Adam Smith Essay On The History Of Astronomy

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J. D. Luedi writes (24 March) on the Stimulated Boredom Blog (HERE): and has published one of the most lucid explanations of Adam Smith’s philosophical method that I have read for many a year in scores of secondary sources. I cannot speak more highly of Luedi’s of account of an important aspect of Smith's intellectual creativity, largely ignored in the Republic of Letters.

Luedi’s main source is Smith’s essay, “The Principles which lead and direct Philosophical Enquiries illustrated by the History of Astronomy” (generally known as his ‘History of Astronomy’, which is widely believed among scholars to have been written from 1744 to around 1750 (or 1758), and kept, unmentioned by Smith, in a cabinet wherever he moved from 1751 until he died in 1790. (He only informed his good and intimate friend, David Hume, of its existence 21 years after he met him and after he had written most of it).

The History of Astronomy essay only saw the light of day when Smith authorized his executors, Joseph Black, an early contributor to chemical science, and James Hutton, regarded by many to have been a major founder of what became the science of geology, to arrange for its publication after he died a week or so later. He ordered he rest of his papers to be burned without their inspection in Panmure House, Edinburgh, to the intense chagrin of scholars today.

Black and Hutton complied with Smith’s wishes, and they edited and published the HOA Essay in 1795. Oxford University Press published it in ‘Essays on Philosophical Subjects’, as volume 3 of the Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith in 1980.

Luedi’s essay, “The Structure Behind Adam Smith”, is a clear and, I believe, mainly accurate account of Smith’s early exposition of his philosophy. Here are its opening paragraphs and I urge readers of Lost Legacy (especially students) to follow the link, download and read it all, no matter how much they feel at present that Smith’s History of Astronomy (HOA) in its original form is a trifle beyond them, or that it is not germane to their study of his other works. Luedi prose and hisaccount is not ‘beyond them’ but it is very germane to Smith’s moral philosophy and his political economy.

“The Structure Behind Adam Smith” by J. D. Luedi (2011):

“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.”

The rest is lucid and reads well. You should read the first three sections of the 1980 edition History of Astronomy Essay (again if you have already read it) with J. D. Luedi’s exposition in mind. It will open your mind to aspects of Smith’s philosophical method that you not have appreciated fully.

I have different views on the meaning Smith intended in his use of the invisible hand metaphor, as presented by J. D. Luedi, which I shall comment on in another post. For the moment read Luedi’s presentation, learn a lot and enjoy it immensely. It is well worth your time and trouble.

Labels: History of Astronomy

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