The Place of Language in Adam Smith's Economics

by Graham McAleer for AdamSmithWorks

Apart from his two seminal works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (hereafter Wealth of Nations), Adam Smith published little else. And prior to his death, Smith had most of his papers and manuscripts burnt. 
Happily, in addition to a collection of essays published posthumously, we have lecture notes taken by his students at Glasgow University. These now form other Smith books. But one essay published in his lifetime—attached to the third edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1766)—is the curious Considerations Concerning the First Formation of Languages.[1] What is the connection between language and Smith’s effort in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to establish the moral foundations of commerce?
Smith’s essay is curious because it begins with an odd conceit. Imagine, he asks, two feral humans trying to communicate. They would “naturally begin to form” a language “to make their mutual wants intelligible to each other” (page 203). Smith encourages us to think these feral people could have the self-understanding to grasp their discrete inner appetites and an understanding of the world sufficient to discern external objects. He also asks us to imagine—making a huge assumption—that they would seek to communicate this type of knowledge to one another.
This strange story begs for explanation. It makes at least three claims that Smith did not seem to believe: that people can understand discrete objects before they develop language, that they would first begin to communicate using sounds, and that the first words would be objects, not actions. I suggest that the story is designed to show the importance of symmetry or number to consciousness. The centrality of these concepts to human consciousness explains why business is a natural human activity and why it has a moral character.   

Two conceits
Smith surely did not believe that the perception of discrete objects is possible prior to language. He would also have known that both Descartes and George Berkeley reject this notion. Descartes tells us how hard it is to think clearly about objects because “words bring me up short, and I am almost tricked by ordinary ways of talking.”[2] Berkeley, whom Smith admired, argues that things only come together in our minds as discrete objects through the stabilizing function of language.[3] As we will see, Smith’s account of consciousness in this essay seems to preclude the possibility.  
Smith says the two feral humans would turn to “uttering certain sounds, whenever they meant to denote certain objects” (page 203). But Smith’s successor at Glasgow, Thomas Reid, argues that natural language is gestural, where the body is used as a communication platform, for example, putting hand to heart to express fidelity. This is why Reid argues that making contracts is not the first phenomenon of human sociality: it follows the prior sociality of pantomime. 
Smith leans the same way. Smith took a life-long interest in aesthetics, at one time working on a book on the subject. He published an essay on aesthetics posthumously that is important for understanding Smith’s thoughts on this subject. “It is more natural to mimic, by gestures and motions, the adventures of common life, than to express them in verse or poetry.”[4] To this he adds the observation that among peoples with little cultural achievement who have been encountered, all sing and dance.[5] As in Reid, this points to pantomime as the elementary form of expression.[6]
Smith takes for granted that the two feral humans seek to communicate with one another. This, again, should point to pantomime. I do not seek to communicate with a tree or a stream, nor even with most creatures. Those creatures I do try to communicate with are those I can imitate by gesture. We can play at being cats, dogs, and horses, but to imitate a ferret or snake is much harder. The tendency toward pantomime helps explain why we have sympathy for some animals more than others and keep them as pets. It is the mutual legibility of the bodily movement of Smith’s feral humans that crafts the elementary sympathy necessary for the possibility of communication at all.[7] 
The third peculiarity in Smith’s story is the first three words his feral humans speak: cave, tree, and fountain. However, while these are all nouns, the editors of Smith’s lectures on rhetoric and persuasion point out that in a letter Smith says the most ancient words are verbs.[8] This corresponds with his claim in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that humans are meant for action.[9] 
Why does Smith start the essay this way if he does not believe this is how humans would begin to communicate? When he strips the question of language down to its basics, Smith proposes that using language to seek an alignment of resources with basic physical needs is what brings people together to talk. As we’ll see later in passages from Wealth of Nations, Smith believes that business is about symmetry and proportion. But Rousseau disagrees. 
Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages was published in 1781, some two decades after Smith’s. In a conceit of his own, Rousseau imagines humans with only physical needs. Having no sentiments, or what he terms “moral needs,” such humans would only communicate through pantomime. Such a language, based on sight and gesture, could support commerce, says Rousseau.[10] As reason for this conjecture, he gives a fascinating example. He cites the traveler Jean Chardin’s account of traders from India doing business in public, yet secretly: never saying a word, they grip one another’s hands, applying pressure in certain ways to state the terms of the deal.[11] 
The first three words in Smith’s story of the feral humans—cave, tree, and fountain—correspond to the needs that are most pressing and, he must reason, they would therefore most urgently wish to communicate: the physical needs for shelter, food, and water. These first words are nouns that straightforwardly identify resources from the land. 
Such a language would not aid morality, however. Literal language as Smith presents it tracks physical needs, but Rousseau says that physical needs divide people. “Not hunger, nor thirst, but love, hatred, pity, anger wrung their first utterings from them. Fruit does not shrink from our grasp, one can eat it without speaking; one stalks in silence the prey one means to devour.”[12] 
In Rousseau, language seeking alignment is not what comes of peoples first encountering one another over resources, but asymmetry and carnage. “Moral needs” gave rise to language and such rudimentary language is figurative: cries and plaints form “the oldest invented words.”[13] Putting it pithily, Rousseau says language was not originally that of the geometer but of the poet[14]. About the first language:
Not only must all of the phrases of this language be in images, sentiments, figures of speech; but in its mechanical aspect it would have to answer to its primary aim and convey to the ear as well as to the understanding the almost inescapable impressions of passion seeking to communicate itself.[15] 
Literal versus figurative, resources versus passions, alignment or carnage: Are Smith and Rousseau ships passing in the night, or is there a way to resolve these opposing positions? 

