Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

The Secret, Natural Theological Foundation of Adam Smith's Work

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

The Secret, Natural Theological Foundation of Adam Smith's Work

Article excerpt

This article will discuss the theological foundation of Adam Smith's writings. Teleology, final causes, and divine design were initially seen as central to understanding Smith's writings. Over time, this view fell out of fashion. In the period after World War II, with the rise of positivism, commentators tended to overlook or downplay this interpretation. In the last decade or so, a "new theistic view" of Smith has emerged; in at least these interpretations, teleology has been restored to its former position as an essential element in understanding Smith. After sketching Smith's teleology and his view of final causes, divine design, and the ends of nature, we explain the Panglossian nature of some of the new-view interpretations of Smith. While our view differs somewhat, we agree with the essence of the new-view claim: A theological view exists in Smith and this underpins his moral and economic theories.


Jacob Viner once wrote (1) that in the Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS hereafter) (2) there "is an unqualified doctrine of a harmonious order of nature, under divine guidance, which promotes the welfare of man through the operation of his individual propensities"; further, he speculated that this doctrine may have been "the secret basis of Smith's conclusions" in the Wealth of Nations (WN hereafter). (3) Viner's reference to the secret foundation of Smith's conclusions is reflected in the title of this article, and it is justified by the recent, explicit revival of Viner's view. In what follows, we will reexamine the importance of teleology and theology in Smith's work with Viner's suggestion in the background. (4)

Adam Smith wrote from around 1755 to 1790, yet he remains an important figure in the history of economics. Today, the reader has a number of hermeneutic difficulties in an encounter with Smith. Even if one rejects postmodernism, (5) and accepts that one ought at least to try to understand the author's intention, there is the difficulty of actually undertaking the task. As Viner pointed out, contemporary social (and natural) science is secular, and many social scientists have viewed older works through secular lenses; the consequence is that many readers entirely overlook, or discount the relevance of, Smith's teleological view of human nature and the associated theology. (6) Modern readers, he adds, have two methods of dealing with "the religious ingredients of Smith's thought": Either they "put on mental blinders which hide ... these aberrations of Smith's thought, or they treat them as ... ornaments to ... rational analysis." (7) Allegedly, the removal of these ornaments will not harm Smith's argument. By contrast, Viner stated, "Adam Smith's system of thought, ... is not intelligible if one disregards the role that he assigns in it to the teleological elements, to the 'invisible hand.'" (8) Viner's interpretation of Smith was not unique, but it was unfashionable. The fashionable interpretation has varied over time.

Over the past two hundred years, the commentators on Smith have held widely differing views on the role of teleology in Smith's work. Kleer presents a nice summary of the flow of these views over time. (9) He argues that the initial commentators through to those of the latter half of the nineteenth century held that teleology played an important role in Smith's writings; early in the twentieth century a more secular view arose; (10) and after World War II a thoroughly secular view developed. I would add that, in the last decade or so, a new theistic view has arisen that returns, in large part, to the view of the early commentators and Viner. The interpretations of those who adhere to the new view, have started to undermine the secular orthodoxy. (11)

Let us now sketch what will be covered below. The second section discusses Smith's intellectual context. The third section turns to Adam Smith's teleology and the ends of nature that he claims exist. …

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