Physiognomy: the analogical figure of the unity between soul and body


  • Giampaolo Ghilardi Istituto di Filosofia dell’Agire Scientifico e Tecnologico, Università Campus Bio-Medico Roma



physiognomy, analogy, Aristotele, biometrics, Lavater, Lichtenberg


Physiognomy, from the Greek physiognomia, φύσις (nature) and γνώμη (rule), refers to the ancient science of determining someone’s innate character on the basis of their outer appearance, and hence observable bodily features and characteristics1. Epistemologically, over time this practice has ranged from being an established and acceptable discipline to a pseudoscience. Despite the lack of a proper theoretical foundation, it is at the core of renowned scientific disciplines. Biometrics technology represents an interesting current example, for new facial recognition techniques rely upon it.

Aristotle conceived it as a specific kind of syllogism, the physiognomic syllogism, where the premises are not certain but only probable. What Aristotle means by φυσιογνωμονεῖν physiognomein is the inferring of mental characteristics in men based on the presence in them of physical characteristics which in other animals go constantly with those mental characteristics.

Physiognomics therefore deals with signs. For signs to be true, certain parts of reality — specifically, body and soul — must be structured in a certain ‘sympathetic’ way by nature such that they change together2. This concept leads to the question: what is the relation between change in the body and change in the soul? Is it the former that moves the latter, or the other way around? Or perhaps a common and prior cause changes them simultaneously. These questions are usually not investigated. In the field of biometrical recognition, for example, bodily traits are simply collated with character traits or states of mind.

In this paper, I propose to explore how physiognomics can indicate a different path of scientific reasoning, grounded in analogy rather than univocal correspondence.





Human nature, soul and body. Convergence of perspectives