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

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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