How Did Adam Smith Think About History?

by Mike Young for AdamSmithWorks

September 9, 2019
In a lesser-known work, Smith pioneered a “unified field theory” of history, with human emotion and psychology at its center.

Adam Smith’s two greatest works were undoubtedly his groundbreaking study of morality, A Theory of Moral Sentiments, and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, the foundational book of the science we now call economics. Aside from these influential works, few of Smith’s other writings survive, mostly because he ordered them burned upon his death. 

One document that escaped a fiery fate is The History of Astronomy, rediscovered and published posthumously by Smith’s friends in 1795. In HoA, it we find the ruins of a bold adventure: an ambitious endeavor to condense the past of philosophy and science into nothing less than a unified theory of human history. According to the publishers’ notes, HoA was to be the prototype of these template histories, and other versions for other disciplines would follow, punched from the same mold. Smith abandoned this enterprise for reasons unknown. But the unfinished pillars of HoA mark out the tantalizing footprint of a global historiography that shows us how Smith thought about the past and might have foreseen the future.

The individual is the atomic unit of Smith’s historical worldview. He posits that, from ancient to modern times, powerful internal feelings like wonder, surprise, curiosity, and amazement, rather than external motivators like money and power, have driven individuals to scientific observation and discovery. Such emotions are only fully satisfied when the subject under scrutiny can be placed in a simple set of classifications, predictions, and rules. Otherwise, our scientists will be plagued by tension and discomfort which only full understanding can salve. In sum, Smithian scientific discovery (just like Smithian morality and Smithian economics) is deeply personal and individual. 

Zooming out to macro scale, Smith proposes that periods of stability, security, and abundance have led to the most scientific advancement because they afford people the peace and freedom from want (of shelter, food, and safety) needed to study strange and beautiful acts of nature. The earliest civilizations that satisfy this criteria were the Greeks and Romans, whose first astronomers used crude observations to develop preliminary theories and beliefs. These generally described the motion of the sun and planets as revolving around the earth, with a degree of accuracy equal to the accuracy of the available measurement tools of the times. 

However, centuries of detailed observation (enabled by ever-improving instruments) revealed deep dissonance between the predictions of archaic models and the real motions of space. Conservative institutions - tradition and religion - castigated astronomical innovation as blasphemy, insisting that scientists should maintain the old Ptolemaic fiction that everything revolves around the earth. So subsequent astronomers, rather than abandoning heliocentrism, were forced to add special cases, exceptions, one-offs, and carve-outs to keep pace with newfound faults. 

Eventually, accumulated complexities made the old model impossibly unwieldy, and this caused such dissatisfaction and bewilderment that totally new theories began to break through the venerated old ones - and the simpler and more accurate the newcomer, the quicker its adoption. Smith likens a wave of astronomic innovators - Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and the supreme Newton - to engineers simplifying an over-complicated machine into the essential levers and gears. The resulting contraption is improved because it accomplishes its goal with fewer parts. So, by zig and zag, Smith explains that astronomy became simpler and simpler until we arrived at the classical heliocentric model, grounded in a few fundamental equations and Newtonian mechanics.

Aside from its bold ambitions - a unified theory of all history is not an easy undertaking - what’s most remarkable about this HoA is the modern flavor of its claims. For example, Smith identifies the need for safety, shelter, and food as prerequisites for men to satisfy their internal emotional conditions 150 years before Maslow formulated his hierarchy of needs. Smith takes a worldwide view of astronomy’s history that recognizes the involvement of eastern cultures as well as the West’s contribution to the field, which should please our modern understanding of history and science as a world wide endeavor. And, he posits that what we call “understanding” is simply scaled-up pattern recognition- two centuries before the nearest-neighbor algorithm birthed modern AI and Kurzweil proposed his “pattern theory of the mind.”

While HoA runs rough over some specific historical trivia, Smith gets the broad history of astronomy correct. In typical Smithian fashion, he believed individuals to be the centerpiece of scientific advancement. He demonstrated that simpler explanations are more likely to be accurate for complex problems. And he left behind a model consistent with opportunities for future study, growth, and discovery - ensuring that 224 years later, it will still be relevant and impactful.