Il sistema della ricchezza. Economia politica e problema del metodo in Adam Smith

Milano, Italy: Franco Angeli (1984)
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Introduction. The book is a study in Adam Smith's system of ideas; its aim is to reconstruct the peculiar framework that Adam Smith’s work provided for the shaping of a semi-autonomous new discipline, political economy; the approach adopted lies somewhere in-between the history of ideas and the history of economic analysis. My two claims are: i) The Wealth of Nations has a twofold structure, including a `natural history' of opulence and an `imaginary machine' of wealth. The imaginary machine is a kind of Newtonian theory, whose connecting links are principles; provided either by `partial' characteristics of human nature or by analoga of physical mechanisms transferred to the social world; ii) a domain of the economic, understood as a self-standing social sub-system, was discovered first by Adam Smith. His `discovery' of the new continent of the economic was an `unintended result' of a deviation in his voyage to the never-found archipelago of natural jurisprudence. 1. Imaginary machines and invisible chains: natural philosophy and method. The first chapter reconstructs Smith's views on the method in natural philosophy, presented primarily in the History of Astronomy (HA). The peculiar kind of semi-sceptical Newtonianism which permeates the essay is highlighted. Its reconstruction of the history of one natural science is shown to be based on the assumptions of Hume’s epistemology, and to lead to a self-aware deadlock. Smith's dilemma is between an essentialist realism and sceptical instrumentalism; the Cartesian presuppositions he shares with Hume and with the 18th century as a whole make it impossible for him to overcome his dilemma. The following chapters will show how, on the one hand, Smith's skeptical methodology encourages him in the enterprise to `carve off' a new self-contained discipline and how, on the other hand, his epistemological dilemma is reflected in the inner tensions of his moral and political theory as well as in a number of basic oscillations concerning the status of the new discipline. 2. Chessboards and clocks: moral philosophy and method. The second chapter reconstructs Smith's views on the method in the parallel field of moral philosophy, including the theory of moral sentiments and natural jurisprudence. I argue that The Theory of Moral Sentiments, when considered together with with the Lectures on Jurisprudence, where Smith's peculiar version of a `weaker' form of natural law is presented, wins special interest, not only for the history of ethics but even more for the history of political theory and the social sciences. The two most striking features of Smith's work in this area are highlighted. First, his effort at reformulating the `practical science' is a methodologically self-aware attempt at applying the Newtonian method to moral subjects. Secondly, this attempt ends in a stalemate as two distinguished kinds of normative order are introduced: one ultimate order of Reason, ultimately justifiable but inaccessible, and one weaker order of our `natural sentiments', to which we have empirical access, but which is so variable as to lack any ultimate value as a basis for grounding our normative claims. These two parallel conundrums may arguably account for the author's inability to publish during his lifetime both The History of Astronomy and the projected history and theory of law and government. 3. Wheels, dams, and gravitation: the structure of scientific argument in The Wealth of Nations. The third chapter provides the core of the book, dealing with the structure of the argument in WN. I argue that the main presupposition that makes the shift possible from a `natural history' to a `system' approach is the Newtonian contrast of `mathematical' with `physical' explanation; that is, Smith drops any discussion of the "original qualities" of human nature that could account for economic behaviour, while introducing, as `principles' for the system, a set of `hypothetical' statements of `observed' regularities in human behaviour and of `observed' super-individual self-regulating mechanisms. In bringing this presupposition to light, the coexistence of a teleological with a mechanistic approach is clarified; fresh light is shed on the notion of the invisible hand by a comparison of its occurrence in Smith with the occurrence of the same expression (until now overlooked) in the correspondence between Newton and Cotes. Finally, the peculiar semi-prescriptive and semi-descriptive character of political economy are highlighted, and the consistency of Smith's `impure' semi-prescriptive social science, when understood in his own terms, is defended against familiar charges with inconsistency and against even more familiar strained modernizations. 4. Apples, deer, and frivolous trinkets: the construction of the economic. The fourth chapter draws consequences from the third, examining how Smith's achievement in political economy, marking its transition to scientific status, carried a re-description of the phenomena, creating the comparatively independent and unified field of the economic. Smith's achievement is interpreted not as the `discovery' of an autonomous character already possessed by the economy out there, so much as a Gestalt-switch by which our perception of social phenomena is modified making us `see' the partial order of the economy as an isolated system. To sum up, the autonomy of the economic in social reality and the autonomy of the economic in social consciousness are shown to be two sides of one process. 5. Concluding considerations: Political economy and the Enlightenment halved. A few suggestions on the status of economic theory two centuries after The Wealth of Nations in its relationship to ‘practical philosophy’ are illustrated.

Author's Profile

Sergio Volodia Marcello Cremaschi
Università Cattolica di Milano (PhD)


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