Comments on Adam Smith’s Use of the ‘Gravitation’ Metaphor

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I offer a comment on a paper by Prof David Andrews, ‘Adam Smith’s Natural Prices, the Gravitation Metaphor, and the Purposes of Nature’, 2014, published in Economic Thought, 3.1, pp. 42-55, which takes a philosophical view of Adam Smith’s use of the ‘gravitation’ metaphor from ideas of Aristotle and Empedocles, in contrast to Isaac Newton’s. Instead, this paper takes the view that Smith simply used a metaphoric ‘figure of speech’ that followed his teachings (1748-64) on Rhetoric, as in his “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres’ (LRBL, 1762-3). Smith’s use on this occasion was not based on a deeper philosophical meaning of the word ‘Gravitation’, interesting as that view may be, as shown by David Andrews. Nor was the deeper philosophical interpretation entirely relevant to Smith’s literary purposes on this occasion. His purely rhetorical use of ‘gravitation’ is consistent with his LRBL teachings on perspecuity of style and illustrated in his long explanation of the dynamic relationships between ‘natural’ and ‘market’ prices in WN (1776: I.vii-xi.p, pp.72-267).

Posted for comments on 20 Jun 2014, 11:18 am.

Comments (6)

  • Willie Henderson says:

    Gavin Kennedy’s paper is a response to a paper by David Andrews in which Andrews argues that Smith’s views on ‘gravitation’ are derived from ‘Aristotle and Empedocles’ rather than Newton.

    Kennedy argues that really this philosophical analysis is simply beside the point. Smith is self-consciously using a metaphor, a manner of speaking. He cites Smith himself: ‘the market price of every particular commodity is in this manner continually gravitation, if one may say so, towards the natural price’ (WN, I.vii.20:77)(Kennedy’s emphasis). He could have added that this is the second time in the chapter in which Smith refers to the phenomenon of price gravitation: ‘The natural price, therefore, is, as it were, the central price to which the prices of all commodities are continually gravitating’ (WN, I.vii.15:75). He could also have added that in Chapter VII, the term is only used directly twice and I have quoted both uses.

    To better understand this manner of speaking, two things, according to Kennedy, are required. First it is necessary to know something about Smith’s own understanding of the use of metaphor. Kennedy finds that Smith is concerned with clarity, with communicating a complex idea in a way that is readily understandable. He talks about Smith use of a simple figure of speech and a ‘purely rhetorical use of ‘gravitation’ is consistent with his LRBL teachings on perspicuity of style’ (Kennedy, 1). Kennedy simply sees the metaphor as a kind of heuristic device, though he does not use this term, essentially used to assist the reader’s understanding.

    Kennedy goes on to argue that the ‘objects’ within the metaphor (natural and market price and all that these terms imply) are essentially empirically or experientially derived. What are significant are the human reactions involved and these are complex as, over time, natural price will also change. A central organising concept is that of ‘effectual demand’ which is an independent variable with a significant long-term role in adjusting natural as well as market conditions.

    Kennedy argues that exploring the gravitational metaphor as such is not helpful, it is merely a device to clarify in the reader’s mind the central tendency of the price mechanism. It is not, according to Kennedy, the equivalent of supply and demand analysis which is strongly and indeed analytically metaphorical, and based upon ‘equilibrium’. Such analyses simplify and segment. Smith’s analyses are realistic (not Kennedy’s words but I think his intention) and ‘messy’.

    But, there are always the phrases, ‘as it were’ and ‘if one may say so’. The first is located in a paragraph which is concluding/summative in content (‘therefore’). Whilst accepting imperfections, it stresses the constant tendency towards the natural price.

    The second is located in a more complex paragraph which has the form ‘but/yet’. This paragraph is actually of some importance (textually at least) for Kennedy’s argument as it deals with market imperfections. Smith is rehearsing the limitations of the heuristic metaphor (‘yet’): ‘sometimes natural causes, and sometimes particular regulations of police, may, in many commodities, keep up the market price, for a long time together ..’ (WN: I.vii.20: 77). Is he contesting his own construct, outlining the terms in which, ‘one may say so’?

