The Structure Behind Adam Smith

J.D. Luedi is a listener from Switzerland and contributing writer for

The works of Adam Smith touch upon various topics, and his magnum opi The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, are important works in the realms of politics/commerce and morality, respectively. These works along with Smith’s more obscure writings are seen by most as separate treatises, evidence of his pluralistic philosophy, and at times even contradictory. This perceived inconsistency is given voice by ‘Das Adam Smith Problem” – a term coined by several 19th century German thinkers. I endeavour to explain Smith’s theory of systems and intellectual paradigms, as illustrated by the History of Astronomy in The Principles Which Lead and Direct Philosophical Enquires. Smith describes his notion of systems via four terms; namely Wonder, Surprise, Admiration and the Imagination. It is these terms and the framework which they form, that underpin Smith’s work, and which demonstrate the theoretical consistency evident in his writing.

Smith’s conceptualization of how intellectual paradigms or ‘systems’ come about and maintain their strength, draws heavily on his insights pertaining to the workings of the human mind, and its influence on how we interact with and qualify the universe. The central factor in Smith’s analysis is the role played by the imagination. Smith appears to use imagination, partially in its original sense, yet also as a synonym for our inner stability; our notion / feeling of inner continuity. According to Smith, it is the imagination which exerts the greatest influence over an individual, as opposed to facts or reason, when determining whether a worldview is embraced and perpetuated. Smith references the power of this process by stating “how easily the learned give up the evidence of their senses to preserve the coherence of their imagination.” The preeminence enjoyed by the imagination, is due to the importance attributed to its maintenance, namely in the constant efforts which need to be undertaken in order to sustain a state of tranquillity.

Smith identifies sentiments not reason, as the instigators of this internal turmoil, and describes the state of the imagination via three terms: wonderment, surprise and admiration. These three sensations are in turn the manifestations of our perception of the outside world, and how we internalize the various events and phenomena of the universe. Wonder comes about when we are encountered with strange and foreign objects or instances, which we are unaccustomed with, and which as a result we cannot compartmentalize into our range of understanding; even if we are forewarned of any impending novelty. Smith uses the example of loadstones and iron to demonstrate how upon seeing the forces of magnetism at work, an individual would witness “an impulse…conjoined to an event…which according the the ordinary train of things…he could have so little suspected it to have any connection.” Surprise is felt, when we encounter familiar objects in anachronistic or unexpected circumstances, such as when “we are surprised at the sudden appearance of a friend, whom we have seen a thousands times, but whom we did not imagine we were to see then.” Lastly comes Admiration, which is the least potent of the three, and which arises when we perceive familiar objects, and when our only consideration of them is merely our certainty of our expectations of them.

Wonder and Surprise influence the emotions which we feel, since instances which cause them interrupt the equilibrium of the imagination. Smith views any occurrence which tampers with the tranquillity of the imagination as disruptive, whether the wonderment or surprise unleashed by said event results in despair or euphoria. A quick succession of emotions, leads due to its unexpectedness, to great internal turmoil. When two emotions succeed each other, that are each-other’s opposite, the greatest effect is felt, as “when a load of sorrow comes down upon the heart that is expanded and elated with gaiety…its seems…almost to crush and bruise it, as a real weight would crush and bruise the body.” Such a perturbed and tempestuous imagination, is a dangerous entity, and such a succession can “so entirely disjoint the whole frame of the imagination, that it never after returns to its former tone and composure;” potentially causing frenzy, madness and death. Smith illustrates this point with the story of Thrasimenus, a Roman lady who whilst in the midst of despair over the loss of her son; slain in battle, promptly dies from joy when he returns unexpectedly. The unexpected nature of such a succession causes the heart “to be doused” with emotion. Unexpectedness leaves the heart unprepared, for anticipation of an object, in turn allows “the emotion which that object emparts [to be] to a degree evident…and its effect on the individual is lessened.”

Smith regards such sources of unexpectedness and wonder negatively for they involve pain, and views them as disutility, consequently associating pleasure with actions that restore “the state of tranquillity and composure” of the imagination. The equilibrium of the imagination depends on the smooth flow and continuity of an individual’s stream of consciousness. Wonder, Surprise and unexpectedness all derive their potency from their abilities to interrupt an individual’s train of thought, thereby breaking the bridges or bonds, which weave a series of events into one continuous reality. Events and objects which cause an individual to feel Wonder and Surprise, do so specifically, because they create circumstances which expose the disconnect between the speed of thought and the speed of causation. Ideas move faster than successions of events in the real world, and therefore the imagination “is continually running before them [events] and therefore anticipates, before it happens, every event which falls out according to the ordinary course of things.”

