Thursday, October 27, 2011

In The Better Traditions of the Republic of Letters

Paul Oslington was reported by Noel Debien,(18 October) on ABC local HERE:


“The religious involvement in the Occupy Wall St movement should come as no surprise given the primoridal capitalist theorist Adam Smith was a Calvinist Christian. Paul Oslington argues that Smith's notion of an "invisible hand" was inextricably linked with the just "hand of God", and that Adam Smith's "invisible hand" needs reading in this context. Somehow, that idea of God's providence driving the world seems to have become lost as modern economic theory has secularised and developed. Economics and morality seem to have become estranged. And these are the kernels for discussion in this program. Could John Calvin be the clue to justly reforming modern economics after all?”

Setting aside the modern presentation of Adam Smith as “the primoridal capitalist theorist” – he theorized about the commercial society as the 4th age of man (Lectures on Jurisprudence, 1762) and the fact that ‘capitalism’ entered the English language in 1854 (Thackeray’s ‘The Newcomes’), that Adam Smith was a Calvinist as an adult is questionable (see my paper in Journal of the History of Economic Thought, September, 2011: ‘The Hidden Adam Smith in his Alleged Theology’).

I know Paul Oslington quite well. We met when he was my Discussant at a session on my paper on the invisible-hand at the University of Virginia, Fairfax, in 2008. He gave a constructive criticism of my paper and we subsequently corresponded and met again in Edinburgh, when he invited me to give a short talk at seminar hew as running on ‘Theology and Economics’ for the Templeton Foundation. Subsequently, in 2010, he invited me to address a couple of seminars at the Australian Catholic University (Sydney) on the theme of my JHET paper. The seminars were attentive and expressed scholarly disagreements with my thesis, from which I learned a lot about theology. Paul and I ‘agreed to disagree’ without the slightest rancour. Since which time, Paul has been helpful in identifying additional reading and has provided several paper with which I was having trouble locating. In short, our relationship is in the best traditions of the Republic of Letters.

In this context, I am not able to accept that Smith’s use of the IH metaphor was other than as a metaphor for its object; it has no ethereal existence as the just "hand of God". To argue thus is perfectly legitimate as an ‘inextricable link in Paul Oslington’s (or that of Peter Harrison’s, Brendon Long’s, Andy Denis’s, et al) names, but is debateable if argued in Adam Smith’s name.

As for the ‘secularisation’ of the philosophical ideas of ‘providence’, this too is a debateable issue. Providence was a pre-Christian, pagan notion, first regarded a schism. Later, like so much of pagan religion, absorbed into Christianity and re-presented as a divine phenomena.

I agree that “Economics and morality seem to have become estranged” but this has nothing to do with Adam Smith’s legacy. Economics, like the IH metaphor, have been hijacked and re-marketed by modern economists as somehow connected to Adam Smith’s political economy. In this modern ‘spin’, Adam Smith’s Moral sentiments is disregarded.

That some theologians have attempted to ‘inextricably link’ Adam Smith to their spiritual beliefs is part of this re-branding. I happen not to agree with this interpretation of Adam Smith, though I certainly respect those scholars who make such a case.



Blogger airth10 said...

I think Adam's "invisible hand" was meant to be a secular alternative to God's providence.

11:43 am  
Blogger airth10 said...

This, then, should be interesting:

1:59 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thank you for your comments.

That Adam Smith's use of the popular 17th-18th century IH metaphor acts like a secular alternative to the theologians use of the IH metaphor in their books, and sermons, it does not follow that he intended it so to be.

Others used the IH metaphor in their plays, poems, and novels in a purely secular role (Shakespeare, Defoe, Walpole) and in many modern uses too (e.g., Frankenstein and Tarzan).

I read the cited article, but did not see the point that you make.


4:40 pm  
Blogger airth10 said...

Sorry, there wasn't meant to be a connection between the two.

6:23 pm  

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