December 9, 2007

Invisible Hand – fragments from the history of a metaphor. (Part Two: The History of Astronomy)

Filed under: Philosophy — duncan @ 8:27 pm

In his early, but posthumously published, ‘History of Astronomy’, Adam Smith gives a classic Enlightenment account of intellectual progress. “Philosophy is the science of the connecting principles of nature.” The events and objects of the world may appear to be governed by no law. But the philosopher or scientist can, through study and reasoning, uncover the “invisible chains which bind together these disjointed objects” and thereby “introduce order into this chaos of jarring and tumultuous appearances”.

The philosopher, as a representative of rationality in general, finds connections where there appear to be none – “invisible” connections between apparently unconnected objects and events. But the philosopher also finds differences and distinctions within what may appear to be a single homogenous class. “Where [the mind] can observe but one single quality, that is common to a great variety of otherwise widely different objects, that single circumstance will be sufficient for it to connect them all together, to reduce them to one common class, and to call them by one general name.” In our quest for further knowledge our minds then introduce new categories and distinctions. “We observe a greater variety of particularities amongst those things which have a gross resemblance; and having made new divisions of them, according to those newly-observed particularities, we are then no longer to be satisfied with being able to refer an object to a… very general class of things.”

Smith’s theory of mind closely resembles that of his friend Hume. “When two objects, however unlike, have often been observed to follow each other, and have constantly presented themselves to the senses in that order, they come to be so connected together in the fancy, that the idea of the one seems, of its own accord, to call up and introduce that of the other.” But if “this customary connection be interrupted” we feel surprise, then wonder. If two objects or sensations without a habitual relationship are brought together, the mind “feels, or imagines it feels, something like a gap or interval betwixt them.” The mind tries to “bridge” this gap, by positing an “invisible” connection.

Thus for Smith there are two ways in which the mind can fail to adequately grasp the nature of the world. On the one hand, it may attempt to bridge the gap between sensations by positing an invisible connection which is inaccurate or insufficient. The mind, in its drive to impose order upon tumultuous appearance, will seize upon any connection, however inadequate, in order not to be distressed by uncategorisable experience. This connection may be inadequate because it fails to give a correct account of the relationships between the objects of experience – or it may simply be too general to have explanatory value. The limit case of the latter would be the homogenisation of all objects – the case of the child who “imagines that it gives a satisfactory answer when it tells you, that an object whose name it knows not is a thing”.

On the other hand, the mind may fail to find a connection between its disparate sensations. Faced by an apparently uncategorisable object, “[t]he imagination and memory exert themselves to no purpose”. We experience “emotion and movement of the spirit… that staring, and sometimes that rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart… which are the natural symptoms of uncertain and undetermined thought.” Pushed far enough, this becomes the limit case in which our minds experience a total lack of interconnection: a tumult of sensations, or a state of “the most violent disorder”. If no pattern can be discerned in our experience the imagination cannot follow its natural path – and this, Smith tells us, may “disjoint its whole frame”, leading to a state of “lunacy”.

Now an interesting feature of Smith’s account is that this state of lunacy is only experienced as a result of the philosophical impulse. According to Smith, the child is perfectly content to place objects in “the two most obvious and comprehensive classes… the class of realities or solid substances which it calls things, or… that class of appearances which it calls nothings.” It is only once we start distinguishing objects and attempting to classify them more precisely that the possibility of a violent disorder of the imagination arises. “[A] philosopher, who has spent his whole life in the study of the connecting principles of nature, will often feel an interval betwixt two objects, which, to more careless observers, seem very strictly conjoined.” “It is thus that too severe an application of study sometimes brings on lunacy and frenzy.”

There is thus a tension in Smith’s account. Philosophy’s project is to master the tumult of experience by discovering the truest and most general principles that lie behind it. But in the attempt to discover these principles, philosophy may reveal as inadequate the connections we have hitherto drawn between objects and events. Philosophy therefore risks opening up those gaps or intervals in experience that are the source of lunacy. The philosophical drive towards rational explanation may also be the drive towards madness.

Smith imagines a scenario familiar to all philosophers. He imagines “a person of the soundest judgement… all at once transported alive to some other planet, where nature was governed by laws quite different from those which take place here; as he would be continually obliged to attend to events, which must to him appear in the highest degree jarring, irregular, and discordant, he would soon feel the same confusion and giddiness begin to come upon him, which would at last end in the same manner, in lunacy and distraction.” It’s interesting that this ‘planet’ thought experiment is proposed within a history of astronomy. The history of astronomy, Smith tells us, is the history of mankind learning that all the celestial bodies follow the same physical laws. Yet when Smith wants to imagine a counter-scenario, he imagines us transported to another planet, where our physical laws do not apply. I’m not sure this curious choice of thought-experiment is very significant; but it’s striking that Smith here imagines “some other planet” as the very exemplar of discordance.

I’m trying to set the stage for the third appearance of the ‘invisible hand’ in Smith’s oeuvre. This takes place in the context of man’s attempt to understand the motions of the heavens – the general theme of Smith’s essay. Here’s the passage in question:

“For it may be observed, that in all Polytheistic religions, among savages, as well as in the early ages of heathen antiquity, it is the irregular events of nature only that are ascribed to the agency and power of the gods. Fire burns, and water refreshes, heavy bodies descend, and lighter substances fly upwards, by the necessity of their own nature; nor was the invisible hand of Jupiter ever apprehended to be employed in those matters. But thunder and lightning, storms and sunshine, those more irregular events, were ascribed to his favour, or his anger.” Jupiter – who is at once a planet and a God – is here the source of discordant experience. His “invisible hand” is the connection heathens posit in order to bridge the explanatory gap between events.


