[This week I am in Minnesota to hang with the excellent faculty and students (and give some talks) at Macalester College, UMN Mankato, and UMN Twin Cities. So, I may blog less frequently.--ES]
Adam Smith's An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (hereafter WN) starts, as the Aristotelian sounding title promises, with a (tentative) causal claim: "THE greatest improvements in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour." (WN 1.1.1) According to Smith, a single cause has a variety of effects, including -- strikingly enough as Craig Smith has emphasized -- on our cognition ("judgment"). After a fuller description of these effects (including the famous pin-factory example), Smith's second chapter, turns to descriving the cause(s) of the division labor:
THIS division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual consequence of a certain propensity in human nature which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another. Whether this propensity be one of those original principles in human nature of which no further account can be given; or whether, as seems more probable, it be the necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech, it belongs not to our present subject to inquire. (WN 1.2.1)
Now, there is a lot to be said about Smith's account of human propensities (and his bracketing of the further question), but here I focus on the nature of explanation that Smith offers. For, in it we find the template of the dominant form of explanation in Smith's social theory. According to Smith social phenomena (e.g., division of labor), which have social utility,* can be explained by the unforeseen (and unintended) necessary workings of human propensities over time. Stated at this level of generality this will not surprise. Smith thinks that given our original and immediate instincts the propensity to barter and truck will arise eventually (it is “the necessary, though very slow and gradual consequence.”) Much ink has been spilled over Smith as a theorist of unintended consequences (and invisible hands, here and here).
- It is causal (“necessary consequence”). So, regardless of the status of propensities, the persistent triggering of these and their expression can lead to nomological outcomes such that the outcome could not be otherwise.
- It is a historical explanation. By “historical” I mean to capture three features: (a) that the stable consequence would not have been in “view” (or predictable) to observers of human nature at an early time (and, so not even capable of being intended); (b) that to be a cause here does not require temporal contiguity between the cause and the effect. The same cause(s) can do their work over enormous expanses of time. Of course, this does not require magical historical action at a distance (with temporal gaps between micro-causes); at any given time the relevant propensities of human nature remain the same** and this allows particular kinds of effects to accumulate over time. (Smith makes fun of claims surrounding the “levity and inconstancy of human nature” (WN 1.8.31.)) (c) The explanandum takes place over a very long period of time ("very slow and gradual consequence").
- Smith’s account requires that after certain consequences become visible to observer-participants they become self-reinforcing. Presumably this self-reinforcement is due to the fact that those that benefit from the cumulative consequences will help prevent backsliding from new social arrangements. (It may also be aided by the fact that those that do not so benefit will be deprived of various resources to prevent further change.) So, in the long run and in the aggregate, human propensities will produce initially unpredictable, albeit definite and determined outcomes.
Now, (1-3) jointly are characteristic of what I call “Smithian social explanation.” In Smith's hands a lot of important social phenomena fall under this explanation-scheme. For example, Smith uses the scheme to explain:
*Smith's introduction of utility is striking because it echoes the way justice as a social institution has utility in Hume's scheme. Smith famously argues that Hume's account has no right to appeal to this utility in explaining the origin of the social institution.
**This is compatible with propensities disappearing or being transformed (or with new ones developing).
***I thank Jennifer Smalligan Marušić for letting me read her paper in progress on Stewart and conjectural history.
****David M. Levy has been emphasizing the significance of modality in Smith's thought (see this piece with Sandra J. Peart).