“A Beautiful Mind: Faces, Beauty, and the Brain in the Anglo-Atlantic World, 1780-1870”
Publication or External Link
In the years surrounding the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, Americans began critiquing slavery and arguing for women’s intellectual equality. Yet by the early decades of the nineteenth century, white male scientists increasingly described the minds and bodies of white men as innately and unalterably superior to those of white women and African Americans. How did early Americans reconcile this Enlightenment and Revolutionary commitment to universal human equality with the very real persistence of inequality in their society? To answer this question, “A Beautiful Mind” focuses on physiognomy: a popular transatlantic science predicated on the idea that facial features revealed people's inner nature.
Because most individuals in early America believed the head and face were the physical features that best revealed the internal capacities of individuals, this project begins from the premise that we cannot comprehend how Americans understood human difference or navigated social relationships unless we unravel the connections they made between faces, bodies, and brains. At the most basic level, it argues that physiognomy constituted an influential scientific discourse and widespread social practice—a technology of character detection that people used to rationalize the hierarchies that defined their worlds.
Through this new science of beauty, many Americans suggested that social inequalities were not only necessary facts of life, but also empirically verifiable realities. Perhaps the minds and faces of some people were simply better than others, they posited, and perhaps there were superior human specimens who truly deserved the social, political, and economic dominance they currently retained. Yet even as some people used this popular science to argue for white supremacy, justify gender inequities, and enforce class hierarchies, numerous Americans manipulated physiognomy’s slippery language for a wide array of purposes, using it to undermine existing inequities. This dissertation highlights their voices and experiences, showing how women and people of color created unique forms of scientific knowledge and shaped the trajectory of American intellectual thought. In doing so, it not only asks scholars to rethink what might have counted as science in the early republic; it also challenges us to reimagine who might have counted as a scientist.