The Regularity of Irregularity

Adam Smith's Three Invisible Hands

Daniel B. Klein for AdamSmithWorks

July 8, 2020

Smith strikes that perfect equipoise between irony and encomium which is so typical of him.– Knud Haakonssen (1981, 91)

Only an irregular event, such as a lightning storm, Adam Smith explained, would have prompted the “savages” of “Heathen antiquity” to invoke as explanation “the invisible hand of Jupiter.” Smith told of “that vulgar superstition which ascribes all the irregular events of nature to the favour or displeasure of intelligent, though invisible beings, to gods, daemons, witches, genii, fairies” (1980, 49). “[I]t is the irregular events of nature only that are ascribed to the agency and power of their gods” (ib.). “Their ignorance, and confusion of thought, necessarily gave birth to that pusillanimous superstition, which ascribes almost every unexpected event, to the arbitrary will of some designing, though invisible beings” (112). Earlier, in 1709, John Trenchard had elaborated the idea in The Natural History of Superstition (22-49). William Grampp (2000) said, “the invisible hand has a pejorative connotation in the Essay on Astronomy” (448).
But in Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) and Wealth of Nations (WN), Smith uses “invisible hand” in the course of explaining certain regularities in social affairs. Alec Macfie treated the matter in a well-known article, saying “the capricious role of ‘the invisible hand of Jupiter’ is quite different from that of the order-preserving ‘invisible hand’ in the two books” (1971, 596). Scholars have sometimes endorsed the idea that Jupiter pertains to a sense of irregularity while the two others regularity.1
There may, however, be subtlety in Smith’s handiwork. Maybe a sense of irregularity inspired not only the “savage” to invoke an invisible hand, but likewise the author of TMS and WN. Despite the surface regularity, maybe irregularity lurks beneath the surface in TMS and WN.
Smith’s philosophy of science suggests a diachronic movement from irregularity to regularity. We no longer regard a lightning storm as dependent on Jupiter’s mood. It’s all part of a quite regular system of weather. We just had to enlarge the frame of observation and develop our interpretations. We pass from irregularity to regularity.
Smith writes:
Nature...seems to abound with events which appear solitary and incoherent with all that go before them, which therefore disturb the easy movement of the imagination; which makes its ideas succeed each other, if one may say so, by irregular starts and sallies... Philosophy, by representing the invisible chains which bind together all these disjointed objects, endeavours to introduce order into this chaos of jarring and discordant appearances, to allay this tumult of the imagination, and to restore it, when it surveys the great revolutions of the universe, to that tone of tranquillity and composure, which is both most agreeable in itself, and most suitable to its nature. (EPS, 45-6)

Philosophy thus restores us to a sense of regularity. Once we have enlarged our thinking, “custom and the frequent repetition of any object comes at last to form and bend the mind or organ to that habitual mood and disposition which fits them to receive its impression, without undergoing any very violent change” (EPS, 37).
David Hume had likewise associated irregularity with a naïve invocation of invisible agency: “It is only on the discovery of extraordinary phaenomena, such as earthquakes, pestilence, and prodigies of any kind, that [the generality of mankind] find themselves at a loss to assign a proper cause... It is usual for men, in such difficulties, to have recourse to some invisible intelligent principle as the immediate cause of that event which surprises them” (2000, 55).
But, for Hume, naïvete is perennial: “[P]hilosophers, who carry their scrutiny a little farther, immediately perceive that, even in the most familiar events, the energy of the cause is as unintelligible as in the most unusual, and that we only learn by experience the frequent Conjunction of objects, without being ever able to comprehend anything like Connexion between them” (55).
Start with any ordinary object and ask why it exists. You provide an explanation. With an enlargement of mind comes new formulations, and new objects for contemplation. Turn your explanation into an object to be explained—Why?, why?, why?, without end. Think of it as explanation raised to the ith power, with i unbounded upward. By its nature the process is unfinishable.
An irregularity prompts surprise and wonder, leading to enlargement and admiration but also to the formulation of a new mysterious object, which may then, as we move into the next loop of the spiral, lead to the sense of irregularity, either from aberrations that confound us or from the question of causation at the next level, prompting again a sense of surprise and wonder, and so on. Smith admired the ongoing process, calling philosophy “the most sublime of all the agreeable arts” (EPS, 46).
Just as we see no irregularity in a lightning storm, the enlargement of philosophy may foster an enlarged sense of regularity in the whole. We much admire how all of the parts are wonderfully adjusted to proper ends. William Paley (1802, 1) suggested that if, “in crossing a heath,” we happen upon a watch, we should certainly infer a watchmaker. Smith suggests something similar about the wonderful system of the universe:
As soon as the Universe was regarded as a complete machine, as a coherent system, governed by general laws, and directed to general ends, viz. its own preservation and prosperity, and that of all the species that are in it; the resemblance which it evidently bore to the machines which are produced by human art, necessarily impressed those sages with a belief, that in the original formation of the world there must have been employed an art resembling the human art, but as much superior to it, as the world is superior to the machines which that art produces. (EPS, 113-114)

