Adam Smith's Reasoning Routines and The Deep Structure of His Oeuvre

58 Pages Posted: 27 Dec 2021 Last revised: 10 Feb 2022

See all articles by Andreas Ortmann

Andreas Ortmann

UNSW Australia Business School, School of Economics

Benoit Walraevens

University of Caen Normandy

Date Written: December 24, 2021


Conceptual lenses, or models (Allison 1969; Ortmann 2008), draw on stable ways of thinking about the world, or “reasoning routines”. We explore the deep structure of Adam Smith’s work, and to what extent it is the result of a set of “reasoning routines” that, at an early stage of his career, in early works such as “History of Astronomy” (Smith 1982, or HA) and Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (Smith 1985, or LRBL), Smith developed and later put to good use as moral philosopher, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Smith 1982b, or TMS), and as economist, in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Smith 1981, or WN).

We argue that while moving from rhetoric to moral philosophy, Smith looked at the latter through the conceptual lens of the former. While moving from moral philosophy to economics, he looked at the latter through the conceptual lens of the former. By the chain rule, he looked at economics through the conceptual lens of rhetoric.

Identifying the HA, his LRBL, TMS, and WN as key products of his personal and academic life, one of our central contentions is that Smith's thinking was throughout his work informed by his insights into the strategic nature of all things rhetorical, moral, and economic. We identify this as one of the reasoning routines – the 2nd one in our classification - and formalize it game-theoretically. Importantly, Smith understood well that strategic interactions often are afflicted by information asymmetries, an insight first on display in LRBL where he paid close attention to the principal-agent nature of some forms of communication, namely acts of persuasion, but an insight prominently also on display in TMS and WN.

We argue, furthermore, that Smith’s interest in various subject matters was actually a derived one, and that as such he was, initially at least, an experimental philosopher as well as a cognitive and social psychologist avant la lettre, finely attuned to rhetorical questions and what they reflect. His well-documented “theoretical and conjectural history” strategy (Stewart 1795 in Smith 1982, pp. 292 - 3; see also Smith 2016, pp. 109 - 110), which according to Stewart could be traced throughout his oeuvre, was one manifestation of this interest.

In other words, the examination of the ways our thoughts, sentiments and beliefs about the social and natural world come about and how we communicate them, for entertainment and/or persuasion, was in Smith’s view the best method for explaining and illustrating the various powers of the human mind. Understanding how people reasoned and tried to make sense of the natural and social world around them was Smith’s overriding initial interest – a point made before (e.g., Raphael & Skinner, drawing heavily on Smith’s first biographer, Dugald Stewart, in their General Introduction to the EPS, a set of incomplete manuscripts that Smith singled out from being burned a few days before his death; see also Buchan 2016, p. 10, and Smith 2016, p. 90).

Of course, life’s circumstances (e.g., Smith’s involvement in policy matters and his work as commissioner of customs for the remaining twelve years of his life) interfered, as is well known, with his research activities. In Ortmann & Walraevens (2018), we have furthermore argued that in the run-up to the publication of the WN, Smith became increasingly obsessed with the American question but he still used his rhetorical insights to try to persuade an audience that would see unfavorably his “very violent critique” of the mercantile system and his project for a new British Empire.

Keywords: Adam Smith, reasoning routines, rhetoric, game theory

JEL Classification: B12, B31, B41

Suggested Citation

Ortmann, Andreas and Walraevens, Benoit, Adam Smith's Reasoning Routines and The Deep Structure of His Oeuvre (December 24, 2021). UNSW Business School Research Paper Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Andreas Ortmann (Contact Author)

UNSW Australia Business School, School of Economics ( email )

High Street
Sydney, NSW 2052

Benoit Walraevens

University of Caen Normandy ( email )

Esplanade de la Paix
Caen, 14000

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