The Glasgow Edition of the Works of Adam Smith by Adam Smith - HTML preview

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To the inquiring layman, Adam Smith was the author of the Wealth of Nations; to the philosopher, of a comparable classic, the Theory of Moral Sentiments; these were the only books published in his lifetime. Within five years of his death (1790), however, appeared under the editorship of his two friends, Joseph Black and James Hutton, a substantial volume entitled Essays on Philosophical Subjects . . . to which is prefixed an Account of the Life and Writings of the Author by Dugald Stewart. Though far less celebrated than the two major works the EPS nevertheless appeared during the next hundred years in at least eight editions, including one from Revolutionary Paris and one from Basel (see Bibliographical Note, Nos. 3, 4). In the present century the book has acquired a renewed interest, attention having been drawn principally to the first three essays, consideration of which has formed the basis of a significant secondary literature. The subject of each of these essays is the history of a branch of science, namely, of Astronomy, of the Ancient Physics, and of the Ancient Logics and Metaphysics. Of these the first alone is of any considerable length; the other two are hardly more than fragments. To none of them would a modern scholar turn for enlightenment on the history of the sciences; at most he could expect to discover what an outstanding mind living in the second half of the eighteenth century believed to represent the histories of these subjects. Wherein then lies the attraction to writers during recent decades? It lies in the full titles of the three essays: The Principles which lead and direct Philosophical Enquiries; illustrated by the History of Astronomy; the preamble is repeated before each of the other two histories. It might be conjectured from this that the first three essays are to be taken rather as chapters in a book than as separate pieces; that such a conjecture might be correct is supported by the Advertisement of the editors in which they emphasize that though immediately before his death Smith had destroyed many other manuscripts, he had left these ‘in the hands of his friends to be disposed of as they thought proper’, and that on inspection ‘the greater number of them appeared to be parts of a plan he once had formed, for giving a connected history of the


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liberal sciences and elegant arts’ but that he had long since ‘found it necessary to abandon that plan as far too extensive’. Though there is now no trace of the manuscripts on which the collection was based, we know from other sources that this is hardly an adequate account. of the allegedly projected history was to embrace the ‘elegant arts’ why was the telling preamble to the first three essays omitted from the remainder? To the modern reader it seems evident that whereas the former, inadequate though they may now appear, do conform to a unitary and highly significant plan, the remainder, though not without their interesting features, are neither treated historically nor do they illustrate the ‘principles which lead and direct philosophical enquiry’. The editors, though in other respects men of high eminence, were not noted for scholarship as such.

We must turn to other sources to discover what part the composition of these essays played in the author’s intellectual scheme of things.

Fortunately we do not have to look beyond the volume itself: the Essays were preceded by a long and detailed ‘Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith’, read to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1793 and subsequently published in their Transactions. The author was Dugald Stewart, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh from 1785 to 1810, and the editor of the first Collected Works of Smith published in 1811–12. Towards the end of this

‘Account’ is cited Smith’s earliest reference to the EPS of which we have any knowledge; it was contained in letter (137) to David Hume dated ‘Edinburgh, 16th. April 1773’ when Smith was preparing to go to London where he expected to remain some time. In the expectation that Hume would in the event of his own earlier death act as his literary executor, Smith insisted that of all the papers he was about to leave behind ‘there are none worth the publishing but a fragment of a great work which contains a history of the Astronomical Systems that were successively in fashion down to the time of Des Cartes. Whether that might not be published as a fragment of an intended juvenile work, I leave entirely to your judgment; tho I begin to suspect myself that there is more refinement than solidity in some parts of it.’ There is neither here nor anywhere else reference to other ‘fragments’ such as the Ancient Physics and Ancient Logics that ultimately came to be published in the same volume as the Astronomy; the possible significance of this omission will be discussed later (below, 26–7).

In 1773 Smith was already fifty; it is unlikely, therefore, that he would have referred to any work as ‘juvenile’ except such as had been written many years earlier. This supposition receives some support from his asking (Astronomy, II.12) ‘Why has the chemical philosophy in all ages crept along in obscurity, and been so disregarded by the generality of mankind . . . ?’ How Smith could have formed such a judgement nearly a century after the prominence of Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke at the Royal Society it is difficult to understand; but such an opinion would surely have 1

been modified by intercourse with William Cullen with whom Smith is known to have been on intimate terms after he assumed the Glasgow Chair of Logic in 1751. Since by 1748, almost two years after relinquishing the Snell Exhibition at Balliol College, Oxford, he must have been heavily engaged in the preparation and reading of his lectures on belles–lettres at Edinburgh, it has been fairly generally assumed that he at least laid the foundation of the History of Astronomy at Oxford; but from further internal evidence it may be inferred that he did not finish it there.

Towards the end of the Astronomy Smith wrote that ‘the observations of Astronomers at Lapland and Peru have fully confirmed Sir Isaac’s system’ (IV.72); Bouguer’s account of his observations in Peru confirming Newton’s model of the figure of the Earth was published in 1749—three years after Smith left Balliol.


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The reader may have noticed a discrepancy between this reference to ‘Sir Isaac’s [Newton]

system’ and (in the letter to David Hume) the description of the History as being of the astronomical systems that were successively in fashion down to the time of Descartes: the last ten pages of the original printed text are in fact devoted to establishing ‘the superior genius and sagacity of Sir Isaac Newton’. Relevant to this question is the editors’ terminal note: ‘The Author, at the end of this Essay, left some Notes and Memorandums, from which it appears, that he considered this last part of his History of Astronomy as imperfect, and needing several additions.

The Editors, however, chose rather to publish than to suppress it. It must be viewed, not as a History or Account of Sir Isaac Newton’s Astronomy, but chiefly as an additional illustration of those Principles in the Human Mind which Mr. Smith has pointed out to be the universal motives of Philosophical Researches.’

This is consistent with the view put forward above that though the Astronomy may well have been largely composed in Oxford the ‘last part’ of it could have been added after Smith’s return to Scotland. That even this ‘last part’ was written before 1758 appears from his statement (Astronomy, IV.74) that Newton’s ‘followers have, from his principles, ventured even to predict the returns of several of them [sc. comets], particularly of one which is to make its appearance in 1758. We must wait for that time . . .’. Thus the text; a footnote on the same page reads: ‘It must be observed, that the whole of this Essay was written previous to the date here mentioned; and that the return of the comet happened agreeably to the prediction.’ There is in the original text no indication as to who added this note; but P. Prevost, the translator of the French edition (see Bibliographical Note 3), describes the note as ‘de l’editeur anglais’. Since Prevost was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and claimed to be personally acquainted with Dugald Stewart he may have had first–hand information.

The apparent discrepancy in the letter to Hume disappears if it is recalled that Smith was expressing an opinion as to what of his literary remains might be worthy of publication: the

‘Notes and Memorandums’ referred to in the editors’ final note to the Astronomy, suggest that Smith was more than doubtful as to whether the ‘last part’ should qualify.