Smith states explicitly that “the stop which is thereby given to the career of the imagination, the difficulty which it finds in passing along such disjointed objects, and the feeling of something like a gap or interval betwixt them, constitute the whole essence of this emotion [Wonder].” It is this interval between events, which although not usually perceived, that causes upon its emergence the imagination to be destabilized. In order to restore the imagination to its equilibrium, and to attempt to prevent such intervals in the future, Smith suggests the employment of philosophy, in order to learn and make sense of the world, for “…the repose and tranquillity of the imagination is the ultimate end of philosophy.” The use of philosophy and education, allows individuals to alleviate feelings of Wonder by creating systems of thought that explain and order nature, which “seems to abound with events which appear solitary and incoherent….[and] disturb the easy movement of the imagination.” Smith argues that the distinction between the common man and the philosopher is not from nature, but rather the product of “habit, custom and education.”

Interestingly, Smith argues that our attachment to and proclivity to use philosophy, is not an inherent trait, rather the result of our historical development and the emergence of civilization. Here Smith assumes the role of a social contract thinker, for he elucidates on a transition from an original position, to our current intellectual / social paradigm. He states that early in its history, mankind did not put much “stock in small incongruities” and the disjointed appearance of nature. Smith continues that this was due to our preoccupation with more pressing issues of survival and security. Despite our preoccupation, we could not be oblivious to the “greater things”, such as eclipses or comets. Such events invoke amazement, described by Smith as part Surprise and Admiration, which subsequently led to the first attempts to describe the world. The ancients viewed such natural occurrences as the products of independent beings, such as gods, and promptly imbued said events with anthropomorphic qualities. In this manner, common observances such as storms, were attributed to the mood of Neptune or the invisible hand of Jupiter, the flow of fountains to the dryads which inhabited them, and the fortune of plants to nymphs, and so “in the first ages of the world, the lowest and most pusillanimous superstition supplied the place of philosophy.”

This age of superstition is for Smith, humanity’s original position, however he argues that the creation and maintenance of law and security are crucial for the emergence of philosophy. Once order and security were established within a community, and there was an end to subsistence living, the “curiosity of mankind increased…[and rendered] them more attentive to the appearances of nature…and more desirous to know what is the chain which links them all together.” It seems that philosophy is a product of what Smith calls “leisure”, namely a good which is pursued “for its own sake, as an original pleasure”, yet one which arises only when civilization has reached a certain level of permanence and security. Although philosophy is viewed as an intrinsic good, for it calms the imagination, it seems that it is only required due to the development of society. While Smith does not regard civilization as a bad thing, the fact that philosophy is required to stabilize our imaginations in our new civilized world, does add some ambiguity concerning the utility of civilization itself.

By utilizing philosophy to create systems, we gain more knowledge and experience pleasure as the imagination is soothed “to see the phenomena which we reckoned the most unaccountable, all deduced from some principle and all united by one chain.” The imagination feels discomfort, during these intervals because its sense of continuity and fluidity of thought and interaction with the outside world is severed. This leaves it to “fluctuate with no purpose from thought to thought,” and our imagination withdraws within itself, whereas when it is tranquil it “expands itself to everything around us.” These systems generate pleasure because they connect the spaces between events, thus preventing such fluctuations from occurring, and giving the imagination a framework with which to explain events, and thereby eliminate Wonder.

While these systems cater to the human impulse to categorize, and while such explanations can heighten one’s appreciation of events, by revealing the “hidden springs” behind them, the more learned an individual is, the less satisfied he is with basic explanations. The explanation of the layman that a plant is a weed, satisfies his imagination, for even this basic system is sufficient to sooth, whereas the imagination of a botanist would remain in a state of turmoil, and would require a far more specific system. Similarly, the actions of a skilled artisan cause the layman to feel Wonder and therefore unsettle his imagination, for the layman does not comprehend the connections between a series of specialized events, whereas the learned practitioner experiences only Admiration, for his imagination is not perturbed by such familiar actions. Crucially however, the persuasive and explanatory power of a system is not dependant on its validity or probability, rather the critical factor is its ability to sooth the imaginations of the individuals employing it.

