Since an article by Macfie (1971), scholars have recognized that Smith uses the phrase “invisible hand” three times in his corpus; once in Wealth of Nations; once in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Recently the great, late Warren Samuels bequeathed us a lifetime of scholarship on the enormous variety of interpretations that Smith’s “invisible hand” has generated. In this post I focus on the "third" use, which occurs in Smith's "History of Astronomy" -- one of the founding documents of the philosophy of science (and simultaneously the history of the philosophy of science) -- published posthumously in 1795.
Hence the origin of Polytheism, and of that vulgar superstition which ascribes all the irregular events of nature to the favour or displeasure of intelligent, though invisible beings, to gods, daemons, witches, genii, fairies. 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 their 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 s 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. Man, the only designing power with which they were acquainted, never acts but either to stop, or to alter the course, which natural events would take, if left to themselves. Those other intelligent beings, whom they imagined, but knew not, were naturally supposed to act in the same manner; not to employ themselves in supporting the ordinary course of things, which went on of its own accord, but to stop, to thwart, and to disturb it. And thus, in the first ages of the world, the lowest and most pusillanimous superstition supplied the place of philosophy.
Here I ignore the 'historical' movement of characters that go from fearful to cheerful, from pusillanimous to magnanimous, from weakness to strength (recall here). In context, Smith is describing the origin of (natural) philosophy. On his account, (a) established law and (b) a leisure class with cultivated interests are necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for the first development of philosophy. They [(a) and (b)] play different roles in his account. Law is crucial to reduce daily fear and to create the very possibility of leisure (presumably because it generates a class that can enjoy and have reasonable expectations about the fruits of surplus--in this context, but not elsewhere, Smith is silent about the ills of slavery).
But when law has established order and security, and subsistence ceases to be precarious, the curiosity of mankind is increased, and their fears are diminished. The leisure which they then enjoy renders them more attentive to the appearances of nature, more observant of her smallest irregularities, and more desirous to know what is the chain which links them all together. That some such chain subsists betwixt all her seemingly disjointed phaenomena, they are necessarily led to conceive; and that magnanimity, and cheerfulness, which all generous natures acquire who are bred in civilized societies, where they have so few occasions to feel their weakness, and so many to be conscious of their strength and security, renders them less disposed to employ, for this connecting chain, those invisible beings whom the fear and ignorance of their rude forefathers had engendered. Those of liberal fortunes, whose attention is not much occupied either with business or with pleasure, can fill up the void of their imagination, which is thus disengaged from the ordinary affairs of life, no other way than by attending to that train of events which passes around them. While the great objects of nature thus pass in review before them, many things occur in an order to which they have not been accustomed. (History of Astronomy, 3.2-3)
For, leisure supplies the very possibility of breaking with the expectations built up in ordinary experience. According to Smith in a properly functioning person there is a reciprocal relationship between the habituated mental anticipations of events and sound judgment (recall my discussion here). In my book on Adam Smith (ms) I call this -- in honor of Vernon Smith (in addition a terrific Adam Smith scholar) -- 'ecological rationality.' (Homogeneous communities tend to share such ecological rationality.) Philosophy starts in wonder, and wonder is the passion that opens up the possibility for adjusting one's existing ecological rationality. Elsewhere I discuss Smith's philosophy of science (see here).
Here I focus on the fear-ridden pre-history before the origin of law and philosophy. In Smith’s stadial theory of historical progress, the pre-legal refers either to the hunting stage or to the early shepherding stage (these are the first two stages to be followed by agriculture and commerce). Both tend to be denoted as “savage” by Smith. In this stage the objects and events that constitute ordinary ecological rationality are all treated as necessary (“fire burns, and water refreshes; heavy bodies descend, and lighter substances fly upwards, by the necessity of their own nature.”) From the vantage-point of necessity, humans appear as "irregular." Crucially, the way in which passionate humans are "irregular" is that we can act for an end in order to interfere with nature’s necessity. On this account, our actions introduce alternative possibilities into nature. As an aside, our ecological rationality consists, in large part, in judging which of these novel possibilities are, themselves to be expected.
Smith claims that the gods are first introduced by way of analogy to us in order to account for the most astonishing, infrequent -- from the point of view of our ecological rationality -- irregular events. So, the original gods are an anthropomorphic projection to account for the unexpected and fear enhancing deviations in nature's necessity. These passionate gods have their own (and unknowable, thus,) fear-inducing ends and they act on these accordingly.
The "invisible hand" in Smith's History of Astronomy's ” is, thus, an anthropomorphic projection of the fearful and ignorant savage’s imagination to account for events that deviate from his or her ecological rationality. It ascribes to the deities what became known as "particular providence" (as opposed to general providence that rules the universe). On Smith's account heathen superstitious introduces godly intervention to explain unusual events. This projection of particular providence is said to be a form of the “lowest and most pusillanimous superstition,” but it does prepare the way for philosophy, which is its offspring. So, who cares?
Smith offers what we would call “an error theory” about the savages’ beliefs; they think that unusual events in the world are governed, as it were, behind the scenes, by passionate gods’ actions, but in reality these are just anthropomorphic projections (Peter Kail has created a useful taxonomy of such projections). Smith's error-theory diagnoses the savages’ expectations, which are associated with necessity, and deviations from these are associated with godly interventions. By labeling all of this “vulgar superstition” (etc.), Smith indicates he does not believe any of it.
Smith’s treatment of heathen belief as imaginative projections springing from fear and ignorance has an Epicurean flavor reminiscent of, say, Hume’s The Natural History of Religion and Spinoza’s Appendix to Ethics 1. To some of Smith’s posthumous readers there may be a more troubling consequence: Smith explains how from the point of view of the savages' imagination, the heathen gods’ actions appear as interventions in the ordinary course of nature (associated with necessity). A divine intervention in the natural course of nature with the aim of some particular providence is often labeled a ”miracle" by christians.
No wonder Smith was cautious about publishing the History of Astronomy during his lifetime (even enlisting David Hume as possible literary executor to it at one point).