Adam Smith and Anti-Mathematics

12 Pages Posted: 23 Oct 2012  

Eric S. Schliesser

Ghent University

Date Written: September 3, 2012


In this paper (written to honor the memory of Mark Blaug), I argue that in general Smith is distinctly reserved about the application of mathematics to political economy and even terrestrial physics. In particular, I argue that Smith’s strategy in these matters is an instance of what I call a “containment strategy.” By this I mean that Smith restricts the application of mathematics to a fairly limited domain of inquiry. Smith was not alone in such a containment strategy: we find instances of it in Locke, Buffon, whom he admired, and Mandeville. In the paper I explore evidence from Buffon and Locke. Containment strategies are part of a wider trend of eighteenth century “anti-Mathematics” (by which I mean expressed reservations about the authority and utility of mathematical sciences more widely) that can be traced back to Spinoza’s so-called “Letter on the Infinite.” In particular, the writings of Hume (especially Treatise 1.2) offer examples of more comprehensive strategies in anti-Mathematics. I argue that Smith draws on Hume's views on reasoning with proportions as suitable for political economy. Along the way, I offer a reconsideration of a common trope that Smith is some kind of Newtonian.

Keywords: mathematical economics, anti-Mathematics, David Hume, Adam Smith, Buffon

JEL Classification: B12, B41

Suggested Citation

Schliesser, Eric S., Adam Smith and Anti-Mathematics (September 3, 2012). Available at SSRN: or

Eric S. Schliesser (Contact Author)

Ghent University ( email )

Philosophy and Moral Sciences
Blandijnberg 2
Ghent, 9000

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