    I find Kennedy’s argument on persuasive, as the surface use of ‘gravitation’ is limited and Kennedy seems able to contest the notion that natural price is itself constant. I have, however, a number of reservations.

    The text under contest is essentially Chapter VII WN. For much of the chapter Smith is setting up the terms of the discussion and this argument is essentially textual or rather about interpretation. Given that, it does not seem entirely unreasonable to wish to explore the notion of ‘natural’ and ‘market’ prices and the interesting concept of ‘effectual demand’. These seem to be definitions, derived from observation – Kennedy strays into Smith’s world beyond the text to justify the empirical origins – but are they really? What if the terms selected for naming the definitions were pre-organised, wittingly or unwittingly, by another discourse, metaphorical or otherwise? What is it that is ‘natural’ about a ‘natural price’? A ‘natural’ price is only ‘natural’ by metaphorical extension. Why is ‘gravitation’ the selected metaphor and not (say) Hume’s watery metaphor? Are these not what David Andrews had in mind?

    And what are we, the modern-day readers, to make of Smith’s ‘if one may say so’? As readers we are not constrained to Smith’s textual evaluation. Smith’s theory of metaphor is, as it is presented by Kennedy, a limited theory, dealing with clarity in communication, textual decoration or arousing the readers’ interest. This is an 18th century notion of metaphor and is not ‘a modern theory of metaphor’. Kennedy holds a restricted view in this paper at least of metaphor and its relationship to analytical thought and over-reaches when he suggests that ‘the only guide we need to understand Smith’s intended meaning when he uses metaphors in his writing is the certainty that they conform to his sense of ‘perspicuous’ writing’. It is ‘a’ guide, but contextualisation (a given text, a specific context and the surrounding discourse) is more significant.

    I have some sympathy with Kennedy’s desire to limit interpretation of Smith’s metaphors but this, at least in the passages in the paper, is tilting at windmills. Readers also create meaning otherwise recitation would be the only permitted activity. Interesting texts as well as interesting metaphors have a surplus of meaning (a modern theory of metaphor) and without such a surplus of meaning old books would never be read and argued over.

    • Gavin Kennedy says:

      Willie Handerson makes several constructive points and I am grateful for that.

      I am of the opinion in modern commentary on Smith’s content in his works we are bound scholastically to take Smith’s ideas as he expressed them, if you like, as the gold standard.

      So much of modern commentary on Smith’s Works is interpretative, especially when using modern ideas, including misunderstandings through to outright fabrications, and such like. Fortunately, an honourable minority of Historians of Economic Thought continue to read and understand Smith’s thoughts as he wrote them.

      That there is a constant producer tendency towards the natural price consistent with Smith’s definition of “natural price”, as the production cost plus profit, but which can change as production circumstances change. Market prices determine whether natural (producer) prices are realised or not. Inputs and costs can fluctuate and effectual demands can change. Natural prices (inclusive of profits) must be met for producers to be motivated to stay in business over time. Continuing losses drive producers out of the business; continuing profits keep and attract producers into the business.

      I am not persuaded that Willie Henderson is right to assert: “As readers we are not constrained to Smith’s textual evaluation.” If this is true then scholars (or epigones) can interpret Smith’s text to mean anything, which thereby is no longer based on Smith’s text. Willie Henderson pushes this further by asserting that “This is an 18th century notion of metaphor and is not ‘a modern theory of metaphor’”. I agree it isn’t and forgive me for asserting that modern scholars are obliged to treat Smith’s 18th-century notions as decisive in interpreting Smith’s meanings. Making him adopt 21st century new meanings are no longer Smith’s meanings – a habit that was legitimised and then spread after Samuelson’s 1948 (2010) Economics.

