Adam Smith's Humean Attitude About Science; Illustrated by the History of Astronomy

Adam Smith Review, Forthcoming

26 Pages Posted: 20 Sep 2016 Last revised: 6 May 2018

See all articles by Erik Matson

Erik Matson

New York University - Department of Economics

Date Written: May 1, 2018


In this paper I examine connections between Smith and Hume’s thought evidenced by Smith’s posthumously published essay, “History of Astronomy” (HA). I argue that Smith's outlook in HA is deeply influenced by Hume's naturalism, understood as the mind’s pragmatic acceptance of and operation within an unverifiable frame of belief formation. I suggest that Smith demonstrates and develops his Humean outlook in HA in three stages: (1) He begins the essay by recognizing the mind's unavoidable sentimental operation within a frame of natural belief formation, a frame characterized by the presuppositions of external existence and causal relations. (2) He recognizes the relatively frail philosophical underpinnings of such belief formation and accordingly expresses a skeptical attitude towards final interpretations. (3) He rhetorically demonstrates the pervasiveness of belief in spite of its weak philosophical underpinning by sliding himself into a seeming assent to the finality of Newtonian Copernicanism at the end of the essay, consciously contradicting his initial skeptical commitments.

Keywords: Adam Smith, History of Astronomy, David Hume, Naturalism, Skepticism

JEL Classification: A120, B12, B4

Suggested Citation

Matson, Erik, Adam Smith's Humean Attitude About Science; Illustrated by the History of Astronomy (May 1, 2018). Adam Smith Review, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

Erik Matson (Contact Author)

New York University - Department of Economics ( email )

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