The period 1746–8 when Smith was residing at Kirkcaldy with his mother and before he was committed to the reading of lectures on Rhetoric and Belles–Lettres at Edinburgh would seem as likely as any for laying the foundation of a project on the scale that he is known to have envisaged. Whether the other two ‘fragments’ were composed during that period is a matter of no special consequence; there would, at any rate, be no inconsistency in his having spoken more than once [and presumably much later] to Dugald Stewart of having ‘projected, in the earlier part of his life, a history of the other sciences on the same plan’ (Stewart, II.52) and of his editors having referred to a ‘plan he had once formed, for giving a connected history of the liberal sciences and elegant arts’. There were, of course, neither then nor for a long time afterwards, any Faculties of Science in the Scottish universities and the boundary between ‘arts’ and ‘sciences’

was hardly, if at all, clearly drawn. ‘Logics and Metaphysics’ are still mainly the concern of Faculties of Arts, as would also be the sort of ‘ancient physics’ that Smith was describing in the essay so entitled.

There is extant one other allusion by Smith which, though somewhat inconsistent with those that have been referred to, cannot be ignored in any attempt to date the composition of the EPS. It occurs in a letter (248) to the Duc de La Rochefoucauld written from Edinburgh in November


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1785 but not published until 1895; the relevant section runs as follows:

I have likewise two other great works upon the anvil; the one is a sort of Philosophical History of all the different branches of Literature, of Philosophy, Poetry and Eloquence; the other is a sort of theory and History of Law and Government. The materials of both are in a great measure collected, and some Part of both is put into tollerable good order. But the indolence of old age, tho’ I struggle violently against it, I feel coming fast upon me, and whether I shall ever be able to finish either is extremely uncertain.

Now whereas the description of the former of these ‘other great works’ could well refer to the Histories of Astronomy, Ancient Physics, and Logics and Metaphysics included in the Essays on Philosophical Subjects, the remaining essays, though falling under the generous heading of

‘Literature, Philosophy, Poetry and Eloquence’, are almost wholly devoid of any reference to any historical development. Moreover, the limited range of topics hardly warrants the claim that the

‘materials’ were ‘in a great measure collected’. In the fitful light of such evidence as is now available it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that after the exacting labour of the Wealth of Nations with its successive revisions Smith’s ‘great work on a sort of philosophical history’ existed more in the hope of realizing a youthful ambition than in any adequate progress towards its 2

achievement. Fortunately the impossibility of any precise dating of its components does not preclude further fruitful consideration of the part this ambition continued to play in Smith’s intellectual development.

In 1755, four years after Smith had been appointed to the Glasgow Chair, he wrote the two well–

known letters to the Edinburgh Review. In the second of these letters Smith evidently considered himself so much a master of the state of the sciences in Europe as to include a critical review of

‘the new French Encyclopedia’ (below, 245–8); and though the modern reader will detect a certain degree of superficiality—not to say even contradiction—in his judgements he had clearly a wide–ranging knowledge relevant to the task. Among the contributors he refers to—‘many of them already known to foreign nations by the valuable works which they have published’ (Letter,

§6)—he singles out ‘Mr. Alembert’ and ‘Mr. Diderot’ and refers to the former’s famous Discours préliminaire.

A perusal of d’Alembert’s Discours reveals a strong resemblance to Smith’s approach to the

‘principles which lead and direct philosophical enquiries’. In his stress on what he called Smith’s

‘Theoretical or Conjectural History’ Dugald Stewart (II.49) expressed the view that the

‘mathematical sciences, both pure and mixed, afford, in many of their branches, very favourable subjects for theoretical history’; and he went on to note d’Alembert’s recommendation of this historical approach for teaching. More striking still, he follows this reference by instancing a passage in Montucla’s Histoire des mathématiques (Paris, 1758) which included long sections on

‘mixed’ mathematics (viz. astronomy, mechanics, optics, and their applications) where an attempt is made to ‘exhibit the gradual progress of philosophical speculation, from the first conclusions suggested by a general survey of the heavens, to the doctrines of Copernicus. It is somewhat remarkable, that a theoretical history of this very science . . . was one of Mr. Smith’s earliest compositions’. Since Stewart shared with Smith the habit of almost total lack of significant documentation, we do not know where he read d’Alembert’s reference to Montucla, but it obviously could not have been in the first (1751) edition of the Encyclopédie, which we know to have been in Smith’s hands before 1755.


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Although we can beyond all reasonable doubt reject any charge of plagiarism, there is nevertheless one feature in Smith’s appreciation of the Encyclopédie that must strike us as rather odd: in acclaiming the outstanding quality of d’Alembert’s contributions he makes no mention of the strong affinity between the latter’s views on the nature, significance, and enlargement of

‘philosophy’ and those we believe he had already set forth in the ‘historical’ essays. Smith’s review of the Encyclopédie was part of the evidence he submitted to the ‘Authors’ of the newly founded Edinburgh Review in support of the proposal that they should enlarge the scope of their Review to include not only English but also European letters. Is it not a matter for some surprise that a young man, little more than thirty, recently established as the leading philosophical teacher in a small but ancient university, should not in such circumstances have at least briefly impressed upon the Review the universal significance of the Discours préliminaire? D’Alembert, though only six years older than Smith, was already accepted as one of the most brilliant analytical and comprehensive of European minds: a mathematician of the first rank, who appreciated both the power of mathematics and its limitations as a mode for ‘philosophy’ in general, and whose concern for this ‘philosophy’ was primarily in its significance for human welfare. The broad agreement of the views of such an authority with this ‘juvenile’ plan would, one might have supposed, have prompted Smith to a more enthusiastic welcome to the Discours than that ‘Mr.

Alembert gives an account of the connection of the different arts and sciences, their genealogy and filiation, as he calls it; which, a few alterations and corrections excepted, is nearly the same with that of my Lord Bacon’ (Letter, §6). It is perhaps necessary to emphasize that the ‘broad agreement’ in the views of Smith and d’Alembert was mainly (as noted above) in respect of their approach. A review of the details of their argument would here be out of place; but one especially marked difference in their emphasis may be the clue to the puzzle: it is that whereas Smith sets so much store on ‘wonder’ and ‘surprise’ (below, 13–14), d’Alembert, following Bacon, stresses the greater significance of ‘need and use’ in discovery—a position that the author of the Wealth of Nations as dogmatically rejects (Astronomy, III.3). Could it have been that the ‘juvenile’ author of the Essays on Philosophical Subjects held his horses in the hope that an opportunity would later present itself for the systematic refutation of a theory whose wrong–headedness he evidently deplored?

Though this account of the circumstances of time, place, and purpose of the composition of the EPS has been if not wholly negative at least mainly ‘conjectural’, it may have given some insight into the nature of the undertaking and the reason for its continued interest to scholars. Reference to d’Alembert’s Discours has shown that Smith’s attempt at ‘conjectural history’ was no isolated phenomenon; Dugald Stewart claims that the ‘expression . . . coincides pretty nearly in its meaning with that of Natural History, as employed by Mr. Hume [i.e. The Natural History of Religion, 1757], and with what some French writers have called Histoire Raisonnée’ (Stewart, II.48). Among examples of the latter he names Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois (1748). The title of that great work is itself indicative of what many writers were doing at that time: Paul Hazard reminds us of the numerous attempts to distil the Esprit of this, that, and the other; frequently by means of a search for the origin and growth of the ‘science’ or ‘art’ concerned. The Encyclopédie was not the first to envisage this task: something of the same sort had appeared in Ephraim Chambers’s relatively concise Cyclopaedia; or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1728), but never before had it been accomplished in such a penetrating manner or on such an immense scale.