      I am concerned about modern ‘surplus of meanings’ in Smith’s teachings being legitimised by the empty presimistic threat that “without such a surplus of meaning old books would never be read and argued over.” Really? Adding modern meanings to Smith’s Works so we can read and argue over them is a scary thought. There is a plentiful literature of misconceived ‘modern meanings’ added to Smith’s Works (‘laissez-faire’; ‘invisible hands’ of markets; ‘equilibria’; ’Pareto’s theorem’; no government interventions; virtuous roles for ‘selfishness’; and such like) to keep scholars busy for decades to come without a scholarly licence to continue to make yet more up.

      I think it incumbent on scholarship that it sticks to what Smith meant, which means reading what he wrote and interpreting what he meant within his own explcit terms rather than incorporating meanings invented by modern scholars on what Smith may have meant. Reading Newton’s, Aristotle’s or Empedocles views on actual physics of gravity rather Smith’s wholly metaphoric meaning is step too far. Though I respect Willie Henderson’s rights to walk in that direction.

  • Geoff Harcourt says:

    Gavin Kennedy makes a plausible if somewhat repetitive case for the metaphorical base for Smith’s analysis of the relationship between market prices and natural prices. I would like to have seen him apply Smith’s approach on the question whether market prices converge on or only fluctuate around natural prices or do one thing in particular periods and the other in other specific periods and markets. I am more convinced that Smith was not drawing on the philosophical concepts of the Ancients than on Newton’s analysis and its relevance for Political Economy analysis. Just like modern economists, Smith could at times be afflicted by Physics envy. I have a number of details queries:

    Page 2, para 1, line 1, omit (,) from (short paper)

    Page 3, para 1, these references are not in the references.

    Page 5, para 1, line 2, (nine) for (9)

    Page 12, para 1, line 2, add (an Cambridge colleges among other places)

    Para 2, second last line, why prudent?

    Page 13, para 1, line 6, (at) for (of)

    Page 15, para 1, Marshall is analysing freely competitive markets with many sellers and buyers on each side of the market so that each buyer and seller is a price taker.

    3rd last line, (differences)

    Page 16, 5 lines from end, (remind)

    Page 17, para 2, his mother’s back garden not rear garden. (The harbour) for (It)

    Second last line, insert (from) after (across)

    Page 21, (prices) for (price)?

    Page 22, 2/3rds down, that is why Marshall used a three period analysis – market, short and long period.

    Page 27, first line, (their) for (them)?

    Page 29, line 3, insert (markets) after (clear)

    Page 30, para 1, line 6, (prices) for (price)

    Page 31, para 1, line 1, (on) for (of)

    Line 7, omit (it) before (detracts)

    • Gavin Kennedy says:

      I was happpy to see Geoff Harcourt’s helpful suggestions both of substance and in editorial alertness.

      He asks whether “Smith’s approach on the question whether market prices converge on or only fluctuate around natural prices or do one thing in particular periods and the other in other specific periods and markets”?

      In my reply to Willie Henderson I partly answer Geoff Harcourt’s welcome and relevant question. From my reading of Smith’s discussion on natural and market prices their relationship is complicated by their independent and related changes in them both, as they react to changes in the other and to independent changes in each alone.

      Natural Prices are based on changing producer costs plus the consequences of changing levels of realised profits. Market prices are based on changing effectual demands responding to actual sales, which affects realised producer prices (inc. profits), and in turn necessary realised incomes from actual sales in markets.

      Realistically their interactions are interdependent and lagged. It takes time to adjust production upwards or downwards and time to clear markets expanding or contracting. Smith tries to capture this complex inter-relationship, which is ‘managed’ by two or more distinct persona (producers and sellers) inter-dependent and competitive on each other. Smith apologises for the necessary though tedious complications in his text.

      His use of ‘gravitation’ as a metaphor expresses his realisation that the relationship between natural and market prices is not just two dimensional, ‘so to speak’. He describes it in a ‘more striking and interesting manner’, the inter-acting players’ transactions, as producers sell to their customers and their customers buy from producers and re-sell the producers’ products onto final customers. Some transactions are direct between producers selling final consumers in street markets, others sell direct to dedicated wholesale buyers, who in turn supply the products to final consumers through various layers of dispersed market outlets.

