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Matter over mind? The rise and fall of phrenology in nineteenth-century France

The history of phrenology in France has a number of unique features. It was in that country that F. J. Gall sought refuge; and it was, above all, in France that phrenology would subsequently attempt to establish its credentials as a new physiological science of the mind. Up until the 1840s, phrenology expanded rapidly in the country, a growth that coincided with attempts to provide this new field with the trappings of respectable scientific endeavor—courses of lectures, learned societies, journals, and so on. This ambitious intellectual project, despite its controversial nature, made a major cultural impact in the nineteenth century, both through its influence on the written word—from learned journals to the novel—and via its striking visual imagery (sculpture, anatomical diagrams and models, engravings, caricatures, and so on). However, as the scientific impact of phrenology declined, allusions to it lost much of their cultural force. On the borderline between respectable science and mere quackery, phrenology in France represented an attempt to construct a whole new intellectual universe based on scientific principles, and as such had a profound impact on its period.

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