Volume 14, 2018
History of Philosophy
A Neglected Episode in the History of Nineteenth-century Ideas
Marx and Engels Facing Phrenology
At the end of the 18th century, the German physician and anatomist F.J. Gall founded Schädellehre, a new discipline – better known today by the name “phrenology”, popularized by his disciple J. C. Spurzheim – designed to show the functional connections between psychic faculties, areas of the brain, and the shape of the skull. In contrast to Gall’s belief that the individual’s moral and intellectual endowments were biologically innate, and could be measured by cranioscopy, 20th century Marxism took a critical view of phrenology, branding it as a “pseudoscientific”, “vulgar-materialistic”, and “reactionary” doctrine, the preserve of “spiritualists” and “charlatans of every stripe”. Up until today it has seldom been pointed out that – in spite of this harsh judgment by the Marxist literature – also Marx and Engels make an unexpected appearance amidst the varied array of 19th century supporters of phrenology. During his stay in Manchester (1842/44), the Young Engels, who had recently turned atheist, carried out cranioscopic experiments in order to disprove the claims made by the “Christianizing phreno-mesmerist” S.T. Hall that there was a specific cerebral organ of religiosity and faith in God; and even in his ripe age he was not above, having a phrenologist examine him to assess his aptitudes for business and foreign languages. As for Marx, after his early discovery of Schädellehre through reading Hegel’s works, he consolidated his knowledge of the subject during his long exile in London (1849/83). While in London, he read books on medicine and phrenology, watched anatomical demonstrations, made friends with some German refugees who were followers of the doctrines of Gall and Spurzheim, and used the cranioscopic method to make a personal selection of the militants of the Communist League. This paper aims to draw attention to a little-known and unexplored episode in the history of philosophical and scientific ideas of the 19th century.