31 January 2020


James Poskett, Materials of the Mind: Phrenology, Race, and the Global History of Science, 1815-1920, The University of Chicago Press, 2019.

In Materials of the Mind James Poskett, assistant professor of the history of science and technology at Warwick University, uses phrenology as a case study in the writing of ‘global history’ in order to make a wider point that’s aimed squarely at his profession.
Apparently, since the 1970s science historians have framed their work on the nineteenth century strictly in national terms, treating scientific developments in different countries in splendid isolation. This is part of a wider rejection, presumably for ideological reasons, of science’s claim to be universal in its application and ability to explain the natural world. Poskett, in contrast, argues that, given the way ideas and discoveries were exchanged and cross-fertilised across the world, the subject can’t be properly understood without taking a global perspective: science wasn’t confined within national borders so, he asks, why should the telling of its history be?

The book therefore builds his argument for two conclusions: "historians of science need to abandon the distinction between the local and the global," and "all good history of science must be grounded in global history" – conclusions that his peers will, again apparently, find radical and contentious.

Is it just me, or is Poskett’s ‘radical’ thesis a statement of what is, or should be, the obvious? Given the way the world opened up during the nineteenth century - all the improvements in transport and communications that were shrinking the world and allowing information and ideas to be exchanged as never before - is there any way to look at the history of the time other than globally?

As it was news to me that there was a problem, I couldn’t really form an opinion on how well Poskett succeeds in fixing it; he had me from the start. For me, the revelation of Materials of the Mind isn’t about phrenology, or nineteenth-century ideas about race, or even Poskett’s argument about the need for a global approach, but rather the way today’s history of science is done.

That said, I found the detail of the book fascinating. As Poskett is making a case for the global treatment of his chosen subject, he naturally has to cast his net as wide as possible, not just geographically but also in terms of the social, cultural and political issues with which phrenology engaged. His study covers a lot of ground, both literally – from Arctic exploration to Pacific Island prison colonies – and figuratively, with material on, among much else, the Haitian slave rebellion, Inuit burial customs, life on the frontier of the Cape Colony and the academic debate over evolution, as well as descriptions of the processes for manufacturing plaster casts, different types of printing press, and the technicalities of early photography.

It’s all told in a way that communicates Poskett’s own fascination for and knowledge of these diverse but interconnected subjects. Although written in a properly academic style, it’s far from being a dry read.

Poskett picked phrenology for his study because it was "the most popular mental science of the Victorian age" - the operative word being ‘popular’, as although widely accepted and practised, phrenology’s status as a science was controversial from the start (in fact the term ‘pseudo-science’ was, I learn here, first coined to describe it).

Poskett builds his study around the ‘material world of manufacture and exchange’ within which phrenology operated, concentrating on six types of object – the materials of the title – that the (popular) science used: the skulls of indigenous peoples collected by European colonialists; the casts made of the heads of living individuals, because they were either considered typical or atypical specimens of a people; books; the letters exchanged between phrenologists; the phrenological periodicals and journals; and the then cutting-edge photographs. He devotes a chapter to each, showing how they were exchanged, studied and discussed across and between continents.

Phrenology was, of course, closely tied in with racial ideas, being used to make sweeping generalisations about the intelligence, moral character and other traits of different ethnic groups - and not just by the European imperialists and American slaveowners who used it to justify their assumed superiority. Both sides in the struggle over slavery in the USA used phrenology to support their positions, including African American phrenologists who argued that it demonstrated the lack of difference between black and white. Similarly, in India a group of educated Bengalis, mostly medical students, formed the Calcutta Phrenological Society to use phrenology to challenge British assertions of natural superiority (while simultaneously claiming that it showed the mental inferiority of women).

The book isn’t just about phrenology and race, though, as Poskett shows how phrenological theories were also applied to penal reform and education – again with ideas being swapped across the globe.

George Combe of Edinburgh, from an architectural feature
on the Museum of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society building

There are plenty of interesting snippets along the way, such as phrenology, in India, being brought into a debate among Hindus about whether the material world really is an illusion. And the story takes in some fascinating characters (as well as some downright obnoxious ones).

A central figure is George Combe of Edinburgh, an energetic promoter of phrenology who lectured all over Europe and the USA and wrote the phrenological ‘bible’, The Constitution of Man (1828) – a work that outsold The Origin of Species during the nineteenth century.

There’s Eustache Belin, a Haitian who achieved celebrity in 1830s Paris as ‘le bon nègre’ for saving his owners from the revolt, plaster busts of whom were pored over for clues to what made him different to the rebels. And Lucretia Mott of the Philadelphia Phrenological Society (one of the few to admit women), a passionate abolitionist who sealed her letters with an image depicting a kneeling African slave woman with the legend ‘Am I Not a Woman and a Sister.’

Madame Blavatsky gets a couple of pages, as one of the critics of William Eliot Marshall’s influential Phrenology Amongst the Todas (1873), which used photographs of the Toda people of southern India’s Nilgiri hills to support Darwinian theories about the origins of humankind. HPB, who of course took a different line, accused Marshall of fiddling his conclusions by using photos of another ethnic group entirely – and she appears to have been right.

Poskett argues that taking a ‘global history’ approach shows that historians’ general understanding of the rise, decline and fall of phrenology is wrong: "phrenology did not simply fade away during the second half of the nineteenth century. From soldiers fighting in the American Civil War,  to Indian nationalists seeking independence, phrenology found new audiences and new political uses throughout the nineteenth century. This becomes clear only once we abandon the closed approach to national and imperial contexts that has dominated the history of science for too long."

Aside from that, what comes across from Material of the Mind is those ‘political uses’ – how holders of diverse and opposing political and ideological positions could shape phrenology, like other sciences, to fit their beliefs. And judging by what Poskett has to say about the practice of contemporary science history, I wonder how much things have changed. 
  • Clive Prince.

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