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The importance of this essay to modern scholars lies mainly in the preamble and the first three sections; these contain a statement and elaboration of the chief ‘principles’ that Smith believed to

‘lead and direct philosophical enquiries’. The History of Astronomy sensu stricto, that begins only in Section IV, is of interest partly as an indication of contemporary knowledge of the subject, but mainly for the incidental remarks made by the author in pursuance of his central aim. Though acceptable to a modern historian in its main lines, it contains so many errors of detail and not a few serious omissions as to be no longer more than a museum specimen of its kind. This is not to deny its high merit for an age when systematic study of the history of the sciences was in its infancy. But by 1758 a student would have been better advised to read Jean–Étienne Montucla’s Histoire des mathématiques (written incidentally in the enlightened spirit characteristic of the young Adam Smith) which by 1802 had been revised and extended by Jérôme de Lalande. The first history of astronomy still used as an important work of reference was completed by Jean–

Baptiste–Joseph Delambre in 1827.

In any attempt to assess the success of Smith’s enterprise we are met at the outset by his inconsistent and ill–defined terminology ‘philosophy is the science . . . Philosophy . . . may be regarded as one of those arts . . .’ (both in Astronomy, II.12). In fact the terms philosophy, physics, arts, sciences, and natural philosophy are used almost indiscriminately. In this of course he was not alone: Hume ( Treatise of Human Nature, Introduction) speaks of ‘philosophy and the sciences’, which seems to promise a distinction more in line with modern usage; but by including Natural Religion and Criticism among the ‘sciences’ he introduced a possible source of confusion.

The actual words ‘natural science’ in the sense of an ‘inquiry by reason alone into all things in the natural kingdom of God’ were first used by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan; but ‘natural philosophy’

was preferred (though not in the restricted sense still current in the Scottish universities) throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first demarcation between ‘science’

and ‘art’ is attributed by the Oxford English Dictionary to Richard Kirwan: ‘Previous to the year 1780 mineralogy tho’ tolerably understood as an art could scarcely be termed a science’ (1796).

James Hutton about the same time wrote that ‘philosophy must proceed in generalising those truths which are the objects of particular sciences’. In respect of the recent blossoming of the so–

called ‘social sciences’ the failure of English to distinguish the species Naturwissenschaft from the genus Wissenschaft has become even more embarrassing than heretofore.

Had Smith consistently used ‘philosophy’ to include natural philosophy, leaving it to the context to indicate whether the general term or the specific application was concerned, there could, in relation to the period, be no quarrel. When he writes (Astronomy, IV.18) ‘Philosophers, long before the days of Hipparchus [ c. 140 B.C.], seem to have abandoned the study of nature . . .’

and to have regarded ‘all mathematicians, among whom they counted astronomers’ with

‘supercilious and ignorant contempt’ his usage (whatever we may think of his judgement) was in general accord with ancient and medieval practice.

In the Middle Ages the interpretation of ‘philosophy’ varied from one university to another.

Roughly speaking when the trivium was enlarged under the term studia humanitatis (and in many cases the quadrivium, as such, disappeared in practice), ‘philosophy’ meant moral philosophy.

Mathematics and astronomy, together with ‘natural philosophy’ (more often called ‘physics’), became mainly the concern of the Faculty of Medicine; this was especially the case in the Italian universities. But Smith’s judgement cited above follows a brief account of the epicyclic and eccentric systems of planetary motion by which ‘those philosophers (IV.9) imagined they could


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account for the apparently unequal velocities of all those bodies’. Who are ‘those philosophers’? It was, we are told, Apollonius (IV.8) who ‘invented’ the system and Hipparchus who ‘afterwards perfected’ it. Apollonius was a mathematician of the calibre of Eudoxus and Euclid; Hipparchus pioneered the branch of mathematics that came long afterwards to be known as spherical trigonometry and he was also among the greatest observers of all time. Most of the astronomical works of each were irretrievably lost; but to neither is any interest in ‘philosophy’ attributed—a fact at which Smith himself hints in another context (Astronomy, IV.25) where he speaks of ‘the philosophy of Aristotle, and the astronomy of Hipparchus’. The precise distinction made by the Greeks themselves will be cited in the Introduction to the essay on ‘The Ancient Physics’.

It would of course be absurd to demand precisely demarcated categories which would only stifle attempts to reveal latent relationships. But that in relation to the age of Adam Smith there are 3

traps easily fallen into is shown by a recent comment that Smith referred to Isaac Newton ‘as a philosopher not scientist’. From Smith’s use of the term in this context nothing can be inferred, since the word ‘scientist’ did not exist before 1839. The use of such expressions as ‘Adam Smith’s philosophy of science’ may similarly be a source of confusion; better to risk a charge of repetitiveness and pedantry than that of circularity; each reference must be explicated on its own merits.

This caveat has an indirect bearing on the introductory sections of the Astronomy. Smith’s aim in this and the succeeding essays was to show how these histories illustrate ‘the principles which lead and direct philosophical enquiries’. Having in the first three paragraphs given the barest hint of the relevance of ‘surprise’ and ‘wonder’ to these ‘principles’ he reviews at what may seem inordinate length the influence of the sentiments of surprise and wonder on the emotions of joy, grief, panic, frenzy, etc. The modern reader, especially one unfamiliar with the pervasive significance accorded to the ‘passions’ by Smith and his contemporaries, may feel puzzled to know what all this has to do with the clearly expressed aim of the essays. Smith might have been wise to recall Bacon’s words that such observations are ‘well inquired and collected in metaphysic, but in physic they are impertinent’ ( Advancement of Learning II.vii.7). But after a dozen pages the rhetorical fog lifts: the ‘surprise’ excited in the observer by the motion of a piece of iron

‘without any visible impulse, in consequence of the motion of a loadstone at some little distance from it’ and the ‘wonder’ how it came to be ‘conjoined to an event with which, according to the ordinary train of things, he could have so little suspected it to have any connection’ (II.6) establish the thesis in the clearest possible manner. The further deployment of the thesis, even if unnecessarily prolonged, displays Smith’s elegant and imaginative style at its best. Had he but set his own words ‘philosophy is the science of the connecting principles of nature’ at the beginning instead of near the end, and then avoided the trap in the ill–defined term ‘philosophy’, this section might well have ranked as the most fundamental in the whole work. Though not free from confusion, the concluding pages of this section reveal in greater emphasis Smith’s ‘principles of philosophical enquiries’. Central among these is an interpretation of causal investigation as a search for a ‘bridge’; the examples here are much more convincing. The special characteristics of this ‘bridge’ or ‘chain’ are analogy to more familiar objects, coherence, and—of special significance for the modern scholar—‘without regarding their absurdity or probability, their agreement or inconsistency with truth and reality’ (II.12). This remarkable passage is our justification for caution in speaking about what has been called ‘Smith’s philosophy of science’.

