Metaphor Made Manifest: Taking Seriously Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand’

The intro to Eugene Heath’s chapter:

Is there any reason to devote time or effort to reading (or writing) an additional essay on Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”? Given the plethora of papers (as well as chapters, comments, and asides) dedicated to uncovering, interpreting, explaining, or contextualizing this notable expression, one could be pardoned for responding that, in fact, no such reason exists. Out of various analyses of this phrase two of the more recent reveal how patience has run thin: it has been argued that Smith’s phrase is deployed as a bit of irony or humor (Rothschild, 2001) and, more recently yet, that this unseen hand holds nothing at all—the phrase is “empty” (Samuels, 2012, p. 135). However, these suggestions need not settle matters. One appropriate avenue of exploration concerns the rhetorical nature of Smith’s famous phrase.

Many who examine or remark on Smith’s phrase point out that this parlance is, in its two main usages, metaphorical. However, in too many cases interpreters do not glimpse the implications of this fact. That Smith employs the phrase as metaphor may alert us to why there has emerged so many and varying interpretations. As one philosopher has characterized these figures of speech, “Metaphor is the dreamwork of language and, like all dreamwork, its interpretation reflects as much on the interpreter as on the originator” (Davidson 1978, p. 31). If the “invisible hand” is metaphor rather than description, if it is meant to suggest and illuminate rather than describe, then the phrase may not depict a univocal referent or specific function at all. Even so, one need not conclude that the usage is ironical, humorous, or empty. Smith’s marvelous metaphor may perform non-ironical and serious things but these need not be understood as the assertion of tidy propositions which together constitute la main invisible. In fact, one of the things yet to be made visible about this hand is how it provides a perspective on the ways in which the intentions of agents have implicit connections to the intentions of others.

To explore these matters it is necessary to revisit, albeit briefly, Smith’s three usages of these notable words. In so doing, there is opportunity to take issue with some recent interpretive claims and to recall as well that the work of Bernard Mandeville would have given Smith some basis for his figurative flourish. In the second section, the analysis turns to Smith’s own account of the justification, structure, and meaning of metaphor, as set forth in his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (LRBL). Smith’s portrayal, which bears a surprising surface similarity to his ruminations on the conditions of wonder (as set forth in his essay, “The History of Astronomy,” EPS), also intimates how metaphor may effect, in the listener or reader, a new perspective on a phenomenon. Indeed, Smith’s metaphor is less important for what it says than for what it does. This power to inspire a novel way of looking at things may prove more important than any attempt to discern what Smith’s metaphor means or describes. However, as argued in the third section, the unseen hand hardly presents itself as some kind of ironic joke and certainly not for the reasons that Emma Rothschild suggests (2001). In fact, the phrase offers an illuminating perspective on the way in which the local intentions of individuals prove mutually affecting and, as put into action, bring about outcomes distinct from their originating visions.

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What My Dog Can Do: On the Effect of The Wealth of Nations I.ii.2

The intro to Jack Weinstein’s chapter.

In the midst of one of the most famous passages in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith writes “nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog” (WN I.ii.2).

In and of itself, this is probably not a noteworthy sentence, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way because I have seen it happen. My late dog Mingus would regularly exchange his bone with his “best friend” Casey, and they would do so without conflict or negative consequence.

Mingus was both very empathetic and emotive. Like many border collies, he was smart, could communicate his desires clearly, and was tremendously attentive to his caregivers’ moods, suggesting, already, many Smithian traits. As many animal behaviorists will insist though, these descriptions may be anthropomorphizations. I loved Mingus dearly and was certainly susceptible to projecting meaning onto his actions beyond his capabilities.

Whether Mingus had intent or not, my designation of Mingus as worth affective consideration is compatible with Smith’s moral psychology. On the one hand, because sympathy is, for Smith, an “illusion of the imagination”—people can even sympathize with the dead—emotions need not actually be present in the observed for the spectator to sympathize with them (TMS I.i.1.13). Under Smith’s schema, my fellow feeling with Mingus would be no less sympathy if he himself did not have the thoughts or emotions I judged him to have. And, while he was likely incapable of the impartiality required for Smithian moral agency on his own, this does not disqualify him from my consideration. He may be designated, in Alejandra Mancilla’s terms, a “moral patient” that we advocate for (Mancilla, 2009, pp. 3, 6).

