The 20th century introduced a number of new concepts to psychiatry and clinical psychology. One of the most influential has been the notion of personality. Carl Jung, Gordon Allport, Abraham Maslow, Harry Stack Sullivan, and Carl Rogers are just a few of the early figures who, starting in the 1920s, developed theories and models designed to capture the inner core of human subjectivity (or the “self,” as Rogers put it). But while their names and ideas continue to resonate, time has proven less kind to another psychological project that played out at the same time. This was characterology.
Coined in 1867 by Julius Bahnsen, a student of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, characterology was associated primarily with Germany. It is there that it began to take hold and thrive, with the founding of the field’s two major journals in the mid-1920s: Jahrbuch für Charakterologie (Yearbook for Characterology) and Zeitschrift für Menschenkunde (Journal for Human Studies).
Characterology emerged as a type of character analysis following along the lines of the clinical assessment of functional disorders in the 19th century. This was an assessment that involved examining a patient for outward signs indicating a psychopathology or at least a proclivity toward some pathological state of mind. The approach was beholden in no small measure to the work of the France-based psychiatrist Bénédict Morel (1809-1873), whose theory of degeneration held that most mental disorders were due to corrupt hereditary constitutions and that these corruptions were reflected in observable physical stigmata and behavioral abnormalities.1 Characterology’s innovation was to extend this kind of evaluation to populations beyond those deemed “abnormal,” in order to identify those traits that drove an individual’s will and conduct.
In Germany, characterology’s star began rising in the 1920s and 1930s, when industry and the public sector began seeing the value in applied psychology. Both psychotechnics and vocational counseling were beneficiaries of this growing interest. So too was characterology, whose practitioners at the time placed less emphasis on testing and quantitative measures and more on the observation and interpretation of expressions of virtues, such as patience, independence, love of order, and calmness.2
How then did characterologists propose doing this?
One way was developed by psychiatrist Ernst Kretschmer (1888-1964), which he laid out in his influential book Physique and Character in 1921. He argued that two types of constitutions—a cyclothymic and a schizothymic—are at the core of human character to varying degrees. Moreover, human beings are born with one of three basic body types: asthenic, pyknic, and athletic, and these body types are closely associated with contrasting pairs of character features. Individuals of the pyknic variety, for instance, he believed, temperamentally fluctuate between joviality and despair. Thus, if Kretschmer’s model was accurate, it was possible to read character features and predilections by simply inspecting a subject’s physique.3
Psychologist Ludwig Klages (1872-1956) offered another technique: graphology. The notion that a bodily movement like handwriting could provide direct insight into the soul or character of a person was not new, having been the subject of treatises dating back to at least the 17th century. What Klages and others did by the early 20th century, however, was to tie handwriting directly to neurology, understanding the activity to be a form of expression that projected facets of a person’s inner core.4
Dr Eghigian is Professor of History, Penn State University.
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