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Physiognomy

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One of the most fascinating aspects of Ayn Rand's writing was her belief in the power of physiognomy, "the art of judging human character from facial features." This belief lies at the core of every one of her major works of fiction, and informs another cornerstone of her fiction, her belief in "love at first sight."

While her belief in physiognomy is evident in all of her novels it is explicitly mentioned in one -- The Fountainhead. In the novel the protagonist, Howard Roark, and the antagonist, Ellsworth Toohey both have a unique and penetrating insight into mens' characters (or souls).

In Roark this knowledge is mostly on the subconscious or intuitive level. Roark is an excellent judge of character and personality, his faculty of which is so acute that he regularly gives other characters in his presence the feeling of having their innermost being x-rayed or peered in to. This ability allows him to quickly identify potential friends or enemies within a few seconds of meeting them. Because this faculty is on a subconscious level, he has trouble explaining how he finds "his kind of people." When Austin Heller asks him, he replies:

"I don't know." Yes I do know, but I can't explain it. I've often wished I could. There must be some principle to cover it, but I don't know what it is."

"Honesty?"

"Yes . . . no, only partly. Guy Francon is an honest man, but it isn't that. Courage? Ralstom Holcombe has courage in his own mannner . . . . I don't know. I'm not that vague on other things. But I can tell my kind of people by their faces. By something in their faces.

Unlike Roark, Toohey's insight into mens' characters is not a matter of intuition or subconscious premises. He understands on a conscious level that the psychological and philosophical premises of a man's character can be read from his face. This uncanny ability is made known to the reader when Toohey sees Roark for the first time. The scene is set in a large crowded room. Something about Roark stops him in his tracks:

There was another person, that night, abnormally aware of Roark's presence. Ellsworth Toohey had seen him enter. Toohey had never set eyes on him before and did not know him. But Toohey stood looking at him for a long time.

...

He did not know the man's name, his profession or his past; he had no need to know; it was not a man to him, but only a force; Toohey never saw men. Perhaps it was the fascination of seeing that particular force so explicitly personified in a human body

Toohey could see the force of Roark's personality impressed into every aspect of his appearance. Without exchanging a single word with him, without knowing a single fact about him, without knowing anything but what was in front of his eyes he immediately seized Roark up as the type of person he was.

Later, he explains this ability to the hostess of the party, Kiki Holcombe:

"There's nothing as significant as a human face. Nor as eloquent. We can never really know another person, except by our first glance at him. Because, in that glance, we know everything. Even though we're not always wise enough to unravel the knowledge. Have you ever thought about the style of a soul, Kiki?"

"The...what?"

"The style of a soul. Do you remember the famous philosopher who spoke of the style of a civilization? He called it 'style.' He said it was the nearest word he could find for it. He said that every civilization has its one basic principle, one single, supreme determining conception, and every endeavor of men within that civilization is true, unconsciously and irrevocably, to that one principle. . . . I think, Kiki, that every human soul has a style of its own, also. Its one basic theme. You'll see it reflected in every thought, every act, every wish of that person. The one absolute, the one imperative in that living creature. Years of studying a man won't show it to you. His face will. You'd have to write volumes to describe a person. Think of his face. You need nothing else."

"That sounds fantastic, Ellsworth. And unfair, if true. It would leave people naked before you."

"It's worse than that. It also leaves you naked before them. You betray yourself by the manner in which you react to a certain face. To a certain kind of face . . . The style of your soul . . .

While this is the most explicit she is in describing her belief in the importance of physiognomy, other examples of this premise can be found in Dominique's initial meeting with Roark at the quarry, Kira's first meeting with Leo in We the Living, Equality 7-2521 meeting Liberty 5-3000 in Anthem, and Francisco, Ragnar, and Galt "picking each other out by sight" in college. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list.

So, what does this all mean? What does it mean to be able to identify a man's character based on his face? The easy assumption to make is that this equates to a belief in determinism, that a man's future actions are set out for him at birth. The truth is much more complex.

The answer lies in first determining what a man's character consists of. Again, the easy answer to say is that a man's character is the sum of the choices he makes in life, which when analyzed can be abstracted into a set of beliefs that person holds, which can then be used to predict his future actions. This is perfectly reasonable. However this answer leaves out a key component: personality.

What is personality? Broadly, you could say a person's personality is the most fundamental aspect of individuation. Even in infants you can observe personality traits emerging, such as stubborness, extroversion, introversion, degrees of intelligence, inquisitiveness, and levels of irritibility. An individual's personality is complex and continues to develop as the child matures and his brain continues to grow. Eventually, a person's personality reaches its final stages of maturation and you can observe and interact with a fully developed human being.

So, how does personality affect character? If we go back to the earlier definition of character as "the abstraction of the sum of expressed action" then we need to look at how people make choices.

How do people arrive at the choices they make? The possibilities seem to predicate on whim, emotion, or reason. I should note that these are broad categories which are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The first of these categories, the whim, is too inclusive a cause to be easily deconstructed. A whim is defined as an "arbitrary thought or impulse" which could be caused by the willful abdication of thought (a loss of mental control) or it could be based on an emotion, or a rational thought. Whatever the origin of the whim, when it is indulged, it is characterized by a lack of overall rational deliberation. It's execution is swift or immediate.

