Saturday, August 20, 2011

Literature Scholars Look at Adam Smith's Philosophy

Leeann Hunter, Marion L. Brittain, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, reviews , “The ‘Invisible Hand’ and British Fiction,1818-1860, Adam Smith, and the Genre of Realism”, by Eleanor Courtemanche, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011 (HERE):

This book makes a strong case for the humanities through its interdisciplinary study of political economy in the nineteenth century. Instead of viewing political economy through the lens of literature, Courtemanche writes as a political economist, using realist novels to trace the intricate webs of economic relationships and to illustrate the social and economic thought of the nineteenth century, as inspired by Adam Smith. She thereby shows that compared with economic theory alone, literary irony, tragedy, omniscience, and character can deliver a fuller portrait of political economy. Harriet Martineau, one of the authors featured in this study, made a similar case for the use of narrative--by writing novels to educate her readers in the principles of political economy. While Courtemanche simply writes about novels, she clearly explains how literature can reach across disciplines.

At the center of her inquiry is, after all, a literary-economic figure of speech: the metaphor of the "invisible hand." First used by Adam Smith in the late 18th century, the "invisible hand" has long come to symbolize the supposed benevolence of capitalism as it regulates the self-interest of the individual. When acted upon, this self-interest triggers a series of unseen forces that work together to benefit the larger economic society, but are "only comprehensible as an unstable composite of the mutually exclusive points of view of sovereign and merchant. For centuries, however, according to Courtemanche, economists have narrowed and oversimplified our understanding of Smith's complex ideas about social economic theory. By investigating Smith's use of the "invisible hand" metaphor in his major treatises, Courtemanche offers us a more effective way of analyzing the economic relationships at work in nineteenth-century England. The novel, she argues, with its "dynamic interplay between the 'worm's eye view' of the characters and the 'bird's-eye view' of the narrator," offers suitable ground for the study of political economy under Smith's terms. To show more clearly the complexity of invisible hand theory, she defines the gaps between the perspectives of the individual and the sovereign, and then argues that novels most successfully explore these gaps. …

… Essentially, Courtemanche explores the contradictions of what is known as the "Adam Smith Problem." Appealing respectively to sympathy and to pragmatism, two of Smith's major works--The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and Wealth of Nations (1776)--seem to oppose each other. To reconcile their differences, Courtemanche aims to show how Smith navigates the "perplexing gulf between individual and collective points of view" (9). In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, she notes, Smith explains how we can feel sympathy for others: it is only through our individual experience of pain, he suggests, that we can perceive another human's pain, and transport ourselves "into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations" (qtd. 58). Similarly, she notes, Wealth of Nations mediates between the limited perspective of the individual citizen and the sovereign's expansive view of the nation's wealth. Smith's "idea of moral action," she concludes, "is thus based not just on the embeddedness of the individual within a complex society, but on the fragmentation of the individual point of view between the feeling of his own passionate interests and the dispassionate consideration of those interests from both a local and an infinitely distant point of view" (59). The gaps between those points of view are what Courtemanche investigates

First, let’s get the modern myth of the IH metaphor out of the way. (on this occasion I shall not deconstruct the metaphor, see Lost Legacy, passim.)

Instead, I shall draw on the reviewer’s apparent error on when the IH metaphor was “first used” - certainly long before Adam Smith used it.

It was used in classical times (Homer, Horace, etc.,) two millennia before Adam was born (for a list of 17 prior instances see my: “Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy”, 2010, pp. 151-2, Palgrave Macmillan), and afterwards through the early Christian era, to Shakespeare (MacBeth), and widely, thereafter, in the 17th-18th centuries. Peter Harrison, Journal of the History of Ideas, 2010, provides over 40 other instances of the IH metaphor in theological sermons, literary, and historical novels (including Defoe’s Moll Flanders, 1722, and Voltaire’s Oedipe, 1718, and Walpole, 1764).

In short, the “invisible hand” was a well-known, popular, and almost clichéd, metaphor in regular use before Adam Smith used it, once only, in each of his published books (and on another occasion mentioned once in his posthumous, Essay on the History of Astronomy ([1744-50] 1795). Specialists in English literature should know that fact.

The so-called Adam Smith problem (a pseudo-problem invented by some late 19th century is German philosophers) is a false construct of his meaning in both of this books. Sympathy and self-interest are not counter-poised (nor was his pragmatism at work). Sympathy was a core sentiment fed by an individual’s social contact (society as a mirror) and individual’s learning as the grow up the range appropriate and inappropriate behaviours (‘the great school of self-command’), learned from when the child leaves the protective comforts of the family. His self-love is constrained by the inevitable self-love of others, and social relations are founded on the mediation of his, and their, self-interests.

The individual needs the support of others, and in persuasion, friendship, and exchange, each finds that level of support they seek. Exchange permeates all aspects of personal relations, finding it in the market-place and domestically, and it the act of “bargaining” in which each offers to transact: “Give me this that I want, and you shall have this which you want’ (Wealth Of Nations, Book 1, chapter 2), and in “other-regarding” exchange relations through reciprocal exchange, the elements of what makes society cohere and enables us to inhabit close together in the same space (within the family, near relatives, friends, and strangers), and in the security of justice in wider society (“without justice a man would enter society as in a den of lions”).

Adam Smith was closely interested in literature (from classical times), poetry, the theatre, rhetoric, translations, and letters - (see his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, ([1763] 1983), his longest running lecture series was on all aspect of Rhetoric from 1748-64.

Methinks, on this evidence, that Eleanor Courtemanche (and, perhaps, Marion L. Brittain) have some more reading to do on Adam Smith.



Blogger Ted said...

You're reviewing a *review*? Seriously?

And then you attribute the error of the review also to the book -- without quoting the book?

"Methinks, on this evidence," you don't have much.

10:40 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thanks for your comment. In my defence, I do prefee my criticism by saying that 'on this evidence' I did not think much of the reviewer or the book reviewed.

At £55 from Palgrave (incidentally, the publisher of my own books on Adam Smith) even with an author's discount I did not consider the book worth the expense (again on the evidence before me).

As a, now, retired academic, I have to ration my book purchases. Are you hinting that the book's content is badly represented in the review on either or both Smith's use of the invisible hand metaphor and the so-called 'adam smith problem'?

If so, I would re-consider the expense.


3:46 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Looking at what the author's publisher say in their publicity - that "Adam Smith's metaphor of the 'invisible hand' – in which selfish economic actions are mysteriously transformed into aggregate social benefits in a capitalist economy – implies an entire spatial and temporal system in which the morality of any particular action can only be understood in the context of society as a whole " I see no reason to amend or withdraw my remarks on Eleanor Courtemanche's book.

There was nothing 'mysterious' about Smith's use of the IH metaphor, not his meaning in the identity of the object of the metaphor. In Moral Sentiments, the IH metaphor refers to the necessary mutual dependence of the feudal lords on their peasants (no food, no toil); in Wealth Of Nations it refers to how some, but not all, merchants are too insecure to risk their capital abroad, therefore they invest domestically, and by so doing they (unintentionally) add to domestic 'revenue and employment', which is a public good.
Nowhere does Smith speak of the IH metaphor as 'operating' through selfish actions or of being 'mysterious'.

I see the current prices of Courtemanche's book are falling. In due course, I shall consider buying it.

4:18 pm  

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