Book note: A Vindication of Phrenology (1894) by W Matthieu Williams

I picked this book up in a bookstore I adore – Walden Books in Camden. It is an angry defence of phrenology as a science and works as a great reminder of how far we will go to defend our beliefs, but it is also a challenge to we think about mind and brain. 1 It probably does not need to be said, but I will anyway: I do not believe in phrenology.

Williams builds his entire defence on a single, important premise:

Sound familiar? And from this Williams assumes that we from the shape of the head can learn things about the mind because the brain affects the shape of the cranium. He has, as evidence, a letter from a mother who is convinced her sons head has changed and he has gotten a more prominent forehead as he has studied.

Through external signs and effects we know the brain and hence this is how we know the mind, Williams argues.

A lot of our current exploration of mind is not far different from this pattern of explanation.

We also see how sunk cost locks us into perspectives. Williams notes that he has been engaged in and studied phrenology for many years, so he knows it is true:

Williams’ “ever-increasing conviction of the solid truths of the great natural laws it has revealed” is a trap that we all risk falling into, when we have been too invested in a subject. Intellectual honesty always risks being absorbed by the event horizon of our convictions.

Williams, furthermore, also deploys another tactic that we recognise: the denial that he is trying to say something about the deeper question of consciousness. This, he says, is just a study of the phenomena themselves.

A fascinating book for anyone who wants to explore the theory of science and questions around the many paths our attempts to understand the mind has led us down. It is so easy to laugh at books like this, and imagine that no one will buy any book published today in more than a 100 years and see the same things we now see when we can look with the benefit of hindsight.

That is obviously false.

An argument to hold strong convictions lightly, yet again – and to explore patterns of thought that recur.

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    It probably does not need to be said, but I will anyway: I do not believe in phrenology.

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