For Smith himself who, as we have seen, defines ‘philosophy’ as ‘the science of the connecting principles of nature’ the term could have no clear connotation; nor could it for anyone until the


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term ‘science’ was restricted to what Smith is here calling ‘philosophy’. There is still no general agreement as to the range of the ‘philosophy of science’; but that it is essentially meta–science, or talk about science, would probably not be contested. Of this there could not in Smith’s time be any explicit recognition. No doubt the study of his enterprise will shed light on the nature of the problems to be talked about; but in respect of its ‘systems’ his inquiry was less about their truth than about ‘how far each of them was fitted to sooth(e) the imagination, and to render the theatre of nature a more coherent, and therefore a more magnificent spectacle, than otherwise it would have appeared to be’ (ibid.). This has certainly a modern ring about it; but a modern

‘philosophy of science’ that thus ignored the problem of truth would get rather a cold reception. It is thus less the philosophy of science than the history of the idea of the ‘philosophy of science’


that Smith’s enterprise is likely to illuminate.

The dubious historiography and scrappy exposition of Section III—‘Of the Origin of Philosophy’—

are characteristic of the ‘Age of Reason’: imaginative liveliness creates a colourful stage upon 5

which the drama of Western culture is to take its rise. Regrettably ‘imagination’ aided and abetted but not controlled by ‘reason’ takes command; and what was in the circumstances inevitably no more than a ‘likely story’ is presented with a degree of naïve dogmatism and assurance that would be beguiling if it had not engendered distorted attitudes in the long shadows of which we are still living. The danger of ‘conjectural history’ is thus made only too plain; justification of this rather critical assessment may most suitably wait on textual commentary.

In Section IV we are plunged rather abruptly into ‘The History of Astronomy’ proper: abruptly, since Smith has already stated that it is from Plato and Aristotle that he will ‘begin to give her history in any detail’. The highly complex and mathematically beautiful system of Eudoxus is thus made to appear fully formed like Pallas from the head of Zeus. For his purpose Smith is perhaps justified in thus proceeding; but not to emphasize the extreme unlikelihood of such a creation without a long preparation of accurate observation and critical correlation is to risk begging the whole question of the genesis of philosophical inquiry. Once launched, however, on the exposition of the ‘first regular system of Astronomy’ (Astronomy, IV.4) he moves, not indeed with complete mastery, but with a remarkable degree of precision and understanding. Since among the readers of this edition there may be some wholly unfamiliar with the rationale of this system it may be as well to give a necessarily somewhat simplified but also more concise account of it than Smith provides; to facilitate cross–reference this will be set out in a somewhat schematic form.

The celestial phenomena (appearances) were either relatively transitory (e.g. meteors) or eternal; comets, remaining visible for months, were the subjects of some controversy.

The ‘eternal’ bodies, with seven notable exceptions, were fixed in space relative to each other.

The exceptions—Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn (to give them their Latinized names)—were all called ‘planets’ or ‘wandering stars’, since their positions varied continuously both with respect to each other and to the pattern of the ‘fixed’ stars.

All the visible objects were seen to move in circles round the Earth in a time constituting a ‘day’.

The various minor discrepancies among the planets were accounted for by assuming additional circular motions superimposed upon the uniform daily rotation. The ‘fixed’ stars were thus regarded as being carried round by the rotation of the ‘celestial sphere’ whose axis, since many of


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them periodically ‘rose’ in the east and ‘set’ in the west, was held to be variously inclined to the surface of the Earth. Contrary to the belief still held in some quarters, the ‘flat Earth’ had been generally abandoned about a century earlier, and, though reintroduced to conform to biblical cosmology, was probably never again seriously considered among men having any pretension to astronomical knowledge.

Since the Sun and Moon are seen to make a circuit of the stellar sphere once in roughly 365 and 29 days respectively, the motion of each was regarded as being compounded of that of the stellar sphere and that of a second sphere whose axis was inclined to that of the steller; in the case of the Sun the ‘equator’ of the second sphere was called the ‘ecliptic’, and the latter’s ‘obliquity’

represents the observed progressive changes in the Sun’s altitude in the course of the year. A third sphere had to be added to account for a further minor irregularity in the observed motion.

The Moon’s observed motion resisted any adequate representation; it was one of the few problems that gave Newton a headache 2,000 years later.

The motions of the remaining ‘planets’ were partially accounted for by supposing them to share the daily and (approximate) annual motion of the Sun’s two spheres—the third was peculiar to the Sun. But these five bodies—and very obviously those that were believed to be always further from the Earth than is the Sun—possessed a characteristic irregularity of apparently coming to a halt, and then roughly retracing their paths to a second point before once more proceeding in the general direction. These meaningless ‘stations’ and ‘retrogradations’ of each of these planets were

‘saved’ by the ingenious device of ‘fixing’ each planet on a sphere, the poles of whose axis were also ‘fixed’ on the surface of the surrounding sphere to whose axis their axes were inclined; and at the same time supposing them to rotate in the opposite sense, each at a characteristic rate different from that of the surrounding sphere. The process could be repeated, and the inclinations and relative rates of rotation varied, to give the closest possible approximation to the


All this is set out by Smith with only relatively minor historical inaccuracies; but he does not here make clear that the ‘constant and equable motions’ reported by reliable commentators to have been demanded by Plato were in fact uniform angular motion in perfectly circular paths. Nor, though he has his own view as to the human urge to see coherence and a continuous chain in natural phenomena, does he comment on Plato’s postulates in flat opposition to the evidence of the senses, except in respect of the daily revolution. Plato discussed these questions in several dialogues, and his final ‘vision’ of the cosmos (if he did in fact ever arrive at one) is still a matter of controversy. But his guiding principle, from which he made no fundamental departure, was that the ‘visible’ heavens have the same relation to ‘things divine’ as they really exist as do geometrical figures to those ‘truths of reason’ that they are made to represent.

In proceeding from the concentric systems of Eudoxus to the excentric (and epicyclic) systems that permanently superseded it among the Greeks, Smith missed two points of fundamental importance to his ‘principles that lead and direct’ philosophical investigation. The first was that Aristotle’s addition of twenty–two spheres had nothing to do with the ‘insufficiency’ of the spheres to represent the motions; the reason was what we should call a philosophical demand for a physical coherence: the additional spheres were so intercalated as to prevent the characteristic motion of each of the planets from being transmitted to the remainder. Another serious physical discrepancy apparently first observed by Autolycus of Pitane but not by Aristotle, was the fact



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that no system of spheres concentric with the Earth could conceivably account for the marked changes in the apparent size of e.g. Mars and Venus, implying variation in their distances from the Earth. The contrast between ‘astronomy’ and ‘physics’ sketched by Aristotle, well known to the Middle Ages and Renaissance through the Commentaries of Simplicius, but apparently lost sight of later until stressed by Paul Duhem in his Σώζειν τ φαινόµενα, will be discussed more at large in the Introduction to the Ancient Physics.

