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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Weight Problems: An Enquiry into Scales and Justice


In 1901, Dr Duncan ‘Om’ MacDougall (c. 1866–October 15, 1920), a physician from Haverhill, Massachusetts, devised an experiment to ‘determine’ the weight of the soul. He weighed six terminally ill patients just before death and then he measured again immediately after they had deceased. He found that each of the patients had lost exactly 21 grams after passing away. He repeated the experiment with 15 dogs, finding out that they would lose no weight through death. He therefore deduced that the human soul must weigh 21 grams. Scientists had no hard time in debunking Dr MacDougall’s experiments, although his measurements of the ‘weight of the soul’ stayed in popular culture (in 2003, Alejandro González Iñárritu directed a popular movie entitled ‘21 Grams’; Dan Brown mentions MacDougall’s experiments in ‘The Lost Symbol’, etc.). Yet, the idea that the soul has weight and that its weight must be measured through appropriate scales is not new but dates back at least to ancient Egypt. This essay retraces the cultural and visual history of these metaphysical measurements, seeking to show their ideological implications across cultures and epochs. It focuses, in particular, on ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, and on the early Jewish and Christian contexts. Some symbols so skillfully traverse epochs and cultures that they are depicted as almost ‘natural’ embodiments of abstract values. The balance is one of these symbols, adopted to represent metaphysical justice from ancient Egypt until the present time. Power appropriates this ‘natural meaning’ in order to construct a rhetoric of fairness. Yet, semiotics unveils that the balance, like every symbol, is not natural at all but underpinned by a specific ideology. From the semiotic point of view, the balance is a device that produces indexes, i.e. causal signs that visually signal an invisible property, weight. Although this translation is not automatic but based on specific indexical circumstances (such as the type of balance, the weighing techniques and the measuring standards that are used), the balance is paradoxically turned into a symbol of metaphysical justice precisely because it is depicted as a non-semiotic device, as an instrument that cannot lie, as a machine. The essay provides initial elements for a transhistorical and cross-cultural study of scales in the visual rhetoric of spiritual justice.

Insights Paper

Vol 10 Article 12