Philosophy and science helped humankind along from polytheism to proper monotheism, Smith suggests: “as ignorance begot superstition, science gave birth to the first theism that arose among those nations, who were not enlightened by divine Revelation” (EPS, 114). “As, in the rude ages of the world, whatever particular part of Nature excited the admiration of mankind, was apprehended to be animated by some particular divinity; so the whole of Nature, having, by [the Stoics’] reasonings, become equally the object of admiration, was equally apprehended to be animated by a Universal Deity” (116, italics added). In WN, Smith wrote of “that pure and rational religion, free from every mixture of absurdity, imposture, or fanaticism, such as wise men have in all ages of the world wished to see established” (793 para. 8, italics added).
Indeed, irrespective of how beautifully adjusted we feel its parts to be, we still may ask, with Derek Parfit (1998): “[W]hy is there a Universe at all? It might have been true that nothing ever existed: no living beings, no stars, no atoms, not even space or time. When we think about this possibility, it can seem astonishing that anything exists.” Parfit writes further: “I am reminded here of the aesthetic category of the sublime, as applied to the highest mountains, raging oceans, the night sky, the interiors of some cathedrals, and other things that are superhuman, awesome, limitless. No question is more sublime than why there is a Universe: why there is anything rather than nothing.”
In An Essay on the Sublime published in 1747, John Baillie wrote: “It is in the Almighty that this Sublime is compleated, who with a Nod can shatter to Pieces the Foundations of a Universe, as with a Word he called it into Being” (21).
Let us use Paley’s thought experiment as an analogy: In crossing the heath we happen upon—the universe.
If, in crossing the heath, it is the universe that we happen upon, the important question then is: What is the analogue of “crossing the heath”? Heaths that we know presuppose the universe that we know, so we must find an analogue to the heath to make any sense of happening upon the universe. That’s no plain matter. After all, the very sense of our own existence would seem to presuppose the universe. But one way to put it might be an analogue of utter nothingness—the nonexistence of everything that we believe to exist.
And, as the saying goes, ex nihilo nihil fit—nothing comes from nothing. Utter nothingness would be the greatest regularity of all. Nothing comes from nothing—although, I suppose, it would, paradoxically, be a regularity that no one was around to experience.
In this respect, then, the existence of the universe—including its laws, its creatures, and all regularities noted in their social affairs, including regularities of the free enterprise system—the whole shebang would itself be a great irregularity to the regularity of nothingness.
It is here that we might say that there is irregularity lurking behind Smith’s two statements about people being “led by an invisible hand to...”:
They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. (TMS, 184-5, italics added)By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. (WN, 456 para. 9, italics added)

The “invisible hand” remarks belong to expositions of beneficial regularities in social processes, but they can be read—and are often read—as theistic affirmations about final causes (Oslington 2012; Harrison 2011, 47). As Macfie says: “The ‘invisible hand of Jupiter’ has in the books become the energizing power of the whole system” (598-9). Macfie says “there is no inconsistency” among the three invisible hands (596). In TMS and WN, the remarks speak tersely and obliquely to the momentous irregularity of existence, against the supreme regularity of nothingness.
On this way of seeing the remarks, Smith, then, is like the heathen savage—a likeness Smith was well aware of, I think. Both are invoking an invisible hand to explain the irregularity. Smith would not object. He expressed great admiration for “savage nations” (TMS 206.9). And at the outset of each of his two great works Smith makes self-deprecating remarks that should humble even the wisest of philosophers or scientists. Philosophy is an “antidote against fear and anxiety,” as regards, perhaps, our future nonexistence, which might be what Smith means by “that awful futurity” that awaits us, but it is an antidote that is pursued “in vain” (12.11-12).
In the likeness between the heathen savage and Smith we may see an irony on Smith’s part. But if so, it need not be a satirical sort of irony. We don’t usually associate irony and sacredness, but maybe those two sentiments need not be strangers. Smith’s love and admiration for God may have been like his love and admiration for science and philosophy, in regarding the highest articulated loop of the spiral with a sacredness but knowing full well that any such articulated loop emerges from things yet higher and deeper. In that way an irony may accompany that highest articulated loop. Knud Haakonssen (1981) says of the paragraph in TMS that immediately follows the invisible-hand paragraph: “In this passage, Smith strikes that perfect equipoise between irony and encomium which is so typical of him” (91). If Smith could strike a perfect equipoise between irony and encomium, perhaps he could between irony and sacredness.

