Modern Psychology and American Phrenology in the Nineteenth Century
September 23, 2004
Modern Psychology and American Phrenology in the 19th Century
The scientific revolution permanently altered the intellectual landscape of Europe and America and paved the way for modern science. Starting with the Enlightenment of the 16th century, scientific thinking gradually began to replace the religious worldview that had dominated intellectual thought since medieval times (Leahey & Leahey, 1983). It was during the early 19th century that the earliest forms of psychology emerged, suggesting increasingly systematic and materialistic approaches to understanding human nature. The spirit of mechanism that characterized this time gave rise to a number of new disciplines that claimed to be scientific in methodology but which lacked the hallmarks of true empiricism. One such discipline was phrenology, a psychological approach that claimed individual personality characteristics were determined by specialized brain structures and that the size of these structures, and thus the strength of the characteristic, could be identified through skull examinations. Universally regarded as pseudoscience by modern psychologists, phrenology achieved widespread popularity in America during the mid-19th century. Through the loose interpretations of science that characterized the era, phrenology swept through the American cultural landscape as a powerful scientific tool for understanding human nature. In doing so, it popularized the budding field of psychology and paved the way for the more scientific approaches that came to replace it, leaving behind a number of concepts that guide modern psychology to this day.
The founder of phrenology was Franz Josef Gall, an Austrian physicist who had achieved academic acclaim for his discoveries in brain research. Using human and animal cadavers, Gall had explored numerous brain structures, leading to his theory of...