Despite what seems to be the establishment of a purely subjective or human standard for science, Smith does state that while systems need only sooth the imagination, they must first still arise due to “speculations at least plausible and buttressed with accounting for observed appearances.” While Smith is a proponent of empirical thinking, and while some degree of observed phenomena must be evident in any system, systems are still free to explain occurrences in whatever manner, in order to satisfy the imagination. In the History of Astronomy, Smith lays out his vision concerning the history and progression of such systems of thought, comparing them to imaginary machines. Smith espouses the view that the first such systems are the most complicated, and that successive systems are more simple, and therefore ‘better’.

The longevity of systems is directly linked to the amount of disconnect felt between it and our perception of the world. Smith, heavily influenced by Newtonian thinking, often describes this ideas within materialistic terms, stating that “the fitness of any system or machine to produce the end for which it was intended,” is measured by to what extent the “very thought and contemplation of it is agreeable.”Whereas a system may originally have appeared valid to the imagination, overtime new observances and discoveries are made / experienced, which cannot be assimilated by the contemporary systematic tenets. This in turn, leads to modifications and additions to the system in order to eliminate any Wonder or Surprise which might be generated as a result. These ad hoc adaptations, do however, overtime cause a system to be burdened, eventually making it too complicated, and ultimately unacceptable to the imagination. Once it no longer has the ability to calm the imagination, the imagination begins to search for or generate a new system which satisfies it.

Smith attempts to indicate this evolution of systems, with his theoretical history of thought, as well as drawing on historical examples. The history of astronomy, offers clear examples of systems and their successive modifications. Smith uses the progression of the Platonic or geocentric universe system, and its conflict with the Copernican or heliocentric system, to demonstrate the problems facing new systems. While the geocentric system was based on the common observances and plausibility necessary for system formation, over the centuries new additions were required in order to maintain the integrity of this system, for ever increasing numbers of observances conflicted with it. Over time more and more spheres, circles and other theoretical contrivances, were introduced, growing from twenty-seven in the model of Eudoxus to fifty-six in Aristotle’s and later seventy-two for the 15th century thinker Fracostorio. This over-complication of the geocentric model, eventually failed to fully please the imagination, and other models began to be considered.

The emergence of the heliocentric model, did over time replace the geocentric model, for “the motions of the heavenly bodies had appeared inconstant and irregular…[and such] tended to embarrass and confound the imagination.” Despite continual refinement over several centuries, it took a long time for the heliocentric system to usurp the place of geocentrism in the imaginations of many. This difficulty is attributed by Smith to the fact that the replacement of systems can be devastating and stressful the imagination, and that there exist “prejudices of the imagination and prejudices of education.” The former is based upon common sense observations, and in the case of geocentrism, many believed that since they felt no sensation indicating earthly rotation, that the heliocentric system did not satisfy their imaginations. The latter results from systematic preconceptions, as a result of dogmatic attachment to a specific system; for example the biblical support for geocentrism.

As previously mentioned, the strength of and value attributed to systems by the general populace depends on the level of disconnect which is experienced in their imaginations. It is therefore essential that systems be able to clearly and simply satisfy the imagination. Smith argues that the methods which we employ to understand and convey the power of a system are key to its success, for “the best method of explaining and illustrating…arises from an examination of the several ways of communicating our thoughts by speech, and from and an attention to the principles of these compositions, which contribute to persuasion or entertainment.” By employing devices which facilitate both enjoyment and understanding, a system is better equipped to satisfy the minds of the general populace, for its explanatory function needs to be readily comprehensible. Stylistic devices such as parables, analogies or metaphors simplify otherwise complicated notions, allowing for greater comprehension and therefore quicker soothing of the imagination.

Smith is a strong proponent of the power of such devices in communicating systems and states that the analogy chosen to describe some systematic notion could, “be the great hinge upon which everything turned”- the defining aspect of whether a system is accepted or rejected. Smith litters his works with metaphors, all of which are designed to better communicate his ideas, and are attempts to as effectively as possible pacify the imaginations of his readers. The parable of the Poor Man’s Son (PMS), is one in which Smith demonstrates his metaphorical skill, and it is a passage which can be viewed within the larger context of this theory of systems. The PMS is someone who “heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, [and] who goes beyond admiration of palaces to envy.”

By moving from admiration to envy, the PMS is leaving the established system. His lifelong ambition and efforts for betterment, eventually show him the error of his ways, since the rich are no happier in the things that matter, for “in ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level.” Smith views the attitude of the PMS as a delusion or “illusion of the imagination,” yet it remarks that it is a useful delusion, which maintains the momentum of human endeavours. Smith views the son’s actions as delusional because the son embraces a system which is deceiving him, yet which is arguably more useful or beneficial than the ‘truth’. Smith states that the ‘healthy’ mind would simply let itself be taken in by the imagination, however it is important to note that Smith views systems not as truths, rather as conceptualizations of the world. All system to a greater or lesser degree are for Smith delusions, and it is because of this fact that he warns against mistaking systems for truth.

