A critique of phrenology in Moby-Dick

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Abstract

Phrenology has a fascinating, although controversial, place in the history of localizationism of brain and mental functions. The 2 main proponents of phrenology were 2 German-speaking doctors, Joseph Gall (1758–1828) and Johann Spurzheim (1776–1832). According to their theory, a careful examination of skull morphology could disclose personality characters. Phrenology was initially restricted to medical circles and then diffused outside scientific societies, reaching nonscientific audiences in Europe and North America. Phrenology deeply penetrated popular culture in the 19th century and its tenets can be observed in British and American literature. Here we analyze the presence of phrenologic concepts in Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, by Herman Melville (1819–1891), one of the most prominent American writers. In his masterpiece, he demonstrates that he was familiarized with Gall and Spurzheim's writings, but referred to their theory as “semi-science” and “a passing fable.” Of note, Melville's fine irony against phrenology is present in his attempt to perform a phrenologic and physiognomic examination of The Whale. Thus, Moby-Dick illustrates the diffusion of phrenology in Western culture, but may also reflect Melville's skepticism and criticism toward its main precepts.

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