William Godwin's Diary


Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832), a phrenologist, studied in Vienna under Franz Josef Gall, the pioneer of phrenology, and after a rift with his mentor went on to lecture widely on the science throughout Europe. Phrenology rests on the belief that different faculties of the mind have different seats in the brain, and that as these areas of the brain vary in size it is possible to study character through analysing the shape of the skull. Spurzheim was a particular successful in England, lecturing to amateur phrenological societies throughout the country. Godwin had already finished the Thoughts on Man essay ‘Of Phrenology’, written between 28 December 1830 and 9 January 1831, when he met Spurzheim on 16 February 1831 and heard him lecture eight days later. His earlier curiosity about phrenology is shown by the study his friend William Nicholson made of Mary Shelley when she was only three weeks old and he may well have been aware of the fairly accurate study of his own skull that was included in Sir George Mackenzie’s Illustrations of Phrenology (1820). However, in Thoughts on Man, phrenology is condemned as a ‘system of fatalism’ which turns people into ‘the helpless victims of a blind and remorseless destiny’. There is some difficulty in reconciling this with St Clair’s argument that a cast of Godwin’s skull was made by Spurzheim on 10 February 1831, based on the faint phrase, ‘ceris mal’ (‘moulded with wax’), which this edition suggests should instead be read as ‘ecris mal’. Somewhat surprisingly, St Clair and the other biographers overlook the 28 August 1830 entry, ‘Cast at Spurzheim’s, w. Holms, Cooke and M J; adv. mrs Maugham’, and if Godwin did allow Spurzheim to make a cast of his skull then this event is surely more likely to have been taken before his dismissal of phrenology.

See Political and Philosophical Writings, vol. 6; St Clair, pp. 261-2, 485, 557 n.8; Locke, pp. 219, 320-21 and Marshall, pp. 352-53, 369.