Paper Title

[2.2] Radicals, Reformers, and Skull-Readers: Towards a Political Understanding of Victorian Phrenology

Location

Arts & Education Building 164, Moderated by Brenda Smith

Start Date

18-1-2019 2:00 PM

End Date

18-1-2019 3:15 PM

Disciplines

European History | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Political History

Presentation Type

Presentation

Abstract

Phrenology, or the reading of personality from skull shape, enjoyed a high degree of lay popularity as a scientific phenomenon in the Victorian period. In its heyday, it consistently sought recognition from governmental and scientific figures, and the opportunity to apply its lessons to social reform projects. Its most prominent practitioners’ mission of reform along scientific lines, paired with its technocratic moral outlook and opposition to radical social politics of its era, made it a reformist science that both exemplified and helped to create the liberal reformist political paradigm of mid-19th century Britain. Phrenological literature was read across social classes, and phrenological societies published journals and corresponded across the globe. Sales of phrenology books outstripped iconic scientific works of the period, and practicing phrenologists organized themselves in an effort at gaining intellectual respectability. As “bumpology” gained popular recognition, it attempted to insert itself into the liberal reform campaigns of the period, such as prison reform movements and research into mental illness and insanity. Phrenologists engaged in debate with not only skeptical scientists, but with leading social reformers and radicals, about biological determinism and the role of human agency in human affairs. I used period phrenological literature, the journal of the Phrenological Society, and Hansard transcripts, in conjunction with the robust and ongoing scholarship on the subject, to create a portrait of phrenology in its distinctly political context. That context shows that Phrenology must be understood not just as part, but as co-constructor of the liberal-reformist political ideology of its age.

Comments

The Submission guidelines requested a list of keywords, but I don't see a special field for them.

Keywords: Phrenology, pseudoscience, Victorians, Liberalism, Prisons, Asylums, Reformism, Science, Medicine, Britain

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[2.2] Radicals, Reformers, and Skull-Readers: Towards a Political Understanding of Victorian Phrenology

Arts & Education Building 164, Moderated by Brenda Smith

Phrenology, or the reading of personality from skull shape, enjoyed a high degree of lay popularity as a scientific phenomenon in the Victorian period. In its heyday, it consistently sought recognition from governmental and scientific figures, and the opportunity to apply its lessons to social reform projects. Its most prominent practitioners’ mission of reform along scientific lines, paired with its technocratic moral outlook and opposition to radical social politics of its era, made it a reformist science that both exemplified and helped to create the liberal reformist political paradigm of mid-19th century Britain. Phrenological literature was read across social classes, and phrenological societies published journals and corresponded across the globe. Sales of phrenology books outstripped iconic scientific works of the period, and practicing phrenologists organized themselves in an effort at gaining intellectual respectability. As “bumpology” gained popular recognition, it attempted to insert itself into the liberal reform campaigns of the period, such as prison reform movements and research into mental illness and insanity. Phrenologists engaged in debate with not only skeptical scientists, but with leading social reformers and radicals, about biological determinism and the role of human agency in human affairs. I used period phrenological literature, the journal of the Phrenological Society, and Hansard transcripts, in conjunction with the robust and ongoing scholarship on the subject, to create a portrait of phrenology in its distinctly political context. That context shows that Phrenology must be understood not just as part, but as co-constructor of the liberal-reformist political ideology of its age.