Fifteen years after the Global Financial Crisis: Recessions and Business Cycles in the History of Economic Thought

Truth or coherence? How Adam Smith used philosophical sources to explain how paradigms change

Fiori Stefano, University of Torino

The "History of Astronomy" has been compared to contemporary approaches of philosophy and history of science. In particular, often with good reason, Smith’s vision of the succession of scientific systems over time has been interpreted as an anticipation of the Kuhnian notion of paradigm. However, rather than to investigate in which sense Adam Smith was a precursor of modern ideas, it may be useful to analyze how he reused scientific and philosophical sources of the past and of his time in an innovative way. As is well known, Smith suggested that the history of Western “systems of nature” had to be reconsidered not in light of “their agreement or inconsistency with truth and reality”, but in light of their ability “to sooth the imagination, and to render the theatre of nature a more coherent” (HA, p. 46). At the origin of these statements there probably is Copernicus’ "De revolutionibus" and Osiander’s preface to that book, whose methodological view about the difference between truth and mathematical propositions was curiously misunderstood for longtime. Other sources contribute to shed light on Smith’s theory of the principles that explain the successions of scientific systems over time. Two of these are Berkeley’s "New Theory of Vision" (that Smith discussed at length in "Of External Senses") and "Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge". These sources help to understand why for Smith the relation between coherence and truth was a crucial problem. Berkeley probably induced Smith to consider (scientific) theories as continuous re-description and re-construction of reality based on criteria of coherence, while he conceptualized in a problematic way the issue of the truth. This approach was not easily compatible with Newton’s realism, to which Smith refers at the end of the "History of Astronomy".

Area: Eshet Conference

Keywords: Adam Smith, David Hume, sympathy,

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