Gregory Norton posts (7 November) on QUORA
Gregory Norton, Engineer with interests in economics and the Philosophy of Liberty
“I have always interpreted Smith’s use of the term “invisible hand” as a simile for describing how a free market operates rather than as a synonym for “free market” or a metaphor for an identifiable process. The two usages (simile and metaphor) are similar, but there are differences. If the term is a simple metaphor for the process, then there is a process that can be identified and examined. If it is a simile there may be no process to be found, merely a general characteristic of results.
“The game progressed guided by an invisible hand” invites discovery and examination of that guide, metaphorically called an “invisible hand”. The invisible hand could be a coach using his radio or extensive practice and rehearsal.
“The game progressed as if guided by an invisible hand” invites no such discovery as there is no assertion that there is a guide, merely that a guide would achieve similar behavior and results.
“The children searched for Easter eggs as if guided by frantic invisible squirrels” is a simile that describes children running about randomly, achieving random results.
“The children searched for Easter eggs guided by frantic invisible squirrels” indicates that there are frenzied rodents somewhere, even if their methods of guidance (telepathy, chattering in code) are not apparent and the rodents are out of sight.
Samuelson and many others seem to be looking for frantic squirrels and, finding none, denounce Smith’s idea entirely.
So… Was Smith asserting that there really are frantic squirrels (invisible hands) or was he describing behavior and results by use of a simile? Smith was not clear; the two passages in The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments indicate to modern readers that Smith actually believed in a particular process, which he called “an invisible hand”. However, Smith wrote 250 years ago and writing styles have changed.
Smith used the phrase “led by an invisible hand” twice in two books of over 1100 total pages, did not use the term “invisible hand” anywhere else in the two books, did not elaborate on the process in either book, and the overall contents of his works indicate, to me, that he meant it to be a simile.
I think Samuelson misread Smith. Smith did not claim there was an identifiable process.”
Gregory Norton explores some interesting thoughts on Adam Smith’s use of the metaphor of ‘an invisible hand’ in his two works, ‘Moral Sentiments’ (1759) and in his monumental ‘Wealth of Nations’, 1776.
However, he ignores Adam Smith’s earlier contributions in his little noted, ‘Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres’, delivered, first as public lectures in Edinburgh from 1748 to 1751 and then in the University of Glasgow, as a Professor, from 1752-63. Incidently, his Lectures on Rhetoric were his longest-running series of lectures and pre-date his writing 11 years later on moral philosophy (1759), and on political economy (1776), 28 years later.
In short, Adam Smith was an authority on rhetoric long before he used ‘an invisible hand’ as a metaphor and he was well aware of the distinctions between a simile and a metaphor. Gregory Norton’s speculations are misleading. Smith’s writings are replete with metaphors and he made his early youthful claims to academic fame by a thorough critique of classical Latin rhetoric then taught in UK schools and was part of a movement generating an English language Rhetoric. Smith was also an accomplished scholar in Latin and Greek.
Smith was also very clear on the role of metaphors and when they were to be used. No metaphor “can have any beauty unless it is so adapted that it gives due strength of expression to the object to be described and at the same time does this in a more striking and interesting manner” (Smith in LRBL”, Lecture no. 6, p. 29).
Smith said that the merchant was ‘led by an invisible hand’ (a metaphor) and he did not use the words “as if” - two words that are a clear sign of the use of a simile. Neither was Smith speaking theologically. The merchant's motivated actions in investing his capital locally (to avoid foreign risks of investment) also had the consequence that he added to domestic investment and employment.
Intentionally doing one thing - avoiding foreign risks - unintentionally added to domestic investment and thereby benefited the public good.
Gregory Norton is mistaken in his interpretation of Smith’s meaning.