One the other hand, if Mingus did have intent (which I think is the case) I would have been in the most qualified position to know it. Because sympathy works best with those who are closest to us—those in our inner circle of sympathy—I could best interpret his behavior, facial expressions, and voice. I knew Mingus almost his entire life and he had only the briefest time to socialize to other humans before my wife and I adopted him (we rescued him from a Humane Society when he was a few months old). My family knew his preferences, tendencies, behaviors, and moods, and he knew ours; the entire household dynamic including all the human interrelationships, was significantly affected by his presence. This was painfully and repeatedly confirmed when Mingus died unexpectedly and the sociology of the house had to be renegotiated.

Mingus was family even by Smith’s definition; for him, familial relationships are not biologically defined. “The force of blood,” Smith writes, “exists no-where but in trag­edies and romances.” Familial love is instead the “habitual sympathy” of those “naturally bred up in the same house” (TMS VI.ii.1.5–8). In short, losing him was not like losing a family member, it was actually losing one, and the Smithian framework for intimacy, communication, empathy, and care all support this point of view. As a result, whatever claim Smith makes about dogs and exchange does not extend further than the single assertion about economic capability. It has no consequences for the human-animal relationship.

Nevertheless, even though whether I anthropomorphize Mingus is irrelevant to the question of whether I can sympathize with him, it is indeed relevant to whether or not he was capable of exchange since the latter implies intent. Smith’s claim that dogs do not engage in contract appears to me false, but my belief does not make it so anymore than Smith’s writing confirms it. An empiricist system like Smith’s can be as indeterminate as any behaviorism, and the impartial spectator is fallible enough that even our deepest convictions may become corrupt (ASP 72).

Identifying whether dogs have intent is problematic, especially since there is disagreement as to what content such intentionality would have. Neuroscientists can, of course, photograph brain activity, but materialist descriptions of thinking are also subject to interpretation. Smith’s comment on dogs place us squarely in the classic philosophical problem of other minds and Smith’s corpus does not have the resources to solve it.

Recognizing the metaphysical and philosophical limitations of Smith’s approach, then, my intent in this paper is not to ask whether dogs engage in contract per se, but what happens to Smith’s account of humanity if they can. I will offer more evidence to suggest that the possibility is believable, but my emphasis will be on the text rather than the fact of the matter.

This textual approach is further justified by a commentator who claimed that Smith’s remarks about dogs be considered an essentialist definition of human beings. He claimed that Smith was arguing, not simply that people are the only ones who make contracts, but that making contracts is a necessary part of what it means to be human. If Mingus’s behavior challenges Smith’s veracity, and if the commentator is correct—if Smith defines a human life in this context—then Smith’s error might call his other writing into question as well. My task in this discussion is to ask if it does, and if so, how much. To do so, I engage in detailed exegesis on WN I.ii.2 and argue that this sentence is neither a definition of humanity nor intrinsically connected to the rest of Smith’s work. I conclude by explaining why I think this examination is relevant and important. To these purposes, unless otherwise specified, I will regard exchange and contract as designating the same behavior: consciously giving another creature, in Smith’s words, “this for that” (WN I.ii.2).

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Adam Smith on Sympathy: From Self-Interest to Empathy

The intro to Gloria Zúñiga y Postigo’s essay

Is the assumption of self-interested behavior assumed in economics at odds with altruism and compassion? I believe that this question—which has been formulated in various ways in the literature for the past two centuries—is the thorn that often turns us away from reconciling the Adam Smith of the Wealth of Nations (hereinafter WN) with the Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (hereinafter TMS). Economics has certainly made WN the most known contribution by Smith since it is generally assumed that publication of WN marks the beginning of economics as a discipline independent from philosophy. Indeed, it is a widely held belief that the concept of self-interest is not only central to the WN, it also established self-interest as the founding principle of economic theory. For example, in his “Mathematical Psychics: an Essay on the Application of Mathematics to the Moral Sciences,” F. Y. Edgeworth wrote, “the first principle of economics is that every agent is actuated by self interest” (1881, p. 16). This was a received view at the time and the sentiment has not changed much since then, although the self-interest paradigm has graduated into the more sophisticated abstraction of utility maximizing behavior. Under this more palatable name, self interested behavior has been attributed more broadly to all human behavior, not just economic phenomena. Gary Becker, for example, claims that “the economic approach is a comprehensive one that is applicable to all human behavior” (1976, p. 8). In “The Successes and Failures of Professor Smith,” George Stigler claims that Smith “put in the center of economics the systematic analysis of the behavior of individuals pursuing their self-interest under conditions of competition. This theory was the crown jewel of The Wealth of Nations and it became, and remains to this day, the foundation of the theory of allocation of resources” (1976, p. 1201).