The first step towards the epicyclic (and incidentally towards the Copernican) theory of planetary motion was taken by Heracleides of Pontus, who, noting the fact that neither Mercury nor Venus is ever seen far from the Sun as the latter makes its annual circuit of the heavens, put forward the hypothesis that the circular paths of the former bodies were centred at the Sun, not the Earth. A century later, when Alexandria had replaced Athens as the centre of ‘Greek’ culture, this hypothesis was extended by Aristarchus of Samos to include all the planets, of which he regarded the Earth instead of the Sun to be one. This revolutionary hypothesis, in which the diurnal rotation of the Earth (already assumed by Heracleides) was also adopted, was summarily rejected by his contemporaries. Nevertheless, since their imaginative leaps achieved the essential basis of that of Copernicus, the omission by Smith of any mention of these two men is quite unaccountable.

Though no motion of the Earth was acceptable to astronomers until the time of Copernicus, and even then but tardily, the concept of epicyclic motion (i.e. the circular motion of a body about another body itself describing a circle about a third) rapidly achieved a dominating influence and received a definitive form in the Almagest of Ptolemy ( c. A.D. 150). Stripped down to the barest essentials this system was based on the following postulates:

(i) The Earth is the ‘centre’ of the world.

(ii) The Sun moves at a uniform rate on a circle (the ‘eccentric’) whose centre is somewhat distant from the Earth.

(iii) The remaining planets (except the Moon) move on circles (epicycles) whose

centres move on larger circles (‘deferents’) centred at the eccentric; but the planets themselves are represented as moving at a uniform rate round a separate point

(‘equant’) on the side of the eccentric remote from the Earth.

(iv) The Moon’s motion is especially anomalous.

The eccentric and epicycle had been elaborated by earlier astronomers, notably Hipparchus ( c.

170 B.C.), but the equant point, concerned not with the shape but with the rate of planetary movement, was the creation of Ptolemy himself. Since their concern was to provide a mathematical model for forecasting celestial events, the Alexandrian (Hellenistic) astronomers took no account of the existence of ‘spheres’. The later Islamic astronomers, strongly influenced by Aristotelian and later ‘physics’, devised means of harmonizing epicyclic and eccentric motion with concentric celestial spheres. This mode of thought achieved its ultimate refinement in the theory of Georg (of) Peurbach. The so–called ‘Copernican Revolution’ was in fact a retrogression to ‘ancient’ principles buttressed by superior mathematical technique and the less ‘parochial’

world–view characteristic of the Renaissance. Far from being technically ‘modern’, the system of Copernicus was in some respects retrograde in the pejorative sense; this judgement does not detract from the dedication and intellectual courage of the man himself.


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By one of those paradoxes that the history of science displays from time to time, Tycho Brahe,

‘the great restorer of the science of the heavens’ as Smith describes him, spent his life and fortune (aided by royal patronage on a lavish scale) in assembling the data enabling Ioannes Kepler to demolish both his own extension of the system of Heracleides and the details of the Copernican system. Tycho’s model, postulating a heliocentric system of all the planets, the Sun and Moon alone describing circles about the Earth, was mathematically equivalent to that of Copernicus, at the same time avoiding any affront to the physical prejudices of the age, still predominantly Aristotelian. Endowed with a spirit in which intense religious feeling, high poetic fancy, and unswerving intellectual integrity were combined to a degree probably unsurpassed in any man before or since, Kepler made the first and final break with the Platonic postulates of

‘equable circular motion’ for celestial bodies. It is the Sun, not the Earth, around which the planets describe the only discoverable simple curve—not a circle, but an ellipse; and it is the Sun that determines, in a degree corresponding to the harmonics of the diatonic scale, the speed with which they move in the paths appointed by God. Stripped of the overtones that Kepler himself 6

regarded as his supreme act of praise to the living God, his three ‘laws’ are the basis of the modern astronomy of the solar system.

Within the limits of the available knowledge Smith’s account of the revolution in astronomical thought effected by Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler displays remarkable understanding; there is however one misleading feature in his exposition—the statements (Astronomy, IV.29,32) that the Copernican system has no need of epicycles. It is indeed true that each of these statements is made in the context of the apparent shape of the planetary motions, but not many paragraphs later it is made clear that in order to rid his system of the ‘incoherence’ of the equant point (IV.53) Copernicus had in fact been compelled to employ a number of epicycles. One of Kepler’s earliest discoveries was that the motion of the Earth demanded just such an equant point: it is of course a mathematical dodge to represent the hitherto ‘unthinkable’ fact that the planets move faster when near the Sun than when more remote. Smith’s account is further notable for having stressed the possibly decisive nature of Galileo’s telescopic observations—the

‘rough’ surface of the Moon, the satellites of Jupiter, sunspots, and the phases of Venus—all phenomena that could ‘appeal to a wide audience’, thus enlisting a wider support for the Copernican hypothesis than Copernicus’s own dry mathematical exposition would have done.

Smith’s claim that the latter ‘was adopted . . . by astronomers only’ (IV.36), though qualified on the next page, gives a misleading impression of the situation. This and some relatively minor points are more conveniently dealt with in footnotes to the text.

The confused state of astronomy during the first half of the seventeenth century was just such as to give point to Smith’s ‘principle’ that discovery is the fruit of a search for a ‘connecting chain of intermediate objects to link together . . . discordant qualities’ (IV.60)—in this case the immensity of the celestial bodies and the hardly conceivable speeds with which they are hurled round the Sun. The ‘gap’ left in the ‘imagination’ by a purely mathematical model, however subtle and however accurately representative of the facts, received expression in the full title of Kepler’s Astronomia Nova. The ‘physical or if you will metaphysical’ element in his system was supplied by a supposed magnetic ‘radiation’ emitted by the Sun as it rotated, thus maintaining the revolutions of the planets at varying speeds. ‘That doctrine,’ wrote Smith, ‘like almost all those of the philosophy in fashion during his time, bestowed a name upon this invisible chain, called it an immaterial virtue, but afforded no determinate idea of what was its nature.’ (Astronomy, IV.60.) In an age dominated by Newton’s proper rejection of ‘occult causes’ such a reaction was


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inevitable. But it is not the whole story. Kepler’s ‘magnetic virtue’ was more than a name; in fact magnetism was not, in the distinction made by Newton, an ‘occult’ but a ‘manifest’ quality. The fact that it is a different ‘manifest’ quality—gravitation—that was later shown to be the controlling factor between Sun and planets does not detract from Kepler’s recognition that a ‘chain’ must exist. In his second letter to Richard Bentley, Newton emphasized that ‘the cause of gravity is what I do not pretend to know’. Smith and his clear–sighted contemporaries failed to realize that the greatest creative advances in the search for the ‘invisible chain’ have seldom been free from the wildest guesses.

