Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Adam Smith: Natural Theology and Its Implications for His Method of Social Inquiry

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Adam Smith: Natural Theology and Its Implications for His Method of Social Inquiry

Article excerpt


In modern times, few among social scientists will agree that theology can be a starting point for scientific inquiry. It is therefore no wonder that a number of modern commentators have tended to isolate Smith's Natural Theology from his scientific study of man and society despite the well-known fact that it comprised his first lectures in the course on moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, which were followed by others that may be called some branches of the social sciences today.(1) That is, the view that Smith's theological belief directly plays no role at all in relation to his "scientific" activities appears to represent recent conventional wisdom. In this vein Jacob Viner's remark is interesting.

Modern professors of economics and of ethics operate in disciplines which have been secularized to the point where the religious elements and implications which once were an integral part of them have been painstakingly eliminated. It is in the nature of historians of thought, however, to manifest a propensity to find that their heroes had the same views as they themselves expound, for in the intellectual world this is the greatest honor they can confer upon their heroes. If perchance Adam Smith is a hero to them, they follow one or the other of the two available methods of dealing with the religious ingredients of Smith's thought. They either put on mental blinders which hide from their sight these aberrations of Smith's thought, or they treat them as merely traditional wisdom and in Smith's day fashionable ornaments to what is essentially naturalistic and rational analysis. . . . For these writers the teleological aspects of Smith's thought have only nuisance value.(2)

Whereas Viner duly informs us about a psychological propensity of modern practitioners to understand a classical work from the present perspective of their discipline, it seems that the tendency to isolate entirely Smith's scientific performance from the religious ingredients of his thought is essentially based upon a certain element, which comes to be influential in the hermeneutic propensity of modern interpreters. This element is, in this author's opinion, a naturalistic view of science which many of them are likely, whether implicitly or explicitly, to reflect in approaching Smith's work.

We are reminded that one of the points strongly made by logical positivism (which today has still not a little influence in the social sciences) is that since scientific knowledge is derived in some rigorous way from, and is verified by appeal to observation and experiment, philosophical speculations do not, and should not, find any place in science.(3) According to this view of science, there is therefore no room for metaphysics in scientific inquiry. It is claimed that metaphysical statements are seen to be neither true nor false, but empirically meaningless, so that they are unscientific and have nothing to do with science proper. However, one of the points that has been made clearer as a result of a large number of criticisms against logical positivism is that metaphysical doctrines, as a matter of fact, play an important role in conjunction with scientific inquiry. Metaphysical doctrines, which are statements about the intrinsic nature of things in the universe, are said to be methodologically suggestive, since they tell us about ways of seeing and examining the world.

In addition, it is likewise of considerable importance to recall the intellectual context in which Smith was writing. It is well known that Smith lived at a time when the terms of philosophy and science were interchangeably used without much distinction.(4) A number of Smithian scholars are inclined to understand this fact mainly in a way in which philosophy and science in his day were considered to be disciplines which sought nearly the same type of knowledge. However, such interchangeable use of the terms may imply further that at least up to Smith's time philosophical speculations and scientific activities, despite their different scope and criteria of truth, were considered as part of one chain of thought. …

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