Natural tendencies toward commerce and morality
Smith’s justification for commerce rejects Rousseau’s dichotomy between the geometer and the poet. 
Lord Kames, Smith’s patron, starts his seminal work on aesthetics by observing that vision and sound are the least embodied of the five senses. Rather than interacting only within the physical world, they act as a hinge linking body and mind. Likewise for Smith, language is inescapably about both the body and the mind, resource and concept. Because language appeals to vision (pantomime) and sound (speech), it is able to communicate human desires to link thoughts with concrete reality. Kames puts the point beautifully:
Their [senses of sight and hearing] mixt nature and middle place between organic and intellectual pleasures, qualify them to associate with both; beauty heightens all the organic feelings, as well as the intellectual: harmony, though it aspires to inflame devotion, disdains not to improve the relish of a banquet.[16]  
Because it connects our thoughts to the physical world, language blurs the line between what otherwise seem like disparate principles as if it were a gauze cast over them. That gauze is ultimately the idea of numbers. Smith suggests that our conception of numbers is the result of a concurrence between need (in our minds) and resources (in the world).[17] This symmetry, says Smith, runs throughout existence. 
Numbers can also be seen in the wide-ranging occurrences of music in nature and our reactions to them, which are discussed by Lords Shaftesbury and Kames. Kames argues that we are born with a “taste for natural objects.” We naturally respond to vivid colours, for example, and to number and measure in music:
The observation holds equally in natural sounds, such as the singing of birds, or the murmuring of a brook. Nature here, the artificer of the object as well as of the percipient, hath accurately suited them to each other.[18] 
Shaftesbury speaks of the “hidden Numbers” in language.[19] He is referring to the necessity of considering numbers in developing language, even when they’re not used. Shaftesbury argues that elementary societies would have first looked to their economic security before seeing clearly “the Numbers of their Language, and the harmonious Sounds which they accidentally emitted.” Leadership in these societies would draw out the “hidden Numbers,” in order to better persuade their fellows, achieving the mastery of the “Measure of Sound.” Leaders, say Shaftesbury, make it “the highest endeavours to please,” Ancient sources confirm, he notes, that founders and framers were termed “Songsters”.[20] In this way, he argues that people naturally use language to try to align cerebral wants with physical reality. By focusing on persuasion and “endeavours to please,” even in elementary societies (and even among the powerful) people tried to meet their physical needs through mutual service rather than Rousseau’s carnage.  
Smith’s teacher at Glasgow, Francis Hutcheson, also observes the importance of numbers throughout nature. He thinks of God as a great architect putting thought into numbers and proportion, aiming “to adorn this vast theatre in a manner agreeable to the spectators”[21] because people are naturally sensitive to them. This can be seen even in humble things: “In motion there is also a natural beauty, when at fixed periods like gestures and steps are regularly repeated, suiting the time and air of music, which is observed in regular dancing.”[22] 
The elementary role that numbers play in consciousness, commented upon by all of these figures surrounding Smith, are clear in our observations of language, aesthetics, and even the most elementary art. Numbers make possible the regularity of dance steps. Observes Smith: 
Pantomime dancing might in this manner serve to give a distinct sense and meaning to music many ages before the invention, or at least before the common use of poetry. We hear little, accordingly, of the poetry of the savage nations of Africa and America, but a great deal of their pantomime dances.[23]
The importance of these conceptual embodiments of the physical world shows that geometry and language are not as distant as Rousseau would have us believe. Pantomime dancing in elementary societies and the iPad today stem from the same symmetry between thought and physical that is so important to Smith’s thought on the ties between language, morality, and commerce. 
As there is a symmetry between what we want and what we try to make of the world, there is a symmetry between our most basic and our highest endeavours. Wealth of Nations famously posits a “mutual and reciprocal” relationship between country and city.[24] The city offers embellishments, while the country supplies resources from the land—the physical and necessary are partnered with the cerebral and cultured. 
Smith’s feral humans attempting to describe resources are unbelievable because they are using language refined by the economics of civilizations: “As subsistence is, in the nature of things, prior to conveniency and luxury, so the industry which procures the former, must necessarily be prior to that which ministers to the latter”.[25] 
Body and mind, resource and concept—these, tied together by language, are the coordinates of economics. They build on humanity’s natural propensity to persuade and please. It is the role of entrepreneurs to find the symmetries between the physical and the cerebral; and the companies with the best accounts are those who can best achieve sympathy with their customers[26] with their products and management. 

