Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Scholars of English Apparently Not Clear on Metaphors

This review article is posted in the Illinois Department of English Blog (HERE):
By Curtis Perry head of the department (2 May)

The 'Invisible Hand' and British Fiction, 1818-1860

I am delighted to announce here the publication of Eleanor Courtemanche's new book, The 'Invisible Hand and British Fiction, 1818-1860: Adam Smith, Political Economy, and the Genre of Realism. Actually, the book been in print in Great Britain since April 12, but I learned this morning that Professor Courtemanche's advance copies have now arrived in the mail. This is my cue to post. Because, like I always say, nothing can be real until it arrives in central Illinois.

Published as part of Palgrave's impressive "Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture" series, The Invisible Hand and British Fiction argues that 19th-century realist novels, with their large-canvas portraiture of individuals within complex social systems, represent the best and most sophisticated response we have to the baffling experience of living in a world of global capitalism. This is a historical argument, about fiction and economic theory in the 19th century, but one that also makes 19th-century fiction speak to experiences that are our own. I admire this book for its powerful argument, but also for its lively and accessible prose. I think it has the potential, therefore, to be of interest to readers beyond its main, obvious audience of scholarly specialists: if only the invisible hand of the marketplace could somehow bring it to a wider audience's attention!

Here is the book description, pasted in from the press' website: "Some economic ideas are too interesting to be left to economists. This book argues 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. The 'Invisible Hand' and British Fiction argues that while political economists focused only on the optimistic outcomes of capitalist moral activity, Smith's model of ironic morality also influenced the work of novelists including Austen, Dickens, Martineau, Thackeray, Gaskell, and Eliot. Their realist novels represent the reconciliation between individual ignorance and systemic overview as much less stable than the economic synthesis, using omniscient narrative voices, multiple perspectives, and humor to depict a wide variety of possible outcomes. Smith shares with the realists a vision of modern society that is structured around a fragile trust in the benefits of unintended consequences."

Congratulations, Eleanor!

It is not my intention to impugn the scholarly standards of a fellow-Palgrave author, but Eleanor Courtemanche is quite wrong in associating Adam Smith with her standard repetition of the modern meaning (not Adam Smith’s) of the “invisible hand metaphor.

Adam Smith did not assert that “selfish economic actions are mysteriously transformed into aggregate social benefits in a capitalist economy” anywhere on the two (only) occasions in which he used the IH metaphor in his Moral Sentiments (1759) and Wealth Of Nations (1776). If that is her theme for her otherwise no doubt excellent book, then she starts from a disadvantage.

In that sense I agree that “Some economic ideas are too interesting to be left to economists” and would extend that to scholars who pick up ideas from other disciplines which they have not investigated independently. Especially since, the disputed metaphor is directly related to the modern misreading of the role of metaphors in the English language as understood and taught by, a subject I expect Eleanor Courtemanche (and Curtis Perry) would know more about than economists.

I refer them both to Adam Smith’s Lectures on “Rhetoric and Belles Lettres” [1763] 1980, a regular part of the Scottish University courses in Moral Philosophy in the 18th century, and which Smith gave to students in Edinburgh from 1748-51, and to Glasgow University students from 1751-64 (and which remained a part of moral philosophy degrees in Scotland through to the early 20th century).

In his lectures, Smith discussed the role of metaphors (page 29) and made the strong point that metaphors describe their ‘object’ “in a more striking and interesting manner". His two uses did just that, but neither had anything to do with “selfish economic actions (that) are mysteriously transformed into aggregate social benefits in a capitalist economy”.

In Moral Sentiments the IH metaphor refers to rich feudal landlords having to feed their labourers from the produce of food on their lands (i.e., they could not consume it all themselves and not feed their labourers – otherwise who would live long enough to labour on the landlord’s land? Moreover, the labourers could not labour without receiving food from the landlord. They were mutually dependent – no labour, no food; no food no labour. The IH metaphor explained the relationship that bound both sides of their dependency in a ‘more striking and interesting manner’.

In Wealth Of Nations, in Book IV, the IH metaphor explained that consequence of some, but not all merchants, who feared for the security of their capital if they sent it abroad, and how their insecurity led them to invest in the home market instead. By doing so, they added to domestic “revenue and employment” – the whole being the sum of its parts. This unintended benefit was the direct consequence of their insecurity and this insecurity was the object of the IH metaphor.

In short there is no actual “invisible hand”. It is a metaphor, but not a metaphor for “selfish economic actions [that] are mysteriously transformed into aggregate social benefits in a capitalist economy”. Smith devoted two books (285 pages) in Wealth Of Nations to how markets in commercial economies (not “capitalist” – they came later in mid-19th century) worked in detail and he never used the IH metaphor while doing so.

Moreover, by describing the object of the IH metaphor (i.e. identifying it) on both occasions that he used it, there is nothing ”miraculous” nor mysterious about how these unintended outcomes came about. Nor is there, for completion, nothing mysterious about how markets work – they work through very visible prices as shown in Books I and II.

But the IH metaphor is not about prices – its about the specific "objects" that Smith’s examples referred to: mutual dependence and insecurity. Now these are not visible, they operate within people’s heads, that cause them – leads them – to behave in the way they do.

Why modern myths were invented using the IH metaphor in the 1950s onwards by modern economists is a question of ideology born (metaphor) in the post-second world war decades in competition with Soviet military expansion in Eastern Europe and the rise of anti-market communist parties in Asia and perceived subversion in capitalist Western economies.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home