Part of the problem not only with the claim that self-interest is central to WN, but also with the claim that it is also the founding principle of economics, is that our understanding of self-interest seems to fall within a wide range and we often fail to see the variation in connotations from one end of this range to the other until we see the variety of interpretations of WN. On its leanest interpretation, Smith’s notion of self-interest is assumed to be a type of ethical egoism. And on its grandest interpretation, “the Wealth of Nations is a stupendous palace erected upon the granite of self-interest” (Stigler, 1971, p. 265). The curious thing is that these widely-different interpretations seem to draw from the WN the same conclusion: that Smith’s chief point is that our actions are principally motivated by self-interest. The problem is not only that both interpretations misunderstand Smith, but they also present dangerous implications since the least favorable interpretation can be used as a pretext for uncritical charges of greed and cut-throat individualism, and the grand interpretation can be used as justification for the uncritical view that we are best regulated by self-interest.

Where did we go wrong in the understanding of Smith? Nowhere in WN does Smith state that self-interest is the only or the best motivation for human action, not even of the economic sort. This has been recognized in the most sober commentaries. For example, R. H. Coase argues that “Self-interest is certainly, in Adam Smith’s view, a powerful motive in human behavior, but it is by no means the only motive” (1976, p. 529). Jon Elster observes that “the assumption that all behavior is selfish is the most parsimonious that we can make…[and] we cannot conclude that selfishness is the more widespread motivation…[because] the world is messy, and the most parsimonious explanation is wrong” (1989, p. 54). Vernon Smith recognizes that, “There is a vulgar representation of Adam Smith as championing the unconstrained pursuit of self-love to the exclusion of other values by humans…” (2013, p. 285).

But the strongest evidence is given to us by (Adam) Smith himself. We have to start with TMS, however, since it lays the foundation that makes WN intelligible as a systematic treatise on economic behavior.

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Adam Smith on Sensory Perception: A Sympathetic Account

The intro to  Brian Glenney’s chapter:

The aim of this chapter is to propose an account of sensory perception from the known writings of Adam Smith, chiefly his juvenile work, “On the External Senses.” This account asserts that when we perceive an object we simulate its painful or pleasurable effects on our body—we imaginatively place ourselves in proximity to the object and feel some measure of the pain or pleasure we naturally associate or have learned to associate with its presence. When we smell food, our mouths water with the pleasure we anticipate will result from eating it (ES 80). When we hear a loud sound, we automatically shrink with fright in anticipation of the pain we imagine would be caused by such an object (ES 87). As Adam Smith writes, the senses “instinctively suggest to us some conception of the solid and resisting substances which excite their respective sensations” (ES 75).

In two previous papers I have expounded on some aspects of Smith’s account of perception. Glenney (2011) provides analysis of some of the sensory mechanisms involved in Smith’s account of perception. The spatial senses of vision and audition employ an innate mechanism of “suggestion” that attributes externality to the objects of sight and sound by way of instinctively simulating the associated feelings of tactile resistance that automatically suggest the externality of objects. Without associations of resistance, sight and sound are non-spatial and, as in Smith’s initial assessment of Cheselden’s once-blind patient, colors (and sounds) are felt in the eye (or ear) (ES 65). The remaining senses of smell, taste, and felt temperature, even when associated with feelings of resistance, remain proto-spatial at best, “some vague idea or preconception of the existence of that body; of the thing to which it directs, though not the precise shape and magnitude of that thing” (ES 79; See also ES 85). Hence, non-spatial senses never engage the “suggestion” mechanism for external attributions, but rather derive external “anticipations” from a mechanism that Smith calls “preconception.” Thus, two distinct inborn mechanisms guide two different external associations. But Smith provides little further detail regarding how these innate mechanisms actually work, alluding only to an “ascription by our imagination” (ES 54); later, in TMS, he writes of a “transporting by the imagination” (TMS III.iii.2) in his discussion of perception as analogy to moral judgment.

A second paper on ES extends the possibility that these innate mechanisms of external attribution and anticipation are the work of a mechanism of “sympathy,” paralleling Smith’s account of the moral assessments made of the behavior of others (Glenney, 2014). A perceiver first attributes a sight, sound, smell, taste or felt temperature to a particular object, projects him or herself into proximity with that object, and approximates the associated feelings that would be felt were the object made present, leading to an evaluative judgment as to the health or harm such proximity would generate for the body based on comparing a similarity or difference of their immediate feelings and approximated feelings. While the epistemic reliability of these perceptual judgments by sympathy is marked by concerns similar to those expressed by Smith regarding moral judgments in TMS, a kind of “impartial spectator” provides analogical support for their reliability. Hence, it is likely that perception and morality rely on a similar mechanism of sympathy for Smith. An account of perception, however, requires more than the structural and epistemic theories outlined in these two papers.

