Note on Schiller’s skull
Carus presented Schiller’s skull as a singular standard for the harmonious devel- opment of poetic sensibility. There are two problems with his choice. First, as mentioned, he didn’t measure Schiller’s skull directly, but rather a plaster cast of the skull. But the second difficulty completely undermines his effort. There is strong evidence that the skull thought to be Schiller’s is not really his. At his death in 1805, Schiller was buried in a mass grave for distinguished individuals in Wei- mar. Twenty-one years later, Karl Schwabe, the Weimar Bügermeister, decided to retrieve Schiller’s remains, which by then had become mixed with the bones of many others. He pulled out twenty-three skulls and judged the largest “must be Schiller’s skull” (Schöne 2002, 14). Goethe revered this skull, making it into a small shrine to his friend. It was this skull that provided the plaster cast that Carus used for his measurements (Carus 1845, Tafel 1). In later years, doubts arose concerning the skull, and another skull was recognized as more likely Schiller’s. In 2008, DNA from both skulls was extracted and compared with DNA from the remains of known relatives of Schiller. Neither skull was a match (Smee 2008).
Conclusion: Exacting measurement and ineffable beauty of skulls
Global travel during the late eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries revealed the great variety of mankind and brought to the fore the question of the very nature of the human. During this same period, slavery as a political and moral question grew in volatility and nearly destroyed a young nation. Science, especially the introduction of exact measurement into new areas of inquiry ‒ into anatomy, psychology, and anthropology ‒ should have been able to provide, or so it was thought, objective methods for coming to conclusions about such social issues. Techniques of measurement thus came to be applied to that most durable and iconic feature of the human – namely, the human skull.
Four scientists of acknowledged ability undertook the measurement of man, or at least his skull ‒ Tiedemann, Morton, Blumenbach, and Carus. All four assumed that external physical characteristics might reveal internal mental traits and talents or affiliation to an ethnic group. Each, however, brought to his effort different assumptions and different techniques of measurement. The former two focused on quantitative determinations of cranial capacity ‒ indicative of mental ability ‒ and the latter two were concerned with aesthetic evaluations, which might suggest innate talents or racial origins.
All four of the naturalists recognized that there was significant variability both across races and within races. Tiedemann and Blumenbach, the former measuring cranial capacity and the latter aesthetic features, found no significant differences in innate qualities of the races, while Morton and Carus thought the races formed a hierarchy ranging from inferior to superior. Tiedemann recognized that women had smaller skulls than men, but actually larger skulls relative to body size; Carus judged the anterior and posterior plates smaller in women, which implied smaller intelligence and weaker will, though a mid-plate that was relatively larger, sug- gestive of greater sensitivity. Despite the variability found within and across races, Morton and Carus detected beneath such differences stable and unchanging types, while Tiedemann and Blumenbach seemed to perceive only individuals.
From our perspective, Morton and Carus appear simply to have endorsed cultural stereotypes, yet we should not demand them to be wiser than their times would allow. One likely explanation for their assumption that general types lay beneath variable structures was their training. Both were illustrators, and Carus, of course, an extremely accomplished artist. As Ernst Hans Gombrich has shown, from the late medieval period through the first half of the nineteenth century (and even today), drawing manuals instructed the novice to practice schemata – that is, patterns for drawing the bird, the tree, the human figure, as opposed to drawing a particular bird, a particular tree, a particular human being. As the student advanced, he or she could begin adding individual details to the schematic drawing, turning the universal into the particular (Gombrich 1984, 146‒178). So the artist and illustrator, at least as part of their training, would have reflexively perceived the schema ‒ or as Carus called it, the archetype ‒ beneath the particularity. Blumenbach and likely Tiedemann may have been more disposed to see only individuals instead of types because they had personal acquaintance with Negros, and so stereotyping would be more difficult than it would be in the absence of such interaction. Of course, personal acquaintance is not an infallible protection against prejudice, as slaveholders in the Ameri- can South make evident. This array of social causes and professional inclina- tions does seem to explain differences existing among the four naturalists, but, of course, something must be attributed to individual disposition and personal psychology.
In this essay, I have paid special attention to the aesthetic judgment of skulls, since such evaluation seems not only unusual but also subjective, not a scientific measure. Both Blumenbach and Carus were readers ‒ and followers ‒ of Kant, who argued, in the third Critique, that the judgment of beauty made a universal claim on others. It was subjective, according to Kant, but nonetheless universal since judgments of beauty depended on an aesthetic feeling arising from an inef- fable relationship between reason and imagination, traits common to all humans. Since the judgment of beauty was grounded in a feeling that lacked a conscious, rational component, Blumenbach and Carus, as Kantians, could do hardly bet- ter than point to the object, while uttering terms like “symmetry,” “harmony,” and “graceful arrangement of parts,” which were little more than synonyms for “beauty.” For the Kantian, direct experience was crucial, not argument, in making a judgment of beauty.
At the end of the nineteenth century and through the early part of the twentieth, intelligence tests began to be constructed and personality tests devised. These had the potential for revealing inner human traits more directly than evaluations based on external measurements. External, physical features were still used, but the Nazi experience quashed most such efforts. So the period discussed in this essay represents a particular moment in the evaluation of human beings. Aes- thetic evaluation of skulls is even more distant from our present expectations. But I have seen the Georgian female’s skull in the Blumenbach collection at the Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen. It is quite beautiful.