August 7, 2017

"The phrase well-rounded derives from phrenology..."

I'm reading that in "Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America's First Bohemians," by Justin Martin:
Whitman haunted the Phrenological Cabinet of Fowler & Wells.... On July 16, 1849, Whitman paid three dollars to have his skull read by Lorenzo Fowler. On a scale from 1 to 7, Whitman rated an exemplary 6.5 on such traits as benevolence, self-esteem, and firmness. He received one of his lowest marks for acquisitiveness, the pursuit of money and material gain. The low rating sat fine with Whitman, struck him almost as a veiled compliment. In his report, Lorenzo noted, “Size of head large . . . a certain reckless swing of animal will, too unmindful, probably, of the conviction of others.” He added, “You are yourself at all times.” Overall, Fowler painted a flattering picture of Whitman, casting him as a well-rounded modern man. (The phrase well-rounded derives from phrenology and is based on the notion that an actualized person has a nicely shaped head, without any distortive bumps.) The results greatly pleased Whitman.
Is that really true? I'm seeing in the OED that "well-rounded" to refer to visible objects like trees and horse's hooves is very old, but in reference to a person's character it does go back only to the mid-19th century when phrenology was was the rage. The oldest quote comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — "There was something so complete and well-rounded in his life." Longfellow was loathed by Whitman, enough so that — according to the above-linked book — Whitman once insulted a man by calling him "a young Longfellow." Whitman's crowd understood:
The jibe was brief, pithy, and a direct hit: where Poe was this crowd’s patron saint, Longfellow was its bĂȘte noire. As a sentimental poet, Longfellow was anathema to many in the Pfaff’s set. They snidely referred to him as “Longwindedfellow.” 
By the way, here's how Whitman (in 1856) insulted the President of the United States: "The President eats dirt and excrement for his daily meals, likes it, and tries to force it on The States."

Here's an article in The Atlantic — "The Shape of Your Head and the Shape of Your Mind" — that reinforces the claim that the term "well-rounded" comes from phrenology:
The national obsession with head size and shape... infected daily conversation. Many modern phrases trace their roots to phrenology, including “highbrow” and “lowbrow,” “well rounded,” and “shrink” (as in “shrinking” certain undesirable qualities). “Getting your head examined” also has phrenological roots. Though generally considered an insult today, in the past, it was just what most people wanted.....
ADDED: Pfaff's:
"Pfaff’s was the Andy Warhol factory, the Studio 54, the Algonquin Round Table all rolled into one."

26 comments:

David said...

"The President eats dirt and excrement for his daily meals, likes it, and tries to force it on The States."

Like Harry Truman, at least he said "excrement."

David said...

The article says the Whitman quote was from an "unpublished pamphlet." The difference between then and now, when everything is published.

Michael K said...

If he referred to Buchanan I might agree. Buchanan was Polk's Secretary of State and was useless.

He was a worse President.

Feste said...

~
“All's Well that Ends Well-Rounded.” Countess of Roussillon had a pair.

SeanF said...

I have my doubts about the phrenological source of "well-rounded". It seems like such a simple, obvious metaphor that I wonder why anyone would even question the source of it.

On the other hand, "having cold feet" seems like a fairly obvious metaphor, too - cold feet would, after all, make it difficult to move - but its origin is different than you might expect.

Feste said...

~
I agree with the doubts.

“Caviar should be well-rounded, and hard, and of adequate size. And it should burst in your mouth at precisely the right moment.” Taking a few liberties ...

tcrosse said...

Luckies: So round, so firm, so fully packed, so free and easy on the draw

William said...

i think our current enthusiasm for transgender surgery will be viewed by later generations the way we now view phrenology.

JohnAnnArbor said...

Pfaff's: people congregating in New York to congratulate each other on how cool they are and look down on others. So, nothing's changed.

Fernandinande said...

Nothing about corrective phrenology?

YoungHegelian said...