There is utility perhaps in enumerating the following points:
  1. In TMS the invisible-hand paragraph is one of two sandwiched between the two longest paragraphs of the book (measured by word count), reflecting the intensity of that portion of the book.
  2. That portion contains the parable of the poor man’s son, the most dialectical segment of a highly dialectical work (Matson 2019).
  3. There are remarkable textual connections between that portion and the most dramatic portion of Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (Matson and Doran 2017).
  4. Indeed, in that part of TMS, there are a number of curious things about how Hume is represented (Matson, Doran, and Klein 2019).
  5. The phrase “led by an invisible hand to” appears pretty exactly in the dead-center of the volumes containing the sixth edition of TMS and of the first edition of WN (Minowitz 2004, 404; Klein and Lucas 2011). In his rhetoric lectures, Smith noted that Thucydides “often expresses all that he labours so much in a word or two, sometimes placed in the middle of the narration” (LRBL, 95).
  6. In WN, the invisible-hand remark is practically the only one in the work that may be read as theistic affirmation (Minowitz 2004, 408).
  7. An inclination toward irony is evidenced in Smith’s first two publications, one on how “but by” consulting compiled passages in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary one may easily determine the way in which a word is used (see EPS 241), the other offering satirical praise for Rousseau’s dedication to Geneva (see EPS 254).
  8. The History of Astronomy, where “the invisible hand of Jupiter” appears, arrives, in the final paragraph, at a surprise and irony about the interrelation between interpretation and factual belief (Matson 2018).

In TMS there are numerous exoteric affirmations of divine providence. One of the most wonderful mysteries surrounding Smith is the matter of his theism. I think a theism sustained by Smith would be one liberally tinged with irony (see TMS 167-70). To approach the irony in it all, allow me to relate material from Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish. Rosten’s method is to introduce each Yiddish term, define it, and provide a story to illustrate it.

 | Kalikeh Pronounced KOL-li-keh or KOLL-yi-keh, to rhyme with “doll yucca.” Russian: “cripple.” CrippleSomeone who is sicklyA clumsy personMr. Katz fitted on the made-to-order suit and cried in dismay: “Look at this sleeve! It’s two inches too long!” “So stick out your elbow,” said the tailor, “which bends your arm—and the sleeve is just right!” “The collar! It’s half way up my head!” “So raise your head up and back—and the collar goes down.” “But the left shoulder is two inches wider than the right!” “So bend, this way, and it’ll even out.” Mr. Katz left the tailor in this fantastic posture: right elbow stuck out wide, head far up and back, left shoulder tilted. A stranger accosted him. “Excuse me, but would you mind giving me the name of your tailor?” “My tailor?” Katz cried. “Are you mad? Why would anyone want my tailor?” “Because any man who can fit a kalikeh like you is a genius!” (Rosten 1968, 166-67)
Rosten’s story may be used as an analogy about a period stretching from millions of years ago to today. Millions of years ago, “the tailor” presented a set of conditions. Over the eons our ancestors and their entire consciousness, “Mr. Katz,” underwent innumerable adjustments in processes lost to time. The processes of adjustment, the starts and sallies of long evolution, are now, today, utterly unknown and little thought of by us today, the “stranger.” And we may marvel at the genius of the Author of nature in fitting the world so suitably to universal benevolence.
Thus may the skeptic paint theism as evolved accretion. But the theist can embrace that evolutionary account, and marvel again at all that it presupposes, the great irregularity of existence. The skeptic can then incorporate his friend’s marvel into his previous account, and so on without end.

Acknowledgments: For valuable feedback I thank Erik Matson, Jon Murphy, Todd Peckarsky, Dominic Pino, and Marcus Shera.

Aydinonat, N. Emrah. 2008. The Invisible Hand in Economics: How Economists Explain Unintended Consequences. London: Routledge.
Baillie, John. 1747. An Essay on the Sublime. London: R. Dodsley.
Grampp, William D. 2000. What Did Adam Smith Mean by the Invisible Hand? Journal of Political Economy 108 (3): 441-465.
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Paley, William. 1802. Natural Theology: Or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. Philadelphia: John Morgan.
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Smith, Adam. 1980. Essays on Philosophical Subjects. Edited by W.P.D. Wightman and J.C. Bryce. New York: Oxford University Press. Reprint: Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982.
Smith, Adam. 1790. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Edited by D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982. Link
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  1. E.g., Aydinonat 2008, 80; C. Smith 2006, 12-13, 82; see also Kennedy 2009, 378-9.