Visions of Science: George Combe

George Comeb
George Combe (1788-1858)

“Skulls do not lie.” That was the common motto among the phrenologists of the nineteenth century. In his sixth chapter to Visions of Science (2014), Secord examines the life and work of George Combe (1788-1858), the most read and well-known phrenologist of the nineteenth century. Most of what Secord writes in this chapter can be found in his earlier Victorian Sensation (2000). In addition, he makes use of previous studies, including Roger Cooter’s The Cultural Meaning of Popular Science: Phrenology and the Organization of Consent in Nineteenth-Century Britain (1984), and especially John van Wyhe’s Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2004), which I have mentioned in another post, and Charles Gibbon’s biography of Combe in The Life of George Combe, Author of ‘The Constitution of Man’, 2 vols. (1878).

Long before Darwin published his Origin of Species (1859), doctrines of natural law had been peddled by Combe—yet Combe has been accorded no role in standard histories of evolutionary naturalism. Combe originally published his The Constitution of Man, Considered in Relation to External Objects in 1828 to a select audience, but starting in 1835, when W. & R. Chambers began publishing an inexpensive “People’s Edition” version of the text, Combe became one of the most widely-read authors of the century.

Combe had been influenced by the writings of Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), who had effectively argued that the brain was the organ of the mind, and its relative size and shape dictated the development of an individual, intellectually, morally, emotionally, and so on. Combe argued that so-called “natural laws” of phrenology were essential for living rightly, “as a first step towards self-help and not being misled by others.” As Secord writes, “readers could achieve the self-knowledge that would allow them to change their circumstances and act appropriately in a rapidly changing and increasingly individualistic world.”

Combe’s argument was immensely attractive to Victorians. Novelist Margracia Loudon, for example, read Constitution at least three times, sparking “an experience akin to a religious conversion.” As she writes in a letter to a friend:

…never was I so entirely delighted with any book. That one small volume seems to me to comprise more wisdom, of a kind practically applicable to the production of human happiness, than all the ponderous works put together that I have ever met with. All the vague aspirations after any thing true or beautiful, which I have ever traced, faintly gleaming through the mystic or inconsistent pages of other writers, appear to me to be, in Mr. Combe’s book, concentrated into a steady, cheering, guiding light, by which mankind, if they would be accept the aid it offers them, might feel assured of attaining true felicity, both temporal and eternal.

Combe’s Constitution proclaimed that the laws of nature were progressive. If we are to attain true progress, true happiness, we must obey these laws. “The first principle on which existence on earth, and all its advantages depend,” Combe writes, “is obedience to the physical and organic laws.”

L0022893 George Combe, names of phrenological organs, 1836
“Names of the Phrenological Organs,” from George Combe, Outlines of Phrenology (Edinburgh, 1836)

As Charles Lyell, Combe began as an Edinburgh barrister. During this time he came to reject the traditional Christian doctrines of human sin and redemption. He thought the philosophies of John Locke, Adam Smith, and Dugald Stewart too abstract to apply to everyday life. Although impressed with Spurzheim’s work as a surgeon, he was disgusted by the Burke and Hare scandal, who murdered and sold prostitutes for dissection at university anatomy lectures. Phrenology, he thought, ought to be more practical, “pursued primarily through skilled observations by experienced practitioners, rather than through dissection or physiological experiment…what really mattered was the skilled movement of the fingers of the trained phrenologist.”

Combe wanted to give phrenology a greater “scientific” status, and what better way to achieve this goal than through the printed word. He developed a network of followers who published “primers, introductory surveys, advanced textbooks, and journals” on phrenology. From polemical pamphlets and treatises to standard works of scientific reference, Combe pushed for the respectability and scientific status of phrenology.

More than geology, the science of the mind was by far the most contentious of the new “sciences.” Radicals such as Thomas Hope (1769-1831), Richard Carlile (1790-1843), William Lawrence (1783-1867) and others used the new science for their materialist philosophies.

Combe wanted phrenology to be respectable, so when Scripture or theology came up in his Constitution, he discussed them in “reverential terms and claimed to be compatible with every word in the New Testament.” Combe feigned humility when he said that natural law did not ensure salvation. The problem, as Secord points out, “was that Constitution maintained that understanding the laws of nature must be a preliminary to all religious instruction, so that the Bible needed to be interpreted in light of the Constitution rather than the other way around.” Of course, the greatest fear among evangelical readers was that the “laws of nature revealed by science would replace the need fro a caring God.”

These fears were amplified when sales of the Constitution reached unprecedented numbers. However, like the rest of the authors Secord discusses, Combe was no atheist. For Combe, God had created a progressive system, and if humans truly wanted to improve themselves, they had to obey these progressive, natural laws. Indeed, “an understanding of the natural laws was an essential prerequisite to appreciating the higher truths of Christianity.”

So, why was Combe’s Constitution so appealing? According to Secord, Combe did not tell his readers what they did not already believe. Certain prejudices and assumptions about race, gender, and class were readily available to Victorians. What Combe achieved was giving these assumptions the veil of “scientific” status. As Seocrd observes, “it allowed readers to interpret the character of others as expressed in their behaviour, whether they were intimate relations, strangers on the street, or potential political allies.” This desire to judge character based on material or outward appearances became a “science” under Combe. Futhermore, the Constitution “motivated an understanding of one’s own mind that was at the core of the developing idea of self-help, while showing how that understanding could be used towards broader aims and social transformation.” Indeed, it provided the “underpinnings for a whole range of Victorian reform movements, from removing Church control over education to repeal of the taxes on corn.” In short, it provided both political and metaphysical assumptions under the guise of “science.”

“In this world of masks, misleading impressions, and the clutter of material things,” Secord concludes, “Constitution offered a way of using surfaces to penetrate to the underlying nature of individual character.”

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