The ‘first who attempted to ascertain, precisely, wherein this invisible chain consisted, and to afford the imagination a train of intermediate events, . . .’ was, Smith justly states, Descartes (Astronomy, IV.61). The details of the Cartesian system fortunately do not concern us. But Smith shows remarkable sagacity in emphasizing that it was he (and not, as is still occasionally stated, Galileo) who stated three propositions that jointly imply ‘Newton’s’ First Law of Motion; that his notion of God’s conservation of the quantity of motion in the universe (IV. 61) made a notable advance towards Newton’s Second Law; and that he was ‘among the first of the moderns, who . .

. took away the boundaries of the Universe’. Not surprisingly Smith nowhere shows any knowledge of the wide–ranging mathematical speculation of the fifteenth–century Cardinal Nicholas of Cues (whom Kepler called ‘divine’), nor of the limited publication of Thomas Digges’s theory of stellar distribution in depth; but his omission of any reference to the ill–supported but widely publicized ‘plurality of worlds’ affirmed by Giordano Bruno is less easy to excuse.

His lengthy treatment of Descartes in a history of astronomy, Smith claims, is justified less by his theory of the heavens that by the time Smith was writing was almost entirely abandoned, than by his demonstration that a coherent ‘system of the world’ could be based on simple mechanical principles applicable to both celestial and terrestrial bodies. This was a radical departure from the

‘natural philosophy’ still dominant in the schools: Samuel Pepys was so ‘vexed’ to discover that his younger brother, John’s, knowledge of ‘physiques’ was based on Descartes instead of Aristotle that he decided to find out ‘what it is that he has studied since his going to the University’. So far as ‘physiques’ were concerned both Samuel and John were wasting their time; for in the same year a young sizar of Trinity College in the same university of Cambridge was also giving less than satisfaction in his undergraduate studies. But within three years he was to think of

‘extending gravity to the orbe of the Moon’. Cambridge was slow to appreciate the tremendous revolution that the young Lucasian Professor of Mathematics proceeded to hatch within its walls; but a few years after its publication (1687—under the imprimatur of Samuel Pepys P.R.S.!) the elements of Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica were being introduced to the students of the University of Edinburgh by David Gregory.

Despite the lack of any break in the narrative, it seems most probable that it was at this point (Astronomy, IV.67) that Smith’s original manuscript ended and the remainder was added at some later date (above, 7–8).

About Smith’s account of the Newtonian system, which, despite his doubts, stands least in need of correction at the present day, little need be said. It is clearly written and includes all the

‘verifications’ available by the middle of the eighteenth century. It is doubtful whether he had ever studied the Principia at that time. Voltaire’s Elemens de la philosophie de Neuton had been published in London by 1737, and, if this section was in fact written some years after the rest of


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the essay, Colin Maclaurin’s Account of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophical Discoveries would have been available to him after 1748; of course he may have been sufficiently well grounded in the qualitative aspects before leaving Glasgow. The only disconcerting feature of his account, taken as a contribution to the ‘principles of philosophical investigation’, is the facile manner in which he accepts gravitation as an adequate explanation of the mutually determined motions of the celestial bodies, simply on the grounds that it has always been ‘familiar’ to men on the Earth.

Taken in conjunction with his remarks (Astronomy, IV.61) in hailing Descartes as having been the first to attempt to ‘ascertain, precisely, wherein this invisible chain consisted’, this must be regarded as a serious deficiency. It betrays a strange lack of awareness of the fact that what he saw as ‘so familiar a principle of connection, which completely removed all the difficulties the imagination had hitherto felt in attending to them [sc. planetary motions]’ (IV.67), many continental ‘philosophers’, notably Leibniz, regarded as either a miracle or a blasphemy. The root of their objections was that celestial gravitation, unlike the ‘familiar’ form, must be held to act instantaneously across immense distances. Moreover, since the planets showed no sign of slowing down as a result of external resistance, there could be no material medium to transmit the gravitational influence. Such an ‘action at a distance’ must be regarded as either an inexplicable miracle or an ‘occult’ property of matter itself. Neither ‘solution’ was acceptable: not the former, since it removed the question entirely from the realm of natural philosophy; nor the latter, since it reintroduced the ‘specific occult qualities’ postulated by the Aristotelians, which as Newton himself later remarked ‘put a stop to the improvement of natural philosophy’ ( Opticks, Q.30). This fundamental dilemma, and much else of a more technical nature, was ventilated in the famous Leibniz–Clarke Correspondence first published in 1707. Newton, on whose behalf (and at the instigation of Princess Caroline) Clarke replied to Leibniz, showed his recognition of the difficulties by adding to the second edition of the Principia (1713) the famous General Scholium containing the even more famous (and misunderstood) phrase ‘Hypotheses non fingo’, and by his letters to the Master of Trinity, Richard Bentley, in one of which he explicitly denied that gravity is ‘essential and inherent to matter’. Newton was fully aware of the lack of finality in his ‘System of the World’

and returned to the question several times; but since Smith was apparently unaware of this, it would be inappropriate to enter into the inevitably long and difficult discussion here.



The History of Astronomy, though naturally imperfect, was in a sense complete. After the second edition of Newton’s Principia there was no fundamental change or addition to the ‘system of the world’, that was Smith’s main concern, until long after his death. The mathematical theory was under constant refinement; and Smith shows his continuing interest in the progress of physical astronomy when in the Edinburgh Review article he refers to James Bradley’s important discovery of the aberration of light. But the titles of the two subsequent essays suggest that the restriction to the ‘ancient’ period expressed the fact that he had said all that he intended to say.

The two essays now to be considered, though like that on the History of Astronomy both written with an eye to ‘philosophical investigation’, are in a different class from the first. The title of each reveals a subtle change of aim: the histories of these ‘sciences’ are to be restricted to their

‘ancient’ development. For this and other reasons that will appear during the discussion it is convenient to introduce them under a single heading. To a greater extent than in the ‘history’ of astronomy his account of the ‘facts’ of pre–Socratic ‘physics’ is not only without adequate



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historical foundation but lacks any historical coherence other than that imposed by Smith’s own

‘likely story’, namely that ‘from arranging and methodizing the System of the Heavens, Philosophy descended to the consideration of the inferior parts of Nature’ (Ancient Physics, 1).

There neither is, nor ever was, as far as we know, any evidence for this order of inquiry; on the contrary, Aristotle rightly referred to his predecessors as φυσιολόγοι—those who strove to

‘account for nature’, which for them was the whole cosmos. Their speculations about the objects above the Earth in fact lacked any ‘arrangement or methodizing’: they remained crude and ill–

supported by reason. The views on the ‘elements’ ( ρχαί, Aristotle calls them), on the other hand, put forward separately by the Ionian pioneers embodied a profound insight into the problem of the relation between change and the permanent ground of being. Only later did the Italian, Empedocles, order the elements in such a manner as to make possible the even later

‘square of opposite properties’ introduced by Aristotle.

