Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Clarification on "Centrality" As a Physical Fact, Not As Altering Adam Smith's Meaning

In Freeman online from the Foundation for Economics Education (HERE)

Mark Skousen writes:

Why Is the “Invisible Hand” in the Middle of Smith’s Works?

"Coincidence or subtle statement?

... On the other hand, economist Gavin Kennedy contended in earlier writings that the invisible hand is nothing more than an after-thought, a “casual metaphor” with limited value. Rothschild, the Harvard University economic historian, even goes so far as to declare, “What I will suggest is that Smith did not especially esteem the invisible hand. . . . It is un-Smithian and unimportant to his theory” and was nothing more than a “mildly ironic joke.”

Smith wrote sympathetically about the Aristotelian golden mean, the idea that virtue exists “between two opposite vices.” For instance, between the two extremes of cowardice and recklessness lies the central virtue of courage.

In his essays on astronomy and ancient physics, he was captivated by Newtonian central forces and periodical revolutions.
Klein discovered that in his lectures on rhetoric Smith admired the poetry of Thucydides, who “often expresses all that he labours so much in a word or two, sometimes placed in the middle of the narration.”

Klein and Lucas’s list of evidence is what a lawyer might call circumstantial, or “impressionistic,” to use their own adjective. Taken as a whole, the documentation is either an ingenious breakthrough or a “remarkable coincidence,” to quote Kennedy.
A few Smithian experts have warmed up to Klein and Lucas’s claim. Kennedy, who previously considered the invisible hand a “casual” metaphor, now sees a “high probability” in their thesis of deliberate centrality. Others are more skeptical

My Comment on the Freeman online Blog today:

I should make it clear that when Daniel Klein kindly sent to me a prepublication version of his ‘centrality’ paper he asked for my comment. Reviewing the evidence assembled by Klein and Lucas I applied the scholar’s principle that we should always submit to the facts. On the narrow question of the physical centrality of the IH metaphor in Moral Sentiments (from the 3rd edition) and Wealth Of Nations (all six editions), the facts are clear it appears in the physical centre of each book. Therefore I expressed the view that this was more likely to be deliberate than coincidental (the latter of ‘vanishingly small probability’).

That is the extent of my comment.

I continue to reject politely and respectfully the enormous superstructure that Daniel Klein builds on the fact of centrality.

He ignores Adam Smith’s teaching on metaphors (page 29 in the same lecture series in which he comments on Thucydides in contrast to Polybius) that metaphors describe ‘in a more striking and interesting manner’ their objects and in both of his mentions of the IH metaphor in his two books he also identifies their ‘objects’, and they had nothing to do with ‘markets’, ‘supply and demand’, ‘harmony’, ‘equilibrium,’ or the rest of its supposed meanings invented from the 1940s by modern economists as part of the necessary Cold War against communist expansionism. Bringing the 2,000 years-old Talmud into the discussion is a distraction from Smith’s meaning.

The IH metaphor was popular and in wide use in 17th and 18th century literary discourse, mainly among theologians, but also among play writers, poets, and novelists. It was hardly mentioned among ‘economists’ until Paul Samuelson gave it widespread publicity from 1948.

[The "Aristotelian golden mean" was a necessary part of Smith's Moral Philosophy degree course - and of all courses in "Moral Phil" at Scottish Universities from the early 1700s (if not before) through to the 1960s (and probably still is), when I mixed with "Moral Phil" students as a young economics student, and we talked about the "Golden Mean" - as you do. What Smith taught did, not imply special enthusiasm, it was his job as professor to so so.]

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Blogger entech said...

I remember following this a while ago and thought it barely plausible. The bringing the Talmud and Torah into it is, perhaps, a little counter-productive: if you check the central part of the Torah you would have to think that mankind’s greatest duty is to cure leprosy.

7:47 am  

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