[1] A. Smith, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (Liberty Fund, 1985), pages 203-26.

[2] R. Descartes, Meditations (Cambridge, 1997), page 21.

[3] G. Berkeley, Dialogue between Hylas and Philonous, The Works of George Berkeley, ed. Alexander Campbell Fraser (Thoemmes, 1994), Volume 1, page 469.

[4] A. Smith, “Of the Imitative Arts,” Essays on Philosophical Subjects (Liberty Fund, 1982), page 189.

[5] Ibid, page187. Cf. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Liberty Fund, 1981), Vol. 2, page 776.

[6] It is also continuous with the centrality of theatre in Smith’s thinking. See Sarah Skwire, “Adam Smith and the Theater of the Marketplace.” Available online:

[7] For a critical commentary on Smith that explores this idea, see Max Scheler, The Nature of Sympathy (Routledge, 2008).

[8] A. Smith, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (Liberty Fund, 1985), page 25 (Introduction)

[9] A. Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Liberty Fund, 1982), page 106.

[10] J-J. Rousseau, Discourses and Essay on the Origin of Languages (Harper, 1986), page 243.

[11] Ibid, page 244.

[12] Ibid, page 245.

[13] Ibid, page 246.

[14] Ibid, page 245.

[15] Ibid, page 248.

[16] Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism (Liberty Fund, 2005), page 12.

[17] A. Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence (Liberty Fund, 1982), pages 17-18.

[18] Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism (Liberty Fund, 2005), page 18. Cf. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, page 378.

[19] Lord Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times(Liberty Fund, 2001), Vol. 1. page 121.

[20] Ibid, pages 146-147.

[21] F. Hutcheson, An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (Liberty Fund, 2008), page 81. Cf. ibid, page 8.

[22] Ibid, page 206, note 42.

[23] A. Smith, “Of the Imitative Arts,” Essays on Philosophical Subjects (Liberty Fund, 1982), page 189.

[24] A. Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Vol. 1 (Liberty Fund, 1981), pages 376-378.

[25] Ibid, pages 376-378

[26] A. Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Liberty Fund, 1982), page 37.