SMITH ON 'GRAVITATION' AS A METAPHOR
This a new paper I have recently completed which may interest readers of Lost Legacy. The full paper will be published soon on the 'Social Science Research Network' (SSRN). I can send a draft copy to those who request one; others wait a few days and it will be on SSRN.
"Adam Smith’s Use of the ‘Gravitation’ Metaphor"
This paper commments on a paper by Prof David Andrews, ‘Adam Smith’s Natural Prices, the Gravitation Metaphor, and the Purposes of Nature’, 2014, published in Economic Thought, 3.1, pp. 42-55, which takes a philosophical view of Adam Smith’s use of the ‘gravitation’ metaphor from ideas of Aristotle and Empedocles, rather than Isaac Newton. Instead, this paper takes the view that Smith was using a metaphoric ‘figure of speech’, following his teachings on Rhetoric in his “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres’ (LRBL) and not a literal use of possible deeper philosophical meanings, interesting as they are, though not entirely relevant to Smith’s purposes on this occasion. Smith’s rhetorical use of ‘gravitation’ is consistent with his LRBL teachings and his long explanation of the dynamic relationships between ‘natural’ and ‘market’ prices in WN I.vii-xi.p, pp.72-267.
Keywords: Adam Smith, natural price, normal price, gravitation, sellers’ and buyers’ behaviours.
This interesting short-paper by David Andrews is instructive in provoking me to recount the interpretation of Smith’s use of metaphors, on this occasion confined to the use of ‘gravitation’ to describe a relationship between ‘natural’ prices (before products are sold in markets — a sort of ex-works, ‘factory-gate’ price) and ‘market’ prices realised later in actual markets when actual sellers offer their products in actual markets to actual buyers (‘effectual demanders’).
David’s paper also provoked memories of attending, long-ago, A-level Physics classes for university entrance exams and subsequently, in later years, when reading Adam Smith’s use the ‘gravitation’ metaphor. This background leads me to a different take to David Andrews’s interpretation of Smith’s use of the ‘gravitation’ metaphor in Wealth Of Nations (WN I.v.ii: ‘Of the natural and Market Price of Commodities’, pp. 72-81).
For some years since 2003, I have taken a particular interest in Adam Smith’s use of metaphors throughout his Works, especially the metaphor most closely associated with his name today in respect of his use of the ‘Invisible Hand’ metaphor (see my many Blog posts in www.adamsmithslostlegacy.blogspot.co.uk, 2005-14): and Kennedy, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014). Much of my work on metaphors used by Adam Smith is applicable to understanding his treatment in usinf metaphors elsewhere in his Works.
From this background, I believe that Smith’s use of the ‘gravitation’ metaphor in WN was quite different from David Andrew’s philosophical interpretation (Aristotle and Empidocles) in his paper and in his comments on Marshall and several modern economists: Pierangelo Garegnani (Garegnani 1976, p. 27), Geoffrey Harcourt ((Harcourt and Kriesler 2012, p. 9), Ian Steedman, John Eatwell and Murray Milgate (Eatwell and Milgate 1999, p. 83), Tony Aspromourgos (2010, pp. 65-6), Heinz Kurz and Neri Salvadori’ (Kurz and Salvadori 1998, p. 3) and Piero Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities: Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory. Interesting as this knowledge may be, it does not quite clarify Smith’s use of ‘gravity’ as a metaphor.
David sets out his case in his abstract:
“The first section examines the context in which Smith’s gravitation metaphor appears in order to show that it was intended as an assertion about the movement of market prices rather than one about the meaning of natural price. Section Two explores the gravitation metaphor in detail to show that what Smith described is gravity in the ancient rather than the modern sense, implying that movement results from the inclination of market price rather than from any property of natural price. The third section focuses attention on Smith’s understanding of nature, arguing that, according to Smith’s Aristotelian usage, ‘natural’ refers to the reproduction of species, including the human species. Based on this discussion, Section Four presents an interpretation of the sense in which natural prices are said to be natural in Smith” (Andrews, 2014, p. 3)
He also asserts:
“For Smith, [Gravitation] is not a Newtonian metaphor for the attractive character of natural price, but rather an Aristotelian metaphor for the pattern of movement of market prices, in which natural price serves merely as a reference point” (Andrews, 2014. p.2).
This paper explains why I regard the relevance of David’s philosophical interpretations somewhat sceptically. First, I examine Adam Smith’s teaching and use of metaphors and, second, I comment on David Andrews’s arguments on ‘gravitation’ in its “Epidoclean” and not “Newtonian” sense in relation to the relationship between ‘natural’ and ‘market’ prices (WN I.ii.vii-xip).