William Hogarth produced the satirical etching "The Weighing House" in 1763. What is the background to this? What aspect of science was Hogarth being satirical about? What was the scientific cultural background?

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There are plenty of references to the etching but I am looking for a reference that deals with the problems that made an attack on science appropriate.


1 Answer 1


Clubbe's Physiognomy, where the etching is the frontispiece, is accessible on Internet Archive. Clubbe's target was the so-called pneumatology ("science of spirit"), a popular in the 18th century attempt to extend Newtonian approach from bodies to souls. Pheumatologists considered rarefied substances, like ethers and vapors, to be mediators between matter and spirit, and were seeking 'laws of motion' applicable to the mind and its interaction with material objects. In particular, they were looking for connections between physical motions and moral change. Clubbe parodied this idea by analogizing the latter to irregular orbits under "mental gravity". Hogarth's etching served as an illustration.

Landreth discusses pneumatology and Clubbe's parody in Breaking the Laws of Motion: Pneumatology and "Belles Lettres" in Eighteenth-Century Britain:

"As Newtonianism prompted moral philosophers to turn their gaze inward in search of universal laws of moral motion, pneumatology began to focus solely on human spiritual substances: the animal spirits and the soul... By the 1730s, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and "systems" of knowledge defined pneumatology as "speculative moral philosophy."... If one assumed that mental activity could be explained in terms of motion, this raised a vexing question: what, precisely, was moving? Did rarefied substances like the animal spirits - or, even more troubling, the immaterial soul - obey Newton's laws of motion?.. By 1771, James Beattie could declare that pneumatology was beneath "the dignity of a science" in large part because it did not conform to the new, empirical bent of Newtonianism." One's mind/soul might be in motion, but one could not, after all, measure or quantify that motion."

"This fact - that cognition did not conform to Newtonian standards of measureable motion - made pneumatology an easy target for satirists. In a 1763 pamphlet, entitled Physiognomy, Being a Sketch... Wherein the Different Tempers, Passions and Manners of Men Will be Particularly Considered," the Anglican clergyman John Clubbe satirized a Newtonian approach to the mind by purporting to design a machine that could measure "mental gravity" (see Fig. 2). This device improves upon traditional physiognomic methods of "reading" facial types by making visible that which is ordinarily invisible: one's moral compass."

"In his description of his "experiments," Clubbe's "Figure C" (labeled "Partial Gravity" in the frontispiece) exemplifies how a person's reading habits might influence the motions of his mind... In one pocket, Clubbe's narrator finds Methodist sermons; in the other, he finds "a small common-place-book filled with extracts" from notorious freethinkers, many of whom argued for a materialist understanding of the soul. Figure C's books cause erratic "flutterings" in his mind; Methodist "enthusiasm" and freethinking "impudence" pull him in different moral directions. The contrary messages of these texts set Figure C's mental gravity "whirling" into an irregular orbit."

Clubbe's pamphlet is also discussed by Connor in Absolute levity, along with later 'spiritual supplements' to Newtonian physics.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. I use this picture in lectures to remind students of the difference between mass and weight. Could the background to Hogarth's etching be the controversy over mass and weight discussed here? Or is this another question? $\endgroup$
    – Hugh
    Commented May 6 at 20:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Hugh No, this is unrelated. Hogarth caricatures "moral compass" governed by "mental gravity". $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Commented May 6 at 22:14

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