As has been hinted already, Smith never made explicit the cardinal distinction between ‘physics’

and ‘astronomy’—a distinction that in fact ‘guided and directed philosophical enquiry’ from Aristotle onwards, and which, in somewhat altered terms, is still a living issue in the philosophy of science, notably in the interpretation of quantum mechanics. The basic formulation has never been more clearly put than by the sixth–century Neoplatonist, Simplicius, in his commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, and in which he claims to be quoting the actual words of Geminus summarizing the views of the Stoic Poseidonius, both of them having lived much nearer to the time of Aristotle. After a long and detailed preamble he emphasized that while ‘the physicist will in many cases, reach the cause by looking to creative force’, ‘it is no part of the business of the astronomer to know what is by nature suited to a position of rest and what sort of bodies are apt to move, but he introduces hypotheses under which some bodies remain fixed while others move, and then considers to which hypotheses the phenomena actually observed in the heaven will 7

correspond’. The astronomer, in other words, is satisfied if, given certain physical postulates, such as ‘equable motion’, he can devise a mathematical scheme from which the motions of the heavenly bodies can be deduced; the question of ‘truth’ has for him, qua astronomer, no relevance. In the History of Astronomy (notably in the introductory Section II) Smith shows his appreciation of this aspect of ‘philosophical investigation’. But his failure to explicate the notion of cause, latent in the various pre–Socratic speculations and dominating Aristotle’s whole philosophy, reduces his Ancient Physics, despite its elegant and persuasive presentation of certain aspects, to a much lower level of cogency. Detailed justification for this judgement would here be out of place; suffice it to say that the reader of the text will find no hint of the pervasive notion of final causation and the grades of ‘animation’ (the Latin anima replaced ψυχή in the transmission of the Aristotelian corpus) in living beings.

Having momentarily forgotten his most promising hypothesis that ‘philosophical enquiries’ stem from ‘surprise and wonder’ Smith opens the essay on the ‘History of the Ancient Logics and Metaphysics’ with a liberal application of the term ‘evident’ to assumptions that to thinkers in another tradition seem far from evident. This apart, however, he rightly insists that ‘philosophy, .

. . in considering the general nature of Water, takes no notice of those particularities which are peculiar to this Water, but confines itself to those things which are common to all water’. From which it follows that ‘Species, or Universals, and not Individuals, are the objects of Philosophy’ (§

1). In the succeeding passage, amounting to little more than twenty lines, Smith condenses all that he has to say on the relation between the ‘ancient’ sciences of ‘logics’ and ‘metaphysics’.

Restricted to such a compass his account of what came to be regarded as ‘logic’ and

‘metaphysics’ might do well enough, though the exclusive emphasis on classification is hardly


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warranted. But viewed as a stage in the achievement of his historical aim it is quite inadequate.

In claiming with some justice that these two sciences ‘seem, before the time of Aristotle, to have been regarded as one’ and, with less justice, ‘to have made up between them that ancient Dialectic of which we hear so much, and of which we understand so little’ (Ancient Logics, 1) Smith gives no hint that λογική and its derivatives covered a huge range of meaning as much to do with ‘words’ as with ‘reasoning’; nor that the term ‘metaphysics’ came only long after Aristotle’s death to refer to those of his books which embodied a consideration of ‘those causes and principles the knowledge of which constitutes Wisdom’—‘First philosophy’ as Aristotle himself described it. The throw–away comment on the ‘ancient Dialectic’ may have been prompted by Smith’s native caution: the subtle and even inconsistent use of the term by Plato and Aristotle is still the subject of scholarly debate. The inappropriateness of the remark becomes even more remarkable in the light of the following definition proposed by the Stranger from Elea: ‘Dividing according to kinds, not taking the same Form for a difference or a different one for the same—is not that the business of the science of Dialectic?’ (Plato, Sophist, 253 D.) This ‘division by kinds’

is precisely the method that Smith himself regarded as being the essence of the ‘ancient logics’

and one of which he himself makes frequent use. This account of dialectic differs from the more basic requirement stipulated by Socrates (i.e. the effort to attain truth by correction of agreed hypotheses rather than the confutation of an adversary) but is not inconsistent with it. Equally regrettable is Smith’s failure to make clear, as Aristotle had, that the pre–Socratic φυσιολόγοι (as Aristotle calls them) were asking ‘metaphysical’ questions but for the most part (Parmenides being clearly an exception) giving ‘physical’ answers.

The part of the essay devoted to an exposition of Plato’s attitude to Nature and its relation to the general theory of ‘Ideas’, though disproportionately long, is almost the only part that carries conviction that the author had adequately prepared himself for the ambitious task he had undertaken. But even here he fails to drive home the lesson, so important for his own thesis, that what Plato was for the most part concerned with, even in the dialogue that looks like natural philosophy, the Timaeus, is perhaps not even metaphysics, but rather natural theology as it was perhaps understood in the original scheme for the Gifford Lectures. This was far from being without influence on the development of natural philosophy and subsequently of the natural sciences; but by placing ‘cause and principle’ of nature as it were outwith nature and providing only a ‘likely story’ of how it (δηµιουργός) might have operated, Plato effectively closed the door on further investigation on the lines initiated by the φυσιολόγοι. Or rather he would have closed it, had not his independent–minded pupil, Aristotle, put his foot in the doorway—at least for the sublunary world!

At this stage some readers may reasonably protest that it is an editor’s function at most to comment on the text and not to argue with its author. To leave without qualification the rather disparaging remarks which this editor has felt it necessary to make would amount to a failure to view the matter in that historical perspective for the lack of which Smith has been censured. Well versed in the classical tongues as the young Adam Smith undoubtedly was, he cannot be blamed for having failed to transcend the limitations set by the materials available to him. And these were meagre indeed, for though we may think of the eighteenth century as one in which classical scholarship was most highly appreciated and familiarity with the classical authors more widely spread than perhaps at any other time, it is apt to be forgotten that both scholarship and familiarity were almost wholly restricted to grammatical and stylistic aspects; it is probable that Smith’s contemporaries were far less conversant with the matter of the Greek classics than had


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been the humanists of three centuries earlier. In his valuable Greek Studies in England, 1700–

1830 (1945) (which in fact includes a knowledgeable chapter on Scotland) M. L. Clarke states that ‘the undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge read only a few isolated dialogues of Plato and learned nothing of his philosophical theories’. Before 1759 there was no English translation, except of the Phaedo, to which the Scottish scholar, Spens, added the Republic only in 1763.