The focus of this paper covers perhaps the most important of Smith’s considerations on perception, his discussion of its qualia or the character of sensory experience. Qualia are usually characterized by very simple features: the qualia of a tomato are its appearance as red and round, its softness when squeezed, and its garden patch smell and tangy taste. These sensations help compose what it is like to experience a tomato with our different senses. Crucially, qualia distinguish a tomato sensory experience from a thought about a tomato, adding vivacious feelings to our tomato representations. Qualia reflect, in many ways, the unique nature of perception; to study qualia is to study what it is that makes perception distinctive. Today, the study of qualia is informed primarily by consideration of the representational content that determines the experiential character of qualia. For example, the red and round character of a tomato experience is determined by round and red tomato representations rather than, say round and red rubber ball representations. In this paper, consideration of representational content will provide an instructive model for studying Smith’s own discussion of sensory experience.

Smith’s own study of qualia in ES is focused on two kinds of sensory experience: the feeling of resistance in tactile experience and the feeling of “presence” or externality of objects in non-tactile experience:

  • Tactile Resistance: the feeling of an object’s pressure on one’s body, from which follows a “distinct sense and feeling of its Externality, or of its entire independency upon the organ which perceives it, or by which we perceive it” (ES 18).
  • Tactile Empathy: the feeling of seeing, hearing, or smelling an object with attention to the object’s tactile resistance and the pain or pleasure that it might engender, which “instinctively suggest to us some conception of the solid and resisting substances which excite their respective sensations” (ES 75).

While the qualia of both tactile resistance and tactile empathy represent objects as external, the former do so directly, the latter indirectly. Smith’s account of how visual, auditory, and olfactory qualia indirectly generate feelings of tactile qualia of resistance is a most important contribution to the study of perception, and becomes the particular focus here.

While this is a reconstruction of Smith’s discussion of perception by sympathy, it is one that Smith may have made more explicit had the focus of his philosophical inquiries turned to the topic of perception. Smith’s would-be proposal based on sympathy is, furthermore, unique to philosophical accounts of perception both historical and contemporary. Lastly, as documented in the previous work on ES discussed above, the cognitive sciences provide empirical support for such an account. Thus, though preliminary descriptions of ES judged it to be a mere “essai” that was “no more than competent,” closer inspection may reveal a startlingly innovative theory of some importance.

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Indulgent Sympathy and the Impartial Spectator

The into to Joshua Rust’s chapter:

Cognitive neuroscience is in the midst of what has been called an “affective revolution,” which places empathy at the center of a core set of moral competencies. While empathy has not been without its critics (Bloom, 2013; Prinz, 2011), both the radicals and the reactionaries routinely cite Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) as among the revolution’s vanguard. For Smith, justified moral judgment depends on the ability to sympathize—Smith’s term for the empathetic ability to imaginatively project into, or otherwise simulate the emotions of others. The impartial spectator is good at moral evaluation and the accurate assessment of the “fitness or propriety” of another’s sentiments “can be found nowhere but in the sympathetic feelings of the impartial and well-informed spectator” (TMS VII.II.i.49).

Smith presupposes that a sufficiently unsympathetic moral agent is bound to moral distortion. But some of Smith’s readers, including Fonna Forman-Barzilai and Emma Rothschild, assume that so long as our other basic capabilities are in place, ample sympathy guarantees justified moral judgment. Other readers affirm the necessity of sympathy for impartiality, while remaining silent on the question of sufficiency.

This essay aims to drive a wedge between the ideal of a merely sympathetic spectator and that of the impartial spectator. Having defined sympathy, I present independent grounds for thinking that an excess of sympathy might prompt judgments which diverge from that of the impartial spectator. I then return to the text to argue that Smith himself is wary of what he calls “excess” or “indulgent sympathy.” One can, thus, be a sympathetic spectator without being an impartial spectator. While I do not address empathy’s critics directly, this more robust notion of the impartial spectator would allow Smith to side-step at least some of the more superficial objections cast against those who would champion empathy. I conclude by presenting considerations which attempt to explain why sympathy occupies such a central place in the TMS, despite not being sufficient for impartial spectatorship. These considerations, in turn, shed some light on the relation between the TMS and the Wealth of Nations (WN).

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