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Materials of the Mind

Phrenology, Race, and the Global History of Science, 1815-1920

Materials of the Mind

Phrenology, Race, and the Global History of Science, 1815-1920

Publication supported by the Neil Harris Endowment Fund

This is not only the first global history of nineteenth-century science but the first global history of phrenology.

Phrenology was the most popular mental science of the Victorian age. From American senators to Indian social reformers, this new mental science found supporters around the globe. Materials of the Mind tells the story of how phrenology changed the world—and how the world changed phrenology.
This is a story of skulls from the Arctic, plaster casts from Haiti, books from Bengal, and letters from the Pacific. Drawing on far-flung museum and archival collections, and addressing sources in six different languages, Materials of the Mind is an impressively innovative account of science in the nineteenth century as part of global history. It shows how the circulation of material culture underpinned the emergence of a new materialist philosophy of the mind, while also demonstrating how a global approach to history can help us reassess issues such as race, technology, and politics today.

373 pages | 47 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019

History: British and Irish History, General History

History of Science




Presidents Book Award, Social Science History Association, 2020

"One of the many merits of Mr. Poskett's book is that it rejects the standard view of phrenology as something that was almost accidentally invented in Europe and then came to flourish in the therapy-obsessed United States. Instead, Mr. Poskett paints the picture of a globe crisscrossed by phrenological exhibits and ephemera."

Wall Street Journal

"Materials of the Mind, a material culture travelogue through phrenology's truly global popularity in the nineteenth century, asks us to look a bit more closely at what is right under our noses. . . . The book's six chapters each focus on a type of material object, an unusual structure that makes for a wonderfully thematic read. . . . Poskett's contribution to this 'global history of science' is to 're-entangle' phrenology's objects with the sheer scale of colonial violence that had to occur before phrenology could have any meaning at all. . . . The 'materials of the mind' in this story exist in the ephemera of personal letters; the fragile but often meticulously cared for plaster casts; the elaborate books and the out-of-date periodicals. All of these pay some degree of homage, even in distant memory, to the violence once visited upon the enduring skull."

Global Intellectual History

"Well-written, rich, broad-scoped, and politically provocative . . . . While one of the book's strengths lies in the material it explores, it also partially suspends its judgment of the subject, thereby allowing the strange, horrific, and violent nature of phrenology to emerge as a feature of modern history of science."


"A work of truly ambitious scope. . . . This is an undeniably important book, offering fresh and stimulating new perspectives on the history of phrenology. As a history of phrenology in the global nineteenth-century Anglosphere and its colonial outposts, with a few enlightening forays beyond these limits, it is exemplary."

Nineteenth-Century Contexts

"For those readers looking for an entirely new approach to the once-faddish pseudoscience of phrenology, [Poskett] presents just such an addition . . . . With engaging writing, many illustrations, and extensive references for historians, there is much to recommend in Materials of Mind, a scholarly and uniquely social approach to the phrenological movement. . . . A fascinating subject that should appeal to more than just specialists interested in phrenology or, more generally, the history of science."

Journal of the History of the Neurosciences

"In Materials of the Mind, [Poskett] studies the discredited 19th-century 'science' of phrenology. . . . [He] covers his subject in chapters on skulls, casts, books, letters, periodicals, and photographs. . . . Recommended."


"Materials of the Mind brings race to the forefront of the history of phrenology, long overdue. Race was astonishingly absent from many earlier scholarly treatments of phrenology, despite its centrality and explicit discussion in phrenological texts and its inseparability from British colonialism and western imperialism. Poskett vividly demonstrates how phrenological objects were material means for communicating racial differences, and as a result, that materials played a significant part in the subjugation and exploitation of peoples around the globe. We can now better grasp how the history of skull collecting and cranial study was inextricable from colonial and plantation violence. Materials of the Mind also opens up the history of phrenology by incorporating the voices and dissent of people who were the objects of phrenological study. . . . Poskett's book is a true achievement, binding the history of materials and race to the politics of phrenology and making a powerful case for the global history of science."