Aristotle was in like case. Smith’s dismissal (Astronomy, III.6) of the Ionian φυσιολόγοι on the ground that the extant accounts ‘represent the doctrines of those sages as full of the most inextricable confusion’ is of a piece with Clarke’s judgment that ‘of the remarkable speculations of the pre–Socratics there was no appreciation’ (op. cit., 114); he would have had to rely upon Aristotle’s biased views put forward in the Metaphysics. In respect of ‘Logics’ he was presumably the victim of the ‘trivialization’ of Aristotle’s logic, unavoidable if it was to be taught to the lower end of the teenage stream! His point of view (putting ‘objects’ into the ‘right’ classes) seems to be based on the Topics, even perhaps mediated through Ramism; but of the structure of inference as expounded by Aristotle himself in the two Analytics he gives no hint. If this

‘conditioning’ was effected at Glasgow it would not have been unique; it is only in our time (by Jan Lukasiewicz and others) that the ‘modernity’ of Aristotle’s canon has been made generally known. Smith was also unlucky in setting forth on this immensely ambitious endeavour at a time when Giambattista Vico’s principles of critical historiography based on critical philology ( Scienza Nuova, 1725–44) were still wholly unappreciated outside Italy. Nevertheless, when all allowance has been made for the handicaps under which Smith must have laboured when composing these

‘juvenile’ historical pieces, there remains an air of brashness about the two (presumably) later ones that provokes the question whether the author of the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations would have countenanced their publication in the form in which he had left them. It is true that as late as November 1785, in the letter (248) to Rochefoucauld referred to above, the ‘sort of Philosophical History’ he mentions as still being ‘upon the anvil’ must have been at least based on the ‘great work’ mentioned in the letter to Hume twelve years earlier. But in that letter he expressly stated that none of his papers were worth publishing except a fragment—the history of the astronomical systems—and even that one he suspected contained

‘more refinement than solidity’. How much more apposite would this judgment be of the two subsequent essays! In view of his repeated request—as he neared his end—for assurance that his papers had been destroyed, it seems more than a little doubtful whether his editors were not doing his memory a disservice in making public these two essays without a more extensive caveat than the rather fulsome and misleading last sentence of their Advertisement.


[1 ] Rae, Life, 44, states that before the middle of November [1751] he [Smith] and Cullen were

‘already deeply immersed in quite a number of little schemes for the equipment of the College’ [Glasgow].

[2 ] That Smith himself was far from being consistent in referring to his literary achievements and aims will appear in connection with the dating of the Imitative Arts (172 below).

[3 ] H. F. Thomson, ‘Adam Smith’s Philosophy of Science’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, lxxix (1965), 218.

[4 ] For a further elaboration, see the present writer’s ‘Adam Smith and the History of Ideas’ in


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Essays on Adam Smith. The essay was designed to be read in conjunction with this introduction.

[5 ] On Smith’s attitude to the ‘faculty’ of imagination see below, 20.

[6 ] Really four: the first, the demonstration that the planets’ orbits, including the Earth’s, are co planar with the Sun is unaccountably omitted from the ‘text–books’. Kepler himself never set out the laws in any systematic form.

[7 ] Quoted from T. Heath, Greek Astronomy (1932), 124–5.


The survey on which this Note has been based was restricted to the following institutions: British Library (BL), National Library of Scotland (NLS), Bodleian (O), Cambridge University (C), Trinity College, Dublin (D), and the four Scottish universities existing before the recent expansion: St.

Andrews (StA), Glasgow (G), Aberdeen (A—see, however, No. 6 below), Edinburgh (E). Eight editions prior to 1900 have been established, at least one copy of each having been examined.

Only NLS has a copy of every edition, two of these being accessions from the library of Lauriston Castle near Edinburgh. Thanks are due to members of the library staff at NLS, C, StA, and D for information about their holdings.

The full title–page of the First Edition is provided together with brief descriptions of the remaining editions. Only ‘sample’ collations have been carried out; no substantial differences in the texts have been discovered.

1. London 1795 4to. First edition. BL, NLS, O, C. StA, G, A, E.

2. Dublin 1795 8vo. Some spelling mistakes have been corrected. BL, NLS, O, C, D.

Mr. M. Pollard of Trinity College Library states that the copy of this edition was purchased only in 1962; it contains the bookplate of Eliz. Anne Levinge with the

signature ‘Elizth. Anne Parkyns 1808’ on the title–page. Mr. Pollard emphasizes that reprint by Dublin printers was perfectly legal provided that the books were not offered for sale in England.

3. Essais philosophiques; par feu ADAM SMITH, Docteur en droit, de la société royale de Londres, de celle d’Edimbourg, etc. etc. Précédés d’un précis de sa vie et de ses écrits; Par DUGALD STEWART, de la société royale d’Edimbourg. Traduits de l’anglais par P. Prevost, professeur de philosophie à Genève de l’académie de Berlin, de la société des Curieux de la Nature, et de la société royale d’Edimbourg. PREMIERE

PARTIE. A Paris, Chez H. AGASSE, imprimeur–librairie, rue des Poitevins, noo 18. An V

de la République (1797, vieux style.)Fine portrait bust of Adam Smith (‘B.L. Prevost sculp. ’) opposite title–page. Of this, in some respects the most adequate, edition a rather fuller description seems to be justified. It is unique among editions before 1900

in containing Adam Smith’s long letter to the Edinburgh Review (1756), here in French translation, numerous notes of varying lengths by the translator and mainly relating to the later essays, also a fairly detailed Table of Contents of the whole, the Seconde Partie of which is separately signed and paged. The Notes are described (presumably


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by the publisher) as ‘très intéressantes’ (ii.316). Of special interest is the translator’s statement (i.277) that the note on Halley’s comet is de ‘l’editeur anglais’ ( sic). BL, NLS.

4. Basel 1799 8vo. Essays on Philosophical Subjects by the late ADAM SMITH LL.D. . .

. To which is affixed an account of the Life and Writings of the Author by DUGALD

STEWART F.R.S.E.Basil: printed for the Editor of the Collection of English Classics sold by James Decker, Printer and Bookseller 1799. BL, NLS. The only point of interest in this edition is the omission of any reference to the original editors, Joseph Black and James Hutton.

5. Volume v of Adam Smith’s Works edited by Dugald Stewart and dated 1811 (as is vol. iv, vols. i–iii being 1812). Vol. v also contains the essay entitled Considerations concerning the first Formation of Languages. BL, NLS, O.

6. Essays on Philosophical Subjects by Adam Smith LL.D., F.R.S. etc. London 1822. A new edition.This apparently very rare edition was printed (title–page verso) by A.

Allardice, Leith, for Allardice, Edinburgh; R. Griffin, Glasgow; and several London houses. The copy examined is inscribed ‘Biblioth. Classis Physicae in Acad.

Mariscallana’ and stamped ‘Nat. Phil. Clas. Library 1860 University of Aberdeen’, i.e.

on the union of King’s and Marischal Colleges, previously separate universities. NLS. A.

7. London 1869 8vo. Essays. The volume is in fact a reprint of both TMS (followed, as usual, by Languages) and EPS. The ‘Biographical Notice’ is drastically abridged. BL, O, C, StA.

8. London 1880 8vo. Essays Philosophical and Literary. Stated in BL catalogue to be a

‘duplicate’ of No. 7. BL, NLS, O, C, StA.

9. The Essays are included in The Early Writings of Adam Smith edited by J. R.

Lindgren (Augustus M. Kelley, New York 1967). This edition includes the Edinburgh Review articles, the Preface to William Hamilton’s Poems on Several Occasions (1748), and the Languages. It is not introduced or annotated.


The present volume follows the text of the first edition (published by Cadell and Davies in 1795, five years after Smith’s death), but with printer’s errors corrected. Since the essay is designed to illustrate ‘the principles which lead and direct philosophical enquiries’ rather than to provide a history of astronomy per se, no attempt has been made to achieve that completeness of documentation which would be appropriate in a definitive classic.