Smith again uses the connection between delusions and systems in his parable of the Invisible Hand. Similar to Smith’s comments on the PMS, the Invisible Hand makes “the same distribution of the necessities of life which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions.” Again deception occurs, for the metaphor of the Invisible Hand is the analogy used by Smith the rectify the “uneasiness [concerning] the reconciliation of selfishness and the perfection of the system.” The uneasiness stems from the interval between events caused by the notion of selfishness conflicting with the system, thereby causing sensations of Wonder. Smith uses this metaphor as the instrument with which he attempts to calm the imagination, by showing how an otherwise complicated system functions.

The metaphor of the chessboard, demonstrates the fallacy of holding dogmatically onto a system, and the danger and folly of trying to propagate one’s system throughout society. The power which systems exert over individuals is also an issue in the realm of politics, where competing systems can have significant consequences on society at large. Here too we find ourselves “uneasy until we remove any obstruction that can in the least disturb or encumber” an individuals system of choice. Whereas alterations at the theoretical level as seen earlier, can be implemented, when systems meet factors which disturb the imagination in the realm of politics, the methods of removal and rectification can have dire consequences, for “we take pleasure in beholding the perfection of so beautiful and grand a system.” Smith warns specifically against assuming that a system is perfect or represents pure truth and states that this dogmatic attitude is personified in the ‘man of systems’, who seeks to views members of society as merely pieces on a chessboard, to be moved according to his plans. Whereas Smith regards the simplification of systems of philosophy, as a positive and natural progression, he states that systems of language “become more and more imperfect” with simplification. This oversimplification of language systems leads to their deterioration, yet it is exactly such systems which men of systems or ideologues use, in order to convince the imaginations of the populace of their respective systems, as they are “often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of [their] own ideal plan of government.”

Systems for Smith represent our attempts to pacify the imagination by conjuring up mental frameworks which order and explain the universe, thereby providing us with a sense of stability, and inner calm. By understanding his underlying philosophy concerning the formation, role and importance of these systems, one can then begin to more fully comprehend Smith’s works. While Smith is a pluralist, and at times his various works may seem isolated or even contradictory, they are actually treatises extrapolating on his theory of systems. By understanding the reasons behind our adoption of various intellectual paradigms, Smith allows us to view the theoretical framework underpinning his writings, and in the process enables the reader to draw parallels among the various parables; identifying the core foundations of Wonder, Surprise, Admiration and the Imagination.

By J.D. Luedi

As a history, international relations and politics nerd, its great to find an outlet like this to hear the rantings of my ego echoed so eloquently by Dana. I am a Canadian-Swiss citizen, bilingual (English, German) I love reading and sincerly wished more people would pick up a book on a regular basis - especially one other than those allegedly penned by some divinity
  • Jeremy Luedi

    I realise that this post is rather wordy and somewhat complicated, but I found this paper in particular very interesting to research, especially considereing how so many in Americna politics claim Adam Smith as their own, without really knowing his theories.

  • Thank you for an erudite exposition of Adam Smith’s History of Astronomy essay. I have recommended to readers of my “Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy” Blog as an important resource for understanding Smith’s philosophical method. Any quibble that I have are diminished by the excellence of the rest of the essay.

    Well done.

  • Jeremy Luedi

    Thank you very much for such high praise. I saw your reference to my article on your blog. You were stating that students would do well to read it…would you perhaps want a version with the footnotes for your audience?

  • BHi Jeremy
    I just noticed your comment to me.

    ‘Yes please’ to a footnote list to your article. These would complete its presentation, and also interest scholars and students.

    I posted on it without my comments on it, particularly where you refer briefly to Smith’s use of the invisible-hand metaphor, which you will see is a particular critique made on my blog about the modern misuse of Smith’s use of it today. But otherwise you present an authentic account of Smith’s essay on the history of Astronomy. I would go further in interpreting the Essay as a personal secular critique aimed at the dominant theology of the 18th century with which Smith was wrestling with privately when he wrote in 1744-c8.

    I am writing a chapter Adam Smith on Religion for a new Handbook on Adam Smith (ed. Chris Berry, Glasgow, for Oxford University Press, 2011) and I shall send you a copy of my draft in a few weeks, if you send me an email address – its 12,000 words.

    Best regards

    (gavin at negweb dot com)

    Gavin Kennedy