Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Excellent Contribution from Eric Schliesser

Eric Schliesser’s excellent series of Weekly Philo of Economics,  HERE
continues today with a piece on “Adam Smith's Third Invisible Hand” in his posthumous History of Astronomy (1795). (Worth reading)
The "invisible hand" in Smith's History of Astronomy's ” is, thus, an anthropomorphic projection of the fearful and ignorant savage’s  imagination to account for events that deviate from his or her ecological rationality. It ascribes to the deities what became known as "particular providence" (as opposed to general providence that rules the universe). On Smith's account heathen superstitious introduces godly intervention to explain unusual events. This projection of particular providence is said to be a form of the “lowest and most pusillanimous superstition,” but it does prepare the way for philosophy, which is its offspring. So, who cares?
Smith offers what we would call “an error theory” about the savages’ beliefs; they think that unusual events in the world are governed, as it were, behind the scenes, by passionate gods’ actions, but in reality these are just anthropomorphic projections (Peter Kail has created a useful taxonomy of such projections). Smith's error-theory diagnoses the savages’ expectations, which are associated with necessity, and deviations from these are associated with godly interventions. By labeling all of this “vulgar superstition” (etc.), Smith indicates he does not believe any of it.
Smith’s treatment of heathen belief as imaginative projections springing from fear and ignorance has an Epicurean flavor reminiscent of, say, Hume’s The Natural History of Religion and Spinoza’s Appendix to Ethics 1. To some of Smith’s posthumous readers there may be a more troubling consequence: Smith explains how from the point of view of the savages' imagination, the heathen gods’ actions appear as interventions in the ordinary course of nature (associated with necessity). A divine intervention in the natural course of nature with the aim of some particular providence is often labeled a ”miracle" by christians.
No wonder Smith was cautious about publishing the History of Astronomy during his lifetime (even enlisting David Hume as possible literary executor to it at one point).
Yet no discussion of Smith’s IH? I was disappointed at this, given that authors often claim that the IH in the Astronomy essay is somehow related to his other two mentions of the IH as a metaphor, despite having no connection to them at all.  Clearly, this early use was not metaphoric at all, despite ingenious, if laboured attempts to make a connection. (See for example: N. Emrah Aydinonat, 2008. “The Invisible Hand in Economics: How economists explain unintended social consequences”. Routledge, pp 72-77).
In Astronomy Smith simply describes the pagan belief that Jupiter, their invisible, wholly imagined, god – whose statue on the Capitoline Hill in Rome dominated the city – fired thunderbolts at those who displeased him, as illustrated occasionally on coins, in an exhibition of what Smith called “pusillanimous superstition”. 
Here is what he wrote: “nor was the invisible hand of Jupiter s ever apprehended [by savages pagans] to be employed in those matters.” (History of Astronomy, 3.2-3).
In short, Smith used the IH as part of a noun phrase and not as a metaphor.  Why do some modern economists not recognize this simple grammatical distinction?  If they did they would realise that the IH in Astronomy has no connection to the IH he used in TMS and WN.
Smith wrote the History of Astronomy between 1744 (while at Oxford)  and c. 1758 (while at Glasgow, i.e. before he published TMS) and kept his ms in the bureau drawer in his bedroom. Apparently it was not circulated.  Even David Hume, his close friend since 1751, was not informed of the essay’s existence, nor where to find it, until 1773.
I had hoped that Eric would have commented on this aspect of the ‘third’ use of the IH metaphor.


Blogger Joseph Kaupp said...

Thanks for the post, Gavin. I'm a new reader and am really enjoying the blog. My background is evolutionary psychology, and I'm used to researchers making labored (and dubious) connections between very disconnected subjects that are only superficially related.

I'm just sinking my teeth in to the works of Adam Smith, so I'm really enjoying these modern day references to his posts.

9:37 pm  
Blogger Eric Schliesser said...

Gavin, thank you for your kind words about my post. We agree about the invisible hand not being a metaphor in the history of astronomy. Moreover, each of the three instances of "invisible hand" in Smith's works is rhetorically complex and requires careful individual analysis. I do believe there is a subtle relation among them, but I will tell that story in my book.

9:50 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Always a pleasure to read your posts. I look forward to reading you forthcoming book and your, no doubt, brilliant. subtle analysis linking the pagan beliefs of Romans to the IH metaphor in TMS and WN.

3:39 pm  

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