Social History of Medicine

"A bold take on a fascinating subject. By any measure, this is an extraordinarily ambitious project involving substantial archival research, international travel, and translations from at least six languages. The resulting book encourages readers to take phrenology seriously as a worldwide social and scientific movement, its current status as pseudoscience notwithstanding. . . . Essential reading for anyone interested in Victorian psychology and the global circulation of ideas."

Victorian Studies

"Taking place on a thoroughly globalized stage, highlighted by tragedies both banal and spectacular, and populated by a host of actors well and lesser known, Poskett's history transforms phrenology's status from that of scientific footnote to one of near‐Shakespearian significance. . . . Poskett has written an important book. In it, he demonstrates how scientific actors the world over use and are used by competing and complementary racial agendas. And in doing so, Poskett effectively spotlights much that has been consigned to science's darker corners. His stage is a contested one. His script was simultaneously familiar and strange. And his actors? As epistemological and transactional subjects and objects, Poskett's phrenological entities are compelling, disturbing, and eminently familiar. They are, after all, the unembraced forefathers and mothers of today's human scientists."

Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

"[An] insightful and richly illustrated book. . . . An important milestone."

British Journal for the History of Science

"It is perhaps unsurprising that phrenology already occupies a fairly well-explored area in the history of science. This valuable and engaging book, however, breaks new scholarly ground. James Poskett uses the material cultures of phrenology—such as skulls, letters, and photography—to generate an interconnected transnational history that transforms a familiar pseudoscience into a complex and multifaceted global process. As it examines phrenology’s many global pathways, interchanges and permutations, Materials of the Mind remains attuned to power but explicitly works against the constraints imposed by units of analysis such as nations and empires, offering instead a materially based and iterative model for a global history of science. As a global history, this work offers a wide-ranging and erudite analysis of how transnational flows of material and material cultures shaped phrenology. . . . Every chapter of this book is distinguished by impressive archival work across many collections in numerous global locations and languages. Detail, references, and illustrations abound, supporting Poskett’s fundamental commitment to exploring material culture’s role in shaping a global history of science. . . . As both an exploration of phrenology specifically and as a scholarly work interested in advancing the question of what it means to write a global history of science, Materials of the Mind comes out ahead."

Journal of British Studies

"Today we can laugh at the idea that our personalities and attributes can be measured by the bumps on our heads, but phrenology was the most widely practiced mind science of the Victorian era. . . . Not just a fascination in Europe and America, Poskett show the wide reach of the 'science' through its objects and ephemera—skulls and charts and books and the like—travelled the globe and found receptive audiences wherever they landed."

New York Society Library

"Poskett has taken two new approaches in the history of science—a focus on materials and a global approach—and successfully applied them to phrenology: the book moves the historiography of phrenology in a new direction and places the discipline of phrenology firmly in the nineteenth-century context of globalization, imperialism, and racial thinking... This book shows that phrenology is an excellent discipline to think with. Poskett's book brings the historiography of phrenology up to date with the latest insights and paints a rich and varied picture of how phrenology worked."

Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society

"An exemplary history of objects, this book is also a global history of the mind. Poskett clarifies the material culture through which ideas about phrenology--and materialism itself--translated and travelled across continents and languages. The freshest history of the strangest science."

Alison Bashford, author of Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth

"In this ambitious and riveting book, James Poskett tracks the global in so many senses: as a category among phrenologists who were concerned with the scales and spaces of work and with the nature of comparison and racial imagination; as a physical possibility among those who transferred skulls, letters, printed text, and casts; as a lumpy and uneven set of links across the span of the world; and finally, as a way in which we talk about our present moment in the historiography of the sciences. It is precisely because Poskett combines all of this globular talk, and because phrenology is such a good discipline with which to range across these globals, that Materials of the Mind should be vital reading on some of the most urgent concerns facing the world history of science."

Sujit Sivasundaram, University of Cambridge

"This terrific book explores the global turn in the Victorian science of phrenology and sets the topic firmly inside the expanding imperial and racial concepts of the day. It shows how the ideas and objects associated with the popular activity of measuring heads circulated across the globe while making a substantial contribution to understanding the universalizing properties of science and technology in history."

Janet Browne, Harvard University

Table of Contents

1. Skulls
2. Casts
3. Books
4. Letters
5. Periodicals
6. Photographs
List of Figures


Social Science History Association: President's Book Award

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