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Darwin-L Message Log 6:37 (February 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<6:37>From mnyman@viita3.Helsinki.FI  Tue Feb  8 11:11:01 1994

Date: Tue, 8 Feb 94 19:07:32 +0100
From: mnyman@viita3.Helsinki.FI (Martti Nyman)
To: Darwin-L@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Invisible hand explanation

Let me first introduce myself. I have my Ph.D. in linguistics
(Univ. of Helsinki, Finland), but I have also engaged myself
in Indo-European studies, with a specialization in Greek and
Latin. I'm particularly interested in (a.) the epistemology of
proto-language reconstruction, i.e. in what sense can we say
of reconstructed languages, say Proto-Indo-European or Proto-
Romance, that they are languages; and (b.) the implications of
various linguistic ontologies (e.g. 'language as a mental
organ', 'language as a fait social', 'language as an abstract
Platonic object', 'language as a Popperian World 3 entity',
etc.) for the explanation of language change.

I'd like to offer a few remarks on Adam Smith's "invisible hand".
The locus classicus is Smith's _Inquiry into the Nature and Causes
of the Wealth of Nations_ (1776:iv.ii:para.9 = Cannan's ed.1904:
vol.I:p.477). I'll send a full quotation of this passage upon request.

It's perhaps not quite accurate to say that Smith's invisible
hand explanation needs no divine, designing, intervening force
or mind. An earlier attestation of the metaphor occurs in
Smith's _Theory of Moral Sentiments_ (1759), which was quoted
by Donald Phillipson a couple of days ago:
> Oxford Book of Quotations cites Adam Smith, Theory of Model Sentiments
> IV, i, 10: thus:  "The rich only select from the heap what is most
> precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in
> spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity... they divide with
> the poor the produce of all their improvements. 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."
              The passage goes on as follows:
"(equal portions among all its inhabitants,) without intending
it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society,
and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When
Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it
neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been
left out in the partition. These last, too, enjoy the share of
all it produces."

It is by no means evident that more or less homogeneous rational
actions performed by self-interested individuals bring about beneficial
collective consequences. It is for this reason that Smith needed the
additional assumption of a divine or supra-human power, which was supposed
to have shaped the world in the best way. The Smithian invisible hand is,
in the last analysis, that of Providence.
   Incidentally, the earliest version of the metaphor is probably
the "invisible hand of Jupiter", which occurs in Smith's _History of
Astronomy_ (after 1951, before 1758), iii para.2. Divine power again!
See Alec Macfie, "The invisible hand of Jupiter". _Journal of the History
of Ideas_ 32, 1971, pp. 595-599; those who read Italian might benefit from
the excellent paper by Alfonso Iacono, "Adam Smith e la metafora della
'mano invisibile'". _Teoria_ 5, 1985, 77-94.
   Ideengeschichtlich, Smith's invisible hand can't be separated from
the fable told by Bernard Mandeville in his scandalous _Fable of the Bees:
or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits_ (1732). The type of phenomena -- i.e.,
unintended cumulative collective consequences of individual intentional
actions -- identified by Mandeville occupied not only the mind of Smith
but also other Scottish moral philosophers of the 18th c. like Adam
Ferguson and Dugald Stewart. But Smith's formulation became the classic
one in political economy.
   Whether or not Smith's "law" was true in 1776 (or in 1994) is pretty
much an ideological question. But it would certainly be dogmatic to hold
that invisible hand phenomena are exclusively beneficial. Inflation is
generated by the same mechanism, and so the class of invisible hand
phenomena includes perverse consequences as well.

In its modern "profane" formulation, the invisible hand functions as
a process, which takes an aggregate of homogeneous individual actions
as the input, and outputs a collective causal consequence. An invisible
hand explanation thus consists of two parts, viz. micro-level intentional
actions, and macro-level causal consequences intended by no one. A shortcut
path across the lawn, for example, is designed by nobody; it simply comes
into existence as a consequence of many individuals' decision to take a
shortcut (despite the prohibitory sign). In the issue, then, the invisible
hand is a deterministically causal explanation; and because it is causal,
it is only contingently beneficial.
   Interestingly, it has been proposed by Rudi Keller (_Sprachwandel:
Von der unsichtbaren Hand in der Sprache_. Francke 1990) that language
change is an invisible-hand phenomenon. I tend to agree, but the
implications of this proposal for linguistic functionalism must be
clarified more thoroughly. (BTW, I've written a review article on
Keller's book, and submitted the ms to _Diachronica_.)

Sorry for the length of this message! (I hadn't the time to be short  :-) )

Martti Nyman    manyman@cc.helsinki.fi
Dept of General Linguistics, Univ. of Helsinki

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