There's a great take-down of the scientific assumptions behind phrenology & physionomy in, of all places, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. While the discussion, deals specifically with phrenology & physionomy, the arguments advanced apply to any sort of reductive materialism. The chapter is often skipped by classes reading the Phenomenology. It shouldn't be.

Fernandinande said...

YoungHegelian said...
There's a great take-down of the scientific assumptions behind phrenology & physionomy


"They're baacck!" Except they're not assumptions.

Neural Network Learns to Identify Criminals by Their Faces
"...a group of psychologists from Cornell University showed that people were actually quite good at distinguishing criminals from noncriminals just by looking at photos of them. How could that be if there are no statistically different features?"

"The results are unsettling. Xiaolin and Xi found that the neural network could correctly identify criminals and noncriminals with an accuracy of 89.5 percent."

+

Concerns as face recognition tech used to ‘identify’ criminals
“phrenology of the 21st century”

The Godfather said...

@David, the way I heard the Truman story, Bess was pleased that she'd been able to get Harry to say "manure" in talking about the farm.

traditionalguy said...

I remember eating at the Algonquin Round Table. As I recall, it's in a front bay window area and has its own fluffy cat underneath. And there was the Oak Room off the lobby that had a seductive, sultry jazz singer. Never mind.

Walt Whitman is my favorite. He was an energetic guy who would have been a great trial lawyer, like that Lincoln fellow he admired was.

The Godfather said...

Whenever I'm accused of being "anti-science" about global warmism, I like to remember phrenology (among other once-revered psuedosciences).

tcrosse said...

"The President eats dirt and excrement for his daily meals, likes it, and tries to force it on The States."

Did the President give his girlfriend a copy of Leaves of Grass ?

Feste said...

~
“Neural Network Learns to Identify Criminals by Their Faces”

I’ll take the Minority Report.

These neural nets might have counterintuitive value. I have working friends who can never attend church, nor PTA meetings, nor movies in public parks, and so on. These neural nets might help improve their effectiveness on the streets, though some of their target criminals have near-psychic levels of awareness of undercover cops.

Let these Neural Networks be tried by a jury of their peers.

I’ll stick with humans for all their faults. For now.

Feste said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Feste said...

~
“ ... three facial features that the neural network uses to make its classification. These are: the curvature of upper lip which is on average 23 percent larger for criminals than for noncriminals; the distance between two inner corners of the eyes, which is 6 percent shorter; and the angle between two lines drawn from the tip of the nose to the corners of the mouth, which is 20 percent smaller.”

Smile a lot solves #1.

Ethnic interbreeding or corrective surgery would help with #2

Nasoplasty (for those who can afford it) or lots of street fights solves #3.

Perhaps solving any one of these three foils the nets.

Two of three should: and, are easy enough.

It’s an MIT report on Chinese science. Let’s see them use this test on their own faculties and administrators.

LarsPorsena said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LarsPorsena said...

I'm so well-rounded there's no point to me.

Chubfuddler said...

Slight correction. Longfellow's middle name was Wadsworth. (Perhaps Wordsworth falls under the "damn you, autocorrect" heading.)

Achilles said...

"The results are unsettling. Xiaolin and Xi found that the neural network could correctly identify criminals and noncriminals with an accuracy of 89.5 percent."

Time for some peer review...

While I was in I knew a bunch of people who might have been in jail now if they hadn't found a legal outlet for their activities.

I also wonder if the algorithms are racist...

Ann Althouse said...

@Chubfuddler

Thank you. Fixed.

openidname said...

No way does "shrink" derive from phrenology. It's from the Freudian era. Psychologists and psychiatrists were maligned as "headshrinkers," meaning mere quacks who practiced voodoo; soon shortened to "shrink."

Michael Fitzgerald said...

tcrosse said...
Luckies: So round, so firm, so fully packed, so free and easy on the draw

8/7/17, 3:39 PM

Go happy, go lucky,
Go happy, go Lucky Strike,
Go happy, go lucky,
Go Lucky Strike today!

...Jack Benny: "I wouldn't mind if Fred Allen's jokes just lay there. But they crawl out of the radio and stain your rug!"