      Smith discusses the various forms of producer-buyer relations evidenced in 18th-century distribution production-networks as confirmed today by economic historians. It was a complex market system with producer Natural prices and sellers’ Market prices moving in various ways in response to changes in prices from both related and unrelated shifts in prices in each sector, feeding back to producers and distributors in complex interacting relationships and in their supply chains (landlords and their rents, labourers and their wages, and consumers in their spending decisions on their effectual demands).

      These inter-locking forces affect market prices which “continunally gravitate[s], if one may say so, towards the natural price”, and adds: “yet sometimes perticular accidents, sometimes natural causes, and sometimes particular regulations of police, may, in many commodites keep up the market price, for a long time together, a good deal above the natural price” (WN I.viii.20: 77).

      I consider that a reader’s appreciation of the complexity of these relationships is aided by Smith’s metaphoric use ‘gravitation’, which in this context is neither a proper noun or verb, nor as a scientific statement of the above relationships as distinguished by Aristotle, Empedoclies, or Newton.

  • David Andrews says:

    As erudite as Gavin Kennedy’s historical digressions might be, as profound as his scientific speculations might be, as charming as his nostalgic reveries might be, and as thorough as his extended paraphrasing of Smith might be, he has nonetheless misunderstood my paper. This is clear from his reference to what he terms my “comments on the apparent support for [my] views in Marshall and several modern economists”. Kennedy fails to perceive that the central purpose of my paper is to disagree with these writers (except Sraffa), so his scolding of those who interpret Smith’s natural price in terms of Marshallian supply and demand misses the point.
    Kennedy’s central argument is that Smith used gravitation as a metaphor, “to describe in a more striking and interesting manner”, rather than as a “scientific statement”. I have no disagreement with this whatsoever. If there is some evidence that this contradicts anything in my paper Kennedy has failed to produce it.
    Kennedy criticizes those who do not address Smith’s views on metaphors explicitly, but he acknowledges that there is nothing distinctive about them: “Smith’s use and teaching on metaphors conforms to traditional and modern usage of metaphors in the English language”. He does not explain exactly why it is important to address such a well-known idea.
    He claims that I have a “deeper”, “philosophical” interpretation of Smith’s metaphor, but my point is merely that the content of the metaphor makes a difference. Different metaphors convey different meanings. Surely Kennedy does not mean to contest this. A description of an economy as a casino conveys something quite different from a description of it as a well-oiled machine. Likewise, a description of the movement of market prices relative to natural price with the metaphor of Newtonian gravity is different from a description of it with the metaphor of Empedoclean gravity. This difference is directly relevant to Smith’s understanding of natural price: according to the former description, natural price would an attractor of market prices; according to the latter it would not.

    • Gavin Kennedy says:

      David Andrews asserts that Gavin Kennedy “has nonetheless …misunderstood my paper”. Possibly, though I believe that David Andrews has misunderstood the significance of my disagreements with his paper.

      David goes on to say: Gavin’s “scolding of those who interpret Smith’s natural price in terms of Marshallian supply and demand misses the point”. If that is what David thinks I am arguing then obviously I was not clear enough, for which I apologise.

      I consider the views the modern economists (including Marshall) he mentions are not relevant to Smith’s use of ‘gravitation’ in 1776. I do not think any of their ideas can clarify what Smith meant in the chapters on ‘natural and market prices’ over a century and more after he wrote them if, as they do, they focus on the physics of gravitation from Aristotle, Empedocles,and Isaac Newton (an interesting subject for a post-graduate seminar session perhaps but not for understanding Adam Smith’s approach in WN).