The second of these categories is emotion. Ayn Rand believed that emotions are automatic responses formed by subconsciously held metaphysical premises. These premises can be set by consciously held ideas programming the subconscious or by a process of automatic accumulation of experientailly drawn conclusions, or by unquestioningly assimilating outside ideas.

The third of these categories is reason. A full discussion of how a person uses reason in a decision making process would be too involved for the present discussion. Rand writes that "the method which reason employs in this process is logic—and logic is the art of non-contradictory identification." What is important to note is that the key faculty in properly employing reason in the use of logic is intelligence.

Now consider how a person's personality can affect the above three ways of arriving at choices.

Because personality is so complex it's difficult to construct a model to use. Although not representative, for the sake of demonstration I'll define a very simple personality. Let's say a person of average intelligence has personality traits that include a high level of aggression, a weak level of curiosity, and a high degree of stubborness. A person with an average intellect who is not especially curious may not like reading too much. Instead, because of high levels of aggression that person may enjoy physical activity as a means of releasing it. Because of his stubborness, he has a disinclination to examine the validity of his choices, and may not learn easily from mistakes. That sort of personality would naturally gravitate toward decisions based on emotion and whim because they complement his general disposition -- it is the path of least resistance. That doesn't mean that this person is incapable of rational choice, but it does mean that this person will have a harder time choosing a rational choice when confronted with other options, under certain contexts.

So how does this all fit into the theory of physiognomy? The idea is that because personality and intelligence are genetically based, it may mean that these characteristics could be expressed in the genetic structure of a human face. As a science, Physiognomy would attempt to understand the genetic basis of such a connection and would attempt to discover the means to reliably interpret features into corresponding personality traits. Unfortunately, Physiognomy as a science is still at it's very early stages. There have been historical attempts to develop physiognomy, but none of them have been scientifically rigorous.

What you may be wondering is if physiognomy as a field of study is still in its infancy whether one can draw any conclusions about whether it is valid or not. I would argue that you can. The means of doing so are your own life experiences.

From my own experience I can tell you that one of the easiest things you can read on a person's face is intelligence or lack of intelligence. I can spot aggressiveness, stubborness, extroversion, introversion, and a whole host of other personality traits. All I have to do is study a person's face for a few seconds and I can create a pretty accurate profile of his or her personality. I test this by then interacting with the person. I'm not always right, but I'm right enough of the time to know that it isn't chance.

Here's one ubiquitous example of physiognomy that just about everyone knows how to do: spot a bitch. Both men and women can spot a bitchy personality from a quick glance at a face. It's not the style of makeup or how she grooms her face that tips people off, because those aren't always factors. It's the face. Something about the face that clues people in.

I also have a theory about how this works. I think that people who are attentive and sociable meet people with similar personality types thoughout the course of their life. If physiognomy holds true, then that person begins to automatically and subconsciously associate certain personality traits with certain features. Then, when that person meets a new person he automatically draws on past experiences to interpret commonly held features linked to memories of certain personalities and either likes or dislikes this new person's face based on subconsciously held information.

Any thoughts?

Edit: Just realized I finally got to 500 posts! :P

Edited by Myself
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A person's expression tells you a lot about him or her. Some character triats may be reflected in it, too. THis is hardly surprising, given that human use their facial expression to convey information (add speech and body language and we're the most highly communicative species on the planet, by far).

But physiognmoy, as traditionally used, deals with facial features rather than expressions. Features are an accident of genetics and, to some degree, from early environment and behavior (like thumb-sucking). As such it is as valid as astrology and numerology. Of course, there are conditions that are reflected on facial features, such as Down syndrome. A physician can draw diagnostic information from them, as he can with heart-rate, liver funtion, a rash, etc.

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Right, I'd like to reinforce D'kian's point by saying that none of those quotes imply that Rand was talking about physiognomy, but each of them could (and should) be interpreted as talking about an intuitive grasp of somebody's behavior and expression. Moreover, keep in mind that this is her fiction, so people's physical appearance are going to be tailored to their role in the story--beauty on the inside is generally going to reflect beauty outside, except in cases like Roark's construction worker friend, who was probably made ugly at least in part as a statement to the audience that you don't need to be beautiful to be good. This should not be taken to mean that this reflects how the world actually is rather than how it could and should be.

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But physiognmoy, as traditionally used, deals with facial features rather than expressions. Features are an accident of genetics and, to some degree, from early environment and behavior (like thumb-sucking). As such it is as valid as astrology and numerology.

I apologize for quoting myself.

Numerology claims that names determine a person's luck, fate or something (I relaly pay it little mind) based on numerical values ascribed to a name's letters. That, of course, is utter nonsense.

However, when an author has absolute power over hsi creation, as he always does, he will sometimes try to use names that fit the character in some form, or that are relevant to the story.

So to take examples from my own fiction (none of it yet written), I've come up with these names that are significant:

Loomin. That's an anglicized corruption of the Latin word "Lumen," which means light. Loomin is the surname of an influential family in the future.

