepticism about the plasticity of human abilities and the optimistic claims of social scientists.

Although supporters of the coup d'etat that established the Consulate, the Idéologues were quickly marginalized as Bonaparte consolidated power. Distancing himself from their efforts to analyze the mind, their strident anti-clericalism, and their liberal policies, he embraced Catholic sympathies and in so doing helped to create the climate for a conservative reaction to the Revolution. The chaos of the Jacobin Terror was easily blamed upon sensationalism and its godless offspring Ideology. By reducing the mind to habits formed in response to pleasure and pain, faith in free will and the immortal soul had been undercut and the institutions that ensured social order displaced. Conservatives saw in Bonaparte the promise of stability; Bonaparte recognized in the church what his burgeoning bureaucratic state mostneeded: an instrument of public control. Alert to the threat that this pact posed to their liberal reforms, several leading Idéologues participated in fruitless efforts to overthrow the emperor's regime, the result of which was the suppression of the Institute's Second Class and the replacement of the central schools with lycées that restored traditional studies over the secular curriculum advocated by Tracy.

This reemergence of religiosity was not simply the result of political maneuvering. As the writings of Ideology's most prominent students demonstrate, the force of spiritual experience could not be denied. Pinel, for instance, sought to reconcile the "science of man" with the reality of the cogito. Joseph-Marie de Gérando—future statesman, social philanthropist, promoter of Lancasterian schooling, and early influence on the New England Transcendentalists—also rejected Condillac's vision of the faculties as transformed sensations. Turning to Kant, with Maine de Brian, and later Rolland- Collier and Victor Cousin, he helped justify the introspective analysis of thought central to the eclectic philosophy of the Late Empire and Restoration. Particularly influential was Pierre Laromiguière's assertion that attention was an active and independent power of the mind. This argument was embraced by Pinel's successor, Dominique Esquirol, and through his teachings, Edward Séguin, the so-called "apostle of the idiots", who adapted Itard's methods to the training of the mentally retarded.

The phrenologists also attempted to preserve many of the scientific, social, and educational goals of Ideology, while offering a theory of mind compatible with religious sensibilities and—through their commitment to innate biological differences in intellect and character—the growing political acceptance of social hierarchies. Although framed in opposition to the basic tenets of Condillac's empiricism, Gall and Spurzheim's insistence that all mental functions have a somatic base in the structures of the brain appealed to medical theorists sympathetic to Cabanis's project. For spiritualists and emperor, however, this was old wine in new bottles. Phrenology was the child of sensationalism, yet another materialistic doctrine that undermined freedom, responsibility, and the religious foundation of community life.


Condillac composed his Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge (1746) in order to render empiricism fully consistent with the scientific method. Locke, he explained, had studied the understanding by observing how all ideas are derived from sense experience. But while correctly concluding men and women have no innate knowledge, Condillac found the assumption that the mind was prefigured with a faculty of reflection unsupportable and unnecessary. Had Locke been more systematic in his analysis, Condillac insisted, he would have discovered that the powers of comparison and combination central to intelligent thought were nothing but transformed sensations, habits of mind and action generated by the association of signs. Sensations, either pleasant or unpleasant, generated attention, and attention, in turn, made possible the association of ideas from which the faculties were constructed.

The central feature of consciousness was the ability to form perceptions independently of objects, as when, in imagination (the recollection of sense fragments from previous experiences) or memory (the recollection of signs or words associated with perceptions), a thought brings another idea before the mind. Both of these mental operations arose directly from bonds formed in experience. A need becomes associated with "something that will satisfy it; and this idea is connected with the place where the thing is found; to this place is connected the idea of persons that we have seen there; to the idea of these persons, the ideas of our past pleasures or pains," and so on. In the end, "all knowledge forms a single chain whose smaller chains are united at certain links and separated at others." Crucially, Condillac reversed the relationship that Locke had established between ideas and signs by arguing that language was not simply an instrument for communication, but rather the tool by which thoughts are assembled within the mind. In a state of nature, he argued, men and women had lived like animals—limited to imagination, they expressed their emotions through the "language of action" that accompanied sense experience. Gradually, however, they learned to use such cries and gestures as primitive metaphoric signs. As memory emerged, the capacity to control the imagination and communicate basic meanings developed. But it was not until the acquisition of arbitrary signs that the faculties really started to grow, as, freed from dependence on the real, the imagination and memory were able to work in concert, directing attention according to interests and desires. It was this power of reflection that enabled the mind to abstract, compare, compose, and decompose ideas—the basic powers that constitute the understanding. And reason? Following ordinary usage, this was simply "a knowledge of how to control the operations of the mind" and appreciate the limits and fallibility of human thought.

Locke had cautioned that the greatest threat to human wisdom arose from the tendency to use words without meaning: Thought had to be built out of ideas derived only from the essential features of experience. To this end, Condillac introduced his concept of analysis, a process of decomposing complex ideas into clear and distinct perceptions. Any thought that could not be broken down into simple elements contained meaningless terms that had to be purged from language. Given these constraints, the assembly of ideas would preserve the intrinsic order of the perceived world. Not only a positivist program for the development of knowledge uncompromised by metaphysics, Condillac's principle was also a pedagogic strategy for the schooling of rational and moral citizens. Education had to lead in careful steps from the simple and concrete to the complex and abstract, in such a manner that students could understand and justify their own ideas by composing and decomposing thoughts without error.

To support this conjectural history of the mind, Condillac pointed to wild children and the deaf, who demonstrated that without language human beings would be trapped in an animal existence of purely imaginative thought. The story of a deaf mute who developed the ability to hear when aged twenty-three is illustrative. Until that time, Condillac reported, he lived almost without reflection, habitually following his sensations and imitating others with little or no idea of his own existence or the nature of the world into which he was born. The Abbé Epée's work with the deaf, which Condillac witnessed in the early 1770s, provided further proof of his thesis. Building upon the basic language of action, Epée systemized the spontaneous signs of his students and invented hundreds of other gestures to represent the words and grammatical structures of French. No longer limited to the immediate world of sensation, this artificial language of arbitrary signs allowed the deaf to form all the mind's faculties—there was not a thought or sentiment they could not entertain. Indeed, Condillac believed they had an advantage over the hearing, for Epée led his pupils "from perceptible ideas to abstract ideas by simple and systematic analyses" that avoided the haphazardness of normal learning. Unlike spoken French, the signs of the deaf were firmly rooted in concrete experience.

Condillac elaborated his theory further in Traité de Sensations (1754), famously invoking the image of a human statue to explain how the mind gradually awakens to the world and itself as, one by one, the various senses are brought to life. Starting with smell, the weakest of the senses, he showed that the basis of all the faculties and passions could be derived from the simple pleasures and pains that attended the awareness of different odors. The other senses were then integrated into the developing mind, with touch playing the special role of helping the statue situate itself as a self-conscious and independent entity within a world of objects. Finally, though not as prominently as in the Essay, language was introduced to fashion the understanding. Although obviously hypothetical, Condillac's painstaking and careful construction presented a compelling justification of the sensationalist thesis: guided only by the desire to promote pleasure and avoid pain, the association of ideas could explain the formation of all the habits, talents, and passions that constitute human life.


Excerpted from Head Masters by Stephen Tomlinson. Copyright © 2005 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Stephen Tomlinson is Associate Professor in the Social Foundations of Education at The University of Alabama.

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