Now Smith has a typically Enlightenment vision of scientific explanation. The pattern that we discern behind the motions of nature resembles the “machinery of the opera-house”: “Who wonders at the machinery of the opera-house who has once been admitted behind the scenes? In the Wonders of nature, however, it rarely happens that we can discover so clearly this connecting chain.” In our attempt to explain the natural world, we can only imagine the chain that connects its objects. And we have to choose between rival explanations on the balance of probabilities – because this explanatory chain can be comprehended only in our imaginations. “A system is an imaginary machine invented to connect together in the fancy those different movements and effects which are already in reality performed.”

Smith’s account of intellectual progress describes both continuity and discontinuity. According to Smith, the savage sees the natural world as governed by invisible laws. But when the savage is unable to account for natural events by means of these laws, he posits an invisible agency in their place. This agency, in the passage under examination, takes the form of an “invisible hand.” Philosophical man, by contrast, sees the natural world as invariably governed by invisible laws. If we encounter the unexpected – for example, the failure of the motions of the planets to fully conform to the predictions of Ptolemaic astronomy – this indicates not supernatural agency but the inadequacy of our present system. This system must then be replaced by another “imaginary machine”, which is better able to account for the observed facts. The positing of invisible explanations is a constant; but supernatural agency is replaced by natural law. And these different forms of explanation are represented, in Smith’s essay, by different metaphors: the “invisible hand” is replaced by an “invisible chain” or an “imaginary machine”.

This is partly the difference between polytheism and monotheism, and partly the difference between different kinds of monotheism. It is perfectly possible that God’s world follows natural law, yet God also intervenes in the world to suspend natural law. But the Enlightenment vision of a machinic universe leaves little room for God’s agency – and so this form of scientific explanation sets us on the road to atheism.


Now, what is striking about Smith’s use of the “invisible hand” in his two later books, is that he uses it to describe not irregular events but the laws of nature and society that govern our economic relations. The meaning of the phrase has shifted across a crucial explanatory divide – the divide between agency and law. Or, rather, it appears to have shifted. I want to suggest that the ‘History of Astronomy’ meaning of “invisible hand” may still be present, in a subterranean way, in ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments ‘ and ‘Wealth of Nations’. Different and apparently competing visions of philosophical and scientific explanation are all evoked by this one metaphor.

The “invisible hand” can signify, for Smith, three things.

1) The immutable natural laws that govern our world.
2) The divine Providence that ensures the just operation of these laws.
3) The intervention of a divine actor which disrupts these laws.

It’s tempting to assign one of these meanings to each of the occurrences of the phrase in Smith’s oeuvre. Thus: 1) The Wealth of Nations; 2) The Theory of Moral Sentiments; 3) The History of Astronomy. But I’m not sure this allocation really works.

Here’s the relevant passage from ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ again:

“The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly that number of inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition.”

Of course it’s very plausible to read this passage as a description of the natural laws of our economy. But I want to draw attention to the way in which the opposition between nature and Providence operates here. The rich have a “natural selfishness and rapacity”; contrasted to this “natural” inclination are the “invisible hand”, and “Providence”.

Does this not at least echo the opposition we find among Smith’s heathens – between those objects which operate according the “the necessity of their own nature”, and those “irregular events” which break this predictable harmony? Is it not at least possible to read this passage from ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ in the following way: Providence can intervene in the natural laws of human nature; it does so by using its “invisible hand” to redirect man’s “natural selfishness and rapacity”?

I think that the ‘Astronomy’ meaning of “invisible hand” is still present somewhere in the background of Smith’s later uses. After all – the idea of Providence is difficult to separate from the idea of divine agency. If Providence is behind our economy’s natural laws, this suggests that the kind of divine intervention Smith attributes to Jupiter may also be at work in his concept of Providence.

This is quite a tendentious reading of Smith. But I want to propose it as a possibility; and, having done so, I want to raise another issue. In ‘The History of Astronomy’ Smith tells us that human beings imagine an “invisible hand” when they have exhausted their intellectual resources. We imagine an “invisible hand” because we cannot provide a truly rational account of our world. In ‘The Wealth of Nations’, by contrast, the “invisible hand” is a rational explanation of our world. Critics of the ‘invisible hand’ doctrine have often suggested that it is a form of intellectual wish-fulfilment. Invoking an “invisible hand” represents a failure to analyse the real forces at work in our world. It is striking that Adam Smith used the phrase, in ‘The History of Astronomy’, with exactly this meaning. The invisible hand is a form of superstition, deployed when we cannot understand the real forces at work behind events.


A couple of far-too-hasty final remarks. In the ‘History of Astronomy’ the invisible hand mostly has an explanatory value – it takes the place of natural laws. In ‘Theory of the Moral Sentiments’ and ‘The Wealth of Nations’, by contrast, the main force of the ‘invisible hand’ is moral. In these later works the invisible hand tells us that even selfishness and rapacity do not act against the principles of justice and equality. In positing this connection between events, Smith is not trying to escape the “violent disorder” of tumultuous experience. Rather, he is trying to escape the vision of society that would see selfishness and rapacity as its only governing laws. And so the invisible hand does not ward off an ‘epistemological’ lunacy – it wards off a violent disorder of our moral beings. Which is to say: nihilism.

Next post… Macbeth!


  1. Could you explain metaphoric relations of Adam Smith’s three invisible hands separately?.
    Then readers very well understand the different objects of the metaphor.

    Comment by gunawansa — March 30, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

  2. You have not explained different objects of three invisible hands.

    Comment by gunawansa — March 30, 2012 @ 4:49 pm

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