Nareed. This is complicated. Nareed is the princess and heir to the throne of the one free nation, at the time, in the planet Algion. Her mother had a ahrd time conceiving and is certain she'll bear only this one child. When she finds the child is a girl, she kills herself (the thinking is that while a daughter of the king can inherit the throne, she won't be as strong of mind and purpose as a man in directing the ship of state, thus placing the kingdom in jeapordy). So the king names his heir Na'ared, after some ancient words that mean "May this never happen again," meaning his wife's death.

In time Na'ared proves to be an iron-willed woman with a strong determination. She successfully defends the kingdom from all invaders and, in time, expands all freedoms within. She goes as far as to remove the office of king from a monarch to a mere figurehead, instituting a full representative system of governmetn. At a triumphal speech near the climax of her career, the crowd starts calling her "Nareed," which in the same ancient languge means "May it always be so."

So while I don't bnuy into numerology, I do think up meaningful names.

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Here's one ubiquitous example of physiognomy that just about everyone knows how to do: spot a bitch. Both men and women can spot a bitchy personality from a quick glance at a face. It's not the style of makeup or how she grooms her face that tips people off, because those aren't always factors. It's the face. Something about the face that clues people in.

This whole post is inaccurate crap, IMO, but the above paragraph is the easiest to respond to and is nothing more than stereotyping. As you may have learned from Rand's essay Racism, stereotyping people this way is a form of tribalism. Yes, many people do this, but that doesn't make it accurate or proper.

I cannot tell you how many times I have stereotyped someone only to feel guilty about it later (and since reading Rand's essay on racism, I have tried to be very aware of this and change my habits.) I have met women who look like complete, slutty bimbos, then they end up being highly intelligent, super friendly and courteous. One such woman even became my favorite coworker at a large company we once worked for. (She looked like Peggy Bundy from Married with Children. Her clothes and such were atrocious, but she was awesome!)

Now I agree that many times (not all times), leftists are disorganized, sloppy, etc., in appearance and many have that evil look in their eye or smug look on their face; however, that doesn't mean every person that looks like Michael Moore IS a Michael Moore. C'mon! <_<

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I'm think Ayn Rand makes literary use of physiognomy in giving Roark naturally orange hair for example, and for other attributes of heroes and villains. Roark's hair is emblematic of his independence. But the quotes you gave illustrating one character gaining insight into another by appearance is better explained by her idea of a 'sense of life' because it is consistent with volition while physiognomy is not.

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Here's one ubiquitous example of physiognomy that just about everyone knows how to do: spot a bitch. Both men and women can spot a bitchy personality from a quick glance at a face. It's not the style of makeup or how she grooms her face that tips people off, because those aren't always factors. It's the face. Something about the face that clues people in.

I also have a theory about how this works. I think that people who are attentive and sociable meet people with similar personality types thoughout the course of their life. If physiognomy holds true, then that person begins to automatically and subconsciously associate certain personality traits with certain features. Then, when that person meets a new person he automatically draws on past experiences to interpret commonly held features linked to memories of certain personalities and either likes or dislikes this new person's face based on subconsciously held information.

Maybe you should list which certain personality traits correlate with which facial features. You won't think of any. What *is* valid, though, is judging facial expressions. THAT'S the "something about the face" that clues people in. I hope that's what you mean to say, because "big eyes" suggests nothing about a person. Is this a serious post?

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I would think that the old meaning of countenance is more what she was describing. the face as an indication of mood, emotion, or character. Everyone does this every time the meet someone, you asses the way they dress, walk, do they look you in the eye, is that a smirk expression, i.e the volitional use of expression. Put all of that together and you can come to a fairly accurate judgment on the character of a person. I think this different than what is Physiognomy which puts stock in things like the shape of the various aspects face/head to make predictions on character. It is more akin to phrenology.

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I would think that the old meaning of countenance is more what she was describing. the face as an indication of mood, emotion, or character. Everyone does this every time the meet someone, you asses the way they dress, walk, do they look you in the eye, is that a smirk expression, i.e the volitional use of expression. Put all of that together and you can come to a fairly accurate judgment on the character of a person. I think this different than what is Physiognomy which puts stock in things like the shape of the various aspects face/head to make predictions on character. It is more akin to phrenology.

True. It wasn't only the facial expressions, but the characters' carriage, purposeful manner of walking (or lack thereof, in the case of a villain), and other movements that showed that their physical appearance was married to their character. This is what comes of idealizing humans -- presenting man as he should be and ought to be -- but in real life, looks can be deceiving. A model who looks proud in a photograph might only have been posed that way by her photographer, and in the next moment her natural expression shows that she's not as interesting as she looked in her photograph. Or, a heroic man who's having a bad day will look dejected, but normally his face shows his pride in his achievements.

Recall, also, that in Atlas Shrugged looks were deceiving to one of the characters. Hank Rearden chose his wife based on her proud carriage and her breathlessness at being shown his mills, which he mistook for admiration of his life's work and the motive power it took to achieve it. In fact, she was always motivated by wanting to find a great man so she could destroy him -- but he didn't read that in her face.

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