Adam Smith and the Role of the Metaphor of an Invisible Hand

5 Pages Posted: 9 Mar 2011

Date Written: March 8, 2011


Daniel Klein and Brandon Lucas's In a Word or Two, Placed in the Middle: The Invisible Hand in Smith's Tomes, following a vague hint by Peter Minowitz (2004), offers original physical evidence that Smith deliberately placed the phrase led by an invisible hand - at the physical centre of both his masterworks. Further, it suggests that the invisible-hand paragraphs are a response to Rousseau (1755); and that in numerous and rich ways, centrality holds special and positive significance in Smith's thought. This paper acknowledges the physical centrality of the invisible-hand metaphor, but questions whether centrality alone gives weight to wider claims that the invisible hand was Smith's central idea. It draws upon Smith's Rhetoric Lectures (1763), and argues that the invisible-hand paragraphs in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations identify the actual objects of the invisible-hand metaphor. This paper insists that Adam Smith is the most reliable source for revealing what he meant. In contrast, most modern attributions of special meaning to Adam Smith's use of the metaphor ignore Smith's teaching on the use of metaphors and, instead, make numerous, and often mutually exclusive, claims that Smith had a doctrine of an invisible-hand.

Keywords: Adam Smith, invisible hand, Wealth of Nations, Moral Sentiments, centre, metaphors, objects

Suggested Citation

Kennedy, Gavin, Adam Smith and the Role of the Metaphor of an Invisible Hand (March 8, 2011). Economic Affairs, Vol. 31, Issue 1, pp. 53-57, 2011, Available at SSRN: or

Gavin Kennedy (Contact Author)

Heriot-Watt University ( email )

Edinburgh EH14 4AS, Scotland EH14 1AS
United Kingdom

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