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The Physiology of Political Economy: Vitalism and Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 63, Number 3, July 2002
pp. 465-481 | 10.1353/jhi.2002.0020

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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.3 (2002) 465-481

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The Physiology of Political Economy:
Vitalism and Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations

Catherine Packham

The Scottish Enlightenment has been described as uniting a concern with the origins and foundations of knowledge with a preoccupation with the useful application of knowledge in schemes of practical improvement. 1 Adam Smith's Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which combines a theoretical account of political economy with specific proposals on politico-economic matters, might seem to exemplify such a characterization. For some commentators at the time of its publication, however, Smith's lack of practical experience in the field of trade disqualified any claims he might make to authoritative knowledge. Sir John Pringle, for instance, military surgeon and friend of Smith's, thought that a man "who had never been in trade could not be expected to write well on the subject"; and while Dr. Johnson repudiated this, suggesting that all that was necessary was "extensive views," Pringle's opinion was not unusual. 2 Such objections, interrogating the very basis of Smith's expertise, reiterate, in the context of his work, the same kinds of questions regarding knowledge's provenance which preoccupied his age, and which were indeed addressed by Smith himself. Smith's own account of the formation of philosophical knowledge rests not on the authority of experience but on the role of the imagination; he understood systematic knowledge as an imaginative "machine" or work of fancy created to please and soothe a mind disturbed by phenomena which are observed but unexplained. 3 Smith's account of philosophical [End Page 465] knowledge, in which he would include his own Wealth of Nations, suggests that his own expertise should be judged not on the extent of his personal experience of the matters discussed but on the explanatory power and pleasurable nature of the system which he outlines. With its emphasis on the work of the philosophical imagination, his account also suggests that some of the sources for that system might be somewhat unexpected, a suggestion which this paper will pursue.

Such questions concerning the genesis and formation of the new discourse of political economy instituted by Wealth of Nations have recurred in our own time, informing some of the more illuminating of recent work on Smith. Rejecting a tradition which assesses the significance of Wealth of Nations in terms of its anticipation of modern economic analysis, revisionist historians of political and economic thought have, since the late 1970s, offered more contextualist accounts of the work, tracing the relations between Smith's moral and economic philosophy and the contemporary discourses of natural jurisprudence and civic humanism. Other commentators have borrowed from literary scholarship to examine the textual and discursive conventions through which Smith's writings construct and sustain their meanings. 4 Such work has given a new emphasis to the textual and discursive nature of Smith's work as a means to understand its derivation, sources, and influences; it has replaced an older perception of Smith as inspired prophet-founder of the new political economy with an effort to interpret his work in the context of other, adjacent and contemporary forms of inquiry. Collectively, such work highlights the varied and disparate discourses which informed Smith's thinking on economic and other matters and seeks to understand how the complex and diverse forms of interaction with and assimilation of aspects of these philosophical and other discourses may have contributed to the formation of Smith's work—and hence, must also figure in our own attempts to read it.

This paper, by exploring a strand of physiological language and imagery which runs through Wealth of Nations and considering it in the context of new developments in Scottish physiological research in the middle decades of the eighteenth century, also seeks to understand Smith's work by examining its relations with contemporary philosophical discourse. Where other recent accounts of Wealth of Nations have reassessed its relationship with moral, political and legal discourses, it will...