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Feelings on Faces. From Physiognomics to Neuroscience

Freedberg, David A.

Of all the ways in which the outward signs of the body express inner feeling, physiognomy and gesture have been the most studied. In this essay, I will deal with physiognomy and its related form, pathognomy. Gesture must wait for another occasion. Both physiognomy and the study of gesture, at least in their traditional and historical forms, have generally been taken as the very type of disciplines that have ignored the pressures of culture and difference, failing to take into account the social construction both of interiority and of its outward manifestations. It is true that physiognomy and pathognomy, like the study of gesture, sought to establish fixed correlations between expression and emotion, when in fact the relationship between particular expressions and specific emotions are very oft en the product of cultural and contextual constraints, pressures, and circumstance. Or so the usual insistence runs.

Hence, for example, the continuing high scepticism about projects like Charles Le Brun's and the complete disdain of the physiognomic projects of Lavater. Even Darwin's great work on the subject has only recently begun to return to favor (though only hesitantly amongst academic humanists), despite its clear articulation of the role of cultural constraints on emotional expression) In what follows, I will set out how, contrary to conventional views of the neurosciences as reductionist, the neuroscience of facial expression and its emotional recognition does not in fact impugn this role, but substantially enhances it. My aim is to suggest that the role of culture in the construction of both feeling and expression is considerably more complex than current views of cultural determinism seem to allow.


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Also Published In

Rethinking Emotion. Interiority and Exteriority in Premodern, Modern, and Contemporary Thought
De Gruyter

More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Published Here
October 21, 2015