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To what extent did the Zurich pastor and philosopher Johann Caspar Lavater shape the idea of a supposed biological racism with his contributions to physiognomy?

Written by Hans Fässler; read by Alina Vimbai Strähler & Patrick Balaraj Yogarajan

The Zurich pastor, philosopher, and writer Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) did not invent physiognomy. Physiognomy signifies the making of assumptions about a person's inner qualities, for example their character, based on their outer appearance. Such attempts can already be found in Aristotle and Paracelsus. But it was Lavater who turned it into an allegedly scientific method: By means of a huge archive of images, he tried to show how one could recognize human character on the basis of facial features, skull proportions and body shapes. Lavater was also the first to publish Dutch physician Petrus Camper’s “facial angle” theory, which claimed that one could determine with scientific-mathematical accuracy the proximity of the "human races" to the animal. Thus, Lavater popularized the racial theories of his contemporaries.

Lavater's main work, ‘Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe’ (‘Physiognomic Fragments to Promote Knowledge of Human Nature and Love for Mankind’), was popular. The physiognomy described in it laid an important foundation for modern racism, anti-Semitism, and the devaluation of everything that did not conform to prevailing norms. Non-European people were portrayed as supposedly biologically – and thus by nature – "inferior races". In this way, Lavater shaped a way of thinking that guided racial theorists and anti-Semites right up to the Nazi era.

Lavater's work was published in the 18th century and was received enthusiastically. By the beginning of the 19th century, his work had been translated into numerous languages and published in several European countries as well as in North America. In the post-Enlightenment bourgeoisie of the 19th century, Lavater’s physiognomy became a "science", a social game, and a downright obsession that lasted well into the 20th century, showing its traces to this day.

Lavater is often defended ‍against the accusation of racism with the argument that he was a child of his time. The slave traders and slave owners of the 18th and 19th centuries are often defended in the same manner. However, Lavater's theory was already controversial during his lifetime (as was slavery at the time of its practice). The Swiss writer Ulrich Bräker, for example, wrote to Lavater: "Ich bin Dir gut, von Herzen gut, und möchte Dich um viel nicht böse machen. Aber die Schädel sind mir grüsig und ’s wird mir übel" ("I mean you well, from the heart, and would not want to anger you. But the skulls are repulsive to me and make me feel sick"). Where Bräker merely had an uneasy feeling, his contemporary and physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was uncannily clear-sighted:  "Wenn die Physiognomik das wird, was Lavater von ihr erwartet, so wird man Kinder aufhängen, ehe sie die Taten getan haben, die den Galgen verdienen" ("If physiognomics becomes what Lavater expects of it, children will be hanged before they have done the deeds that deserve the gallows").

Hans Fässler has roots in Ausserrhoden and Glarus and studied English and history at the University of Zurich. He came across Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution 20 years ago and has not been able to get away from it since. The retired high school teacher lives and works in St.Gallen: as a city guide, historian, activist, and traveler focusing on reparations for slavery. He publishes his colonial research results on CARICOM Compilation Archive (CCA) -


Lavater, Johann Caspar: Of Physiognomics, Leipzig 1772.

Lavater, Johann Caspar: Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe, Leipzig and Winterthur 1775-1778. Online at: (retrieved 12.10.2020).

Further reading:

Erenz, Benedikt: Johann Caspar Lavater und seine Physiognomik: Grüsige Schädel, in: Die Zeit, 20. Dezember 1991.

Gray, Richard T.: About Face. German Physiognomic Thought from Lavater to Auschwitz, Detroit 2004.

Kanning, Uwe: Von Schädeldeutern und anderen Scharlatanen: Unseriöse Methoden der Psychodiagnostik, Lengerich 2010.

Salvaggio, Eryk: Racial Pseudoscience in the Age of AI, in: nextrends, June 2019, online unter: (abgerufen am 16.9.2020).

Theile, Gert (Hg.): Anthropometrie. Vermessung des Menschen von Lavater bis Avatar, München, 2005.