Vanquishing the Soul: Gall & Phrenology

Thinking is a strange thing. So strange, in fact, that most people think that whatever is doing the thinking must have a life of its own. This idea, commonsense dualism, has been around a long time and is the default position for most people regardless of culture. It’s a hard habit or intuition to break, even for materialists who accept that a grey three pound organ which sits in the skull is the seat of the self.

The history of ideas is also strange. Few modern materialists realize that the road from dualism to monism was paved primarily by Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), a Viennese physician whose fame (or infamy) today is due mostly to his status as the founder of phrenology. Gall has gotten a bad rap and deserves rehabilitation. Phrenology, for all its popular quackery, contained key insights into localization of function — the idea that certain parts of the brain are dedicated to particular tasks. Another aspect of Gall’s phrenology, one for which he should be remembered, is that the brain alone gives rise to thinking and constitutes the self.

From Cartesian Dualism to Gallian Monism

Alcmaeon of Croton, a Greek philosopher and physician who lived around 500 BC, is credited with being the first to assert that the brain was the seat of the mind. He also was one of the first to claim that humans possess a soul, and it was the soul that animated living things. In so doing, Alcmaeon set the stage for a dualism that would persist for nearly two millennia.

Plato preferred Alcmaeon the philosopher and greatly expanded on his ideas regarding the soul. Hippocrates preferred Alcmaeon the physician and derived his concept of the four “humours” (blood, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm) from Alcmaeon’s idea that an imbalance of “powers” (wet, dry, hot, cold) caused disease. While many would attempt to maintain a distinction between the physical (which was the province of medicine) and mental (which was the province of philosophy), the boundary was always fuzzy: ailments of the body could be afflictions of the soul.

While there was general agreement on the existence of a soul, there was no agreement as to its location and the mechanics whereby it interacted with the body. Some argued for the heart and others for the head. Everyone agreed, however, that the soul and mind were closely linked, if not identical. Human uniqueness was firmly based on the soul-mind, regardless of its physical location.

In 1641, Rene Descartes formalized nearly two thousand years of mind-body dualism with the publication of Meditations on First Philosophy, in which he unequivocally separated mind (soul) from matter (body). Metaphysical speculations about the mind did not begin to give way to material understandings until the 1660s, when Thomas Willis and his Oxford Circle colleagues established that the brain was closely linked to behavior. Although Willis’ explanations of the brain and its workings still bore the trappings of Hippocratic humours and Galenist spirits, they are nonetheless recognizable as the first mechanical account of the nervous system.

In 1664 Willis published Cerebri Anatome, a landmark work which effectively established neurology as a scientific discipline. For all his accomplishments, Willis remained a devout dualist who believed that the soul-mind was seated in the brain. Descartes, for his part, had no doubt that the soul was located in the brain; he placed it in the pineal gland. During the century after Willis, those interested in the nervous system spent most of their time dissecting and mapping. While they provided ever more refined anatomical descriptions of the brain, they did not attempt to explain how it related to mind or behavior. Because dualism was still dominant, most what was known about the mind continued to come from introspective philosophy.

This state of affairs changed dramatically in the early 1800s when Franz Joseph Gall began lecturing and publishing on cerebral anatomy and localized function. Although Gall is today known – and ridiculed – as the founder of phrenology, his reputation is largely undeserved. Because phrenology was but one part of Gall’s work that was popularized by others, primarily for profit, most treatments of Gall tend toward caricature.

Franz Joseph Gall -- Founder of Phrenology

Gall was, in some respects, the founder of modern neuroscience. He published his major work, Anatomie et Physiologie du Système Nerveux en Général, in four volumes between 1810-1819. In this work and others, Gall espoused many of the ideas that continue to guide the mind sciences, and which frame several current disputes within those sciences. Among these are: (1) the brain is the physical locus of the mind; (2) mind arises from physical matter; (3) the brain-mind is the basis for behavior; (4) the brain has separate and distinct regions or parts; (5) each region or part of the brain has a particular and specific function; and (6) these functions or “faculties” are innate. Collectively, these ideas establish Gall as the first mind-matter monist.

Gall’s monistic materialism was so threatening to religious dualists that the Austrian emperor proscribed his lectures and the Catholic church listed his books in its Index Librorum Prohibitorum. These were not, however, the ideas for which Gall was most famous. Fusing his empirical neurology with Johann Lavater’s physiognomy, Gall asserted that the various mental faculties corresponded to specific regions of the brain, and that the relative development of these faculties shaped the brain in ways that corresponded to bumps on the skull. Phrenology was thus born.

It is difficult to understate the social and cultural impact that phrenology had in Europe and America between 1815 and 1845: “For the early Victorian generation, phrenology represented a widespread movement affecting science, philosophy, religion, and education” (McLaren 1974:87; McLaren 1981). By 1836, there were more than thirty phrenological societies in Europe and nearly as many in the United States; many members were physicians and professionals. That same year, interest was so intense that Hewett Watson (1836) published Statistics on Phrenology, in which he meticulously noted that 64,000 works on phrenology had been sold and more than 15,000 plaster heads molded. George Combe’s hugely popular Elements of Phrenology was first published in 1824, went through several additions, and sold more than 100,000 copies.

Phrenological Materialism and Monism

Regardless of its scientific validity, phrenology was a naturalistic and secular doctrine that had a corrosive impact on dualism and religion. Commenting on this fact, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed: “Gall and Spurzheim’s Phrenology laid a rough hand on the mystery of animal and spiritual nature, dragging down every sacred secret to a street show. The attempt was coarse and odious to scientific men, but had a certain truth in it; it felt connection where the professors denied it, and was leading to a truth which had not yet been announced.”

The truth not yet announced was, of course, Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Since Darwin’s time, most scientists have come to accept that material matter is solely responsible for immaterial thought. While Darwin deservedly gets much credit for this development, some of the debt is owed to Gall, the original mind-matter monist.


McLaren, Angus. (1974). Phrenology: Medium and Message. The Journal of Modern History, 46 (1) DOI: 10.1086/241166

Castro-Caldas, A., & Grafman, J. (2000). Those Were the (Phrenological) Days The Neuroscientist, 6 (4), 297-302 DOI: 10.1177/107385840000600412

McLaren Angus. (1981). A prehistory of the social sciences: phrenology in France. Comparative studies in society and history, 23 (1), 3-22 PMID: 11614370

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4 thoughts on “Vanquishing the Soul: Gall & Phrenology

  1. Mike

    Many thanks for this fine little history lesson. Your picture of Gall provides great context for the social and political events of the late nineteenth century. It gave me a more thorough understanding of a novel I just read about that period in Brasil, La Guerra del Fin del Mundo by Mario Vargas Llosa. One of his principal characters is a phrenologist/revolutionary.

  2. Cris Post author

    Funny you mention Mario Vargas Llosa; I was just thinking last week I need to read some of his stuff. What do you recommend?

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