Physiognomy and the Rise of Scientific Observation c. 1500. Professor Joseph Ziegler.


Professor Joseph Ziegler (University of Haifa)


Physiognomy and the Rise of Scientific Observation c. 1500


UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland Seminar Series, 28 February 2013


This paper explores physiognomy during the Middle Ages. Physiognomy belongs to a group of practices, including medicine, that revolve around the semiotics of the body. The physiognomer has always used the same analytical categories – colour, movement, shape, texture, temperature – that help the physician determine a diagnosis. What really lies behind this symptomatic model, shared in this case by medicine and physiognomy? Intuition, access to occult or even divine knowledge, for a solid theoretical framework which can crown these practices with the desired diadem of a science. If this question was asked before the year 1200 in the Latin West the answer would probably have been that with this kind of knowledge factors are at play which cannot be measured. A whiff, a glance, an intuition. But parallel to a well-documented process that led to the recognition of medicine as a medieval science, a similar but slightly slower process can be detected in physiognomy. The great contribution of the Middle Age’s to physiognomy would be to free it from this intuitive, conjectural stage by supplying it with a firm theoretical foundation. But this happened gradually and not without some serious opposition. The long list of signs and significances, very often badly ordered and unsystematic and always lacking an attempt to provide some sort of causal explanation could not be received to the Pantheon of the sciences just like that. The approach of combination of evidence whereby several pieces of evidence support the specific conclusion even if the individual pieces are weak adopted by the ancient physiognomers to stabilise the uncertainty characterising the subject did not remove the doubts engulfing physiognomy. Something else was needed, From the late twelfth century two important classical authorities which became came available to all provided significant argument …

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