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  • Invisible Hands: Self-Organization in the Eighteenth Century by Jonathan Sheehan and Dror Wahrman
  • Jacob Soll
Invisible Hands: Self-Organization in the Eighteenth Century. By Jonathan Sheehan and Dror Wahrman (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2015) 375 pp. $45.00

In The History of the Union of Great Britain (Edinburgh, 1709), Daniel Defoe wrote about the political phenomenon of the Anglo-Scottish Union. For him, it was not simply about political strategy or reason of state. Instead, he believed that in the complex politics of the day, divine providence was at work: “By what strange Mystery, concurring Providence, like the Wheel within all their Wheels, center’d them all, in Uniting the Nations” (47). Defoe had become convinced that in politics, as well as in commerce, “consequences” were decided not by the “Designs of Parties,” but rather by “The Nature of Things.” In modern terms, life was controlled by “self-organizing systems” and these systems had their own logic. The message was clear: A certain faith was necessary that human events would be guided by God, whether humans wanted it or not.

This is the central argument of Sheehan and Wahrman’s ambitious book. As their title suggests, theirs is an attempt to provide the intellectual and cultural origins of ideas of invisible hands, and market forces. Rather than focusing on economic intellectual history—a vast topic—they instead examine philosophical ideas and scientific movements, all of which expressed the idea that “wheels within wheels” controlled events. Much in the way that Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), looked at religious ethics to understand the origins of capitalism, this book looks at scientific culture and what the authors call the idea of “self-organization” to understand the rise of the idea of the invisible hand in in eighteenth-century intellectual, political, and economic life. There are many histories of free-market thought, but this approach is original. Scholars such as Franklin and Daston, among others, examined the ideas and culture of probability in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but no one attempted to show how an entire mindset emerged, across numerous fields, that attributed events not to fortune, as the ancients and humanists had, but to a machine-like order of the universe.1

Sheehan and Wahrman turn to the history of science to show that thinkers, inspired by René Descartes, Carl Linneaus, and Isaac Newton, began to look for “God-given motion” in human and animal life, as well as celestial earthly events (33). What is fascinating in this survey is the convergence between the path-breaking natural sciences of the seventeenth and eighteenth-century and their relationship to faith. The order on display in the world, claimed the theologian Ralph Cudworth, following Descartes, came from God, or transpired “magically” (35). It [End Page 228] made the planets, animals, and blood move, but it also situated human events. Religion fused with science created a Weltanschauung.

This thinking about order and what drove it came to the fore during the financial bubbles of 1720. Some French and English observers of both the Mississippi and South Sea Bubbles attributed the crashes to the intervention of God, or, as Thomas Greene, the Bishop of Ely, put it, to the “design” of his judgment. Thomas Gordon, the great publicist and anti-corruption crusader, agreed. He wrote that “fraud” was in the “secret springs and machines” and needed to be corrected by “divine regularity.” Disorder, the authors claim, had found its antidote in this causal system, based partly on science and partly on belief. Politics, Gordon inferred, also needed corrections, though in this area, his notion that human transparency and political criticism could also serve to correct the broken clockwork of society was distinctly more secular than Sheehan and Wahrman recognize. Thinkers such as Le Mercier de la Rivière, David Hume, and later Adam Smith echoed the sentiment with regard to economics, espousing the idea that economic “equilibrium . . . establishes itself necessarily” (251). On this basis, Sheehan and Wahrman claim a direct link between this culture of “self-organization” and the theory of laissez faire.

Without question, the authors have provided a fascinating view into the...


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pp. 228-230
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