Adam Smith’s irony and the invisible hand

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Abstract
I reconstruct Adam Smith’s theory of irony and its application. I illustrate how he defines it as a combination of something “grand” with something “mean” and how this is consistent with his anti-Cartesian and post-skeptic epistemology. I suggest that, for Smith, “systems” of any kind, from Cartesian physics to philosophical monotheism, Stoic ethics, and the “mercantile system” draw their apparent plausibility from some disease of human imagination. I argue that in every field, including political economy, in his view, the philosopher’s task is partially sceptical and partially ironical. That is, it is the task to fight erroneous systems by showing how these arise from unwarranted associations of ideas between apparently “grand” ideas —say, the public interest— with “mean” ones, say, the merchants’ self-interest. In this light, the phrase “invisible hand” turns out to be both an ironic joke and one more application of Smith’s post-skeptical theory of knowledge whose target is dismantling all kind of “invisible” entities that human imagination tends to create.
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Archival date: 2019-08-25
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2019-03-11

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