Stevin Seminar: Self-knowledge through numbers. Self-instructors in phrenology as self-tracking technologies, 1850-1900
Lecturer: Fenneke Sysling
Today it has become popular to use digital technology to acquire data on daily life: on sleep patterns, calorie intake or the number of steps taken for example. These data are supposed to give people a more accurate and objective sense of themselves which can help implement changes, for example to live a healthier life. The technologies to make this possible are revolutionary but the use of quantification to study and understand the individual body is not new. This paper looks at the late nineteenth century example of phrenology. Phrenologists believed that the human mind could be categorized in different mental faculties, with each particular faculty represented in a different area of the brain. On the head the development of these areas could be studied by analyzing the bumps. These bumps however were not only studied by (semi-)professional phrenologists but also by individuals who applied phrenology to themselves and to others, mostly in the U.S. and England. This paper shows how with the help of phrenological ‘Self-Instructors’ individuals in this historical period too transformed their own self-understanding and worked towards self-improvement by engaging with techniques of quantification.
Fenneke Sysling is a lecturer at the Vrije Universiteit, specialized in the history of science, race and colonialism. She wrote her PhD thesis on the history of physical anthropology in the Netherlands Indies.