      I consider it mistaken to interpret Smith’s use of ‘gravitation’ as a noun or verb when he used it on this occasion in the context of gravitation as a metaphor. Smith’s use has wholly metaphoric implications, because metaphors (‘figures of speech’) have distinctly unique roles not to be confused as nouns or verbs.

      Smith taught extensively on the role of metaphors in his long-running lecture courses (Edinburgh 1748-51 and Glasgow, 1751-64), for which we have detailed student notes: “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres”: Lectures: 6, 7, 8, 9 & 10 (29 November – 13 December, 1762): ‘Of what are called tropes and figures of speech’. Oxford UP, 1983 pp. 25-61. I regard Smith’s 36 pages on figures of speech in the 18th century is pretty clear evidence as to his meaning compared to speculations by 20th-21st century modern authors.

      My criticism of David’s paper and the modern authors he quotes centres on the fact that they neglect Smith’s meaning of ‘gravitation’ as a metaphor, from which it follows they did not explain why Smith used ‘gravitation’ as a metaphor and, therefore, they and David missed his intended meaning and they have built a formidable, and in my view, futile, controversy of no consequence to Smith’s meaning and use of ‘gravitation’ as a metaphor.

      I used the Marshallian ‘cross’ as emblematic of supply and demand analysis in modern ‘micro-economics’. I meant nothing more than that and certainly did not consider where David Andrews stood in relation to Marshall, or Sraffa, & etc. My point is that Smith on the relationship between ‘natural’ and ‘market’ prices is more complex than the simplified Marshallian cross and its derivatives that dominates in economics texts and teaching. Smith’s contribution, so to speak, was about what was going on in the relationships of Natural and Market prices and he took several long chapters to do so. In modern micro, alll this is simplified down to price movements.

      ‘Natural’ prices are driven by production costs + profit aspirations, which may or may not be realised, leaving suppliers with losses or gains, themselves causing changes in producer behaviours. They are ‘Natural’ in the sense that actual producer costs, inclusive of expected profits, must be met for production to start and for it to continue.

      The entire human capacity for “Exchange” was driven by the “necessary, though very slow and gradual consequence of a certain propensity in human nature which has in view no such extenive utility, the propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another” (WN II.1: 27). From exploring this sentence, I believe it contributes to appreciating Smith’s meaning embodied in ‘Natural’ price and thereby his 18th-century meaning of its relationship to ‘Market’ price. (How Market prices finally reached their relationships with ‘Natural’ prices, which pre-dated markets which emerged many millennia later, we turn to modern anthropology and archeology, and the history of economic thought, but that is another, larger subject, only marginally covered in WN, but it was sketched inadequately in Smith’s Lectures in Jurisprudence 1762-3, without knowledge of social evoution.

      The multifarious consequences of excess supply over actual demand and excess/insufficient consumer demand, operates on both sides of the market transaction, causing changes in the behaviours among both producers and market traders. Smith describes ‘naturual prices’ as ‘central prices’ to which all prices “are continually gravitating” [“if I may say so”] and “constantly tending towards”, by “naturally” suiting “itself in this manner to effectual demand” [WN I.vii, p. 73-75]. Neither ‘Natural’ nor ‘Market’ prices are fixed in their own right. They are variable but related and changes occur within each according to related and separate causes. Hence, the long chapters in Book 1 attempting to describe them.

      Smith’s use of ‘gravitating’ is indisputably metaphoric as he taught and used metaphors and applies here with full force. Metaphors give “the due strength of the expression to the object described and at the same time does this in a more striking and interesting manner” (LRBL, p.29).

      David’s statements downplay the metaphoric use of ‘gravitation’ and by giving significance to its possible use by Newton, Aristotle, and Empedoclean notions of gravity, he moves away from Smith’s metaphoric use of the word. He suggests his “point is merely that the content of the metaphor makes a difference”. Smith commented that poor metaphors “carry us to bombast on the one hand or to burlesque on the other” (LRBL p.29). Smith uses many metaphors throughout his Works, giving, for instance three examples on one page (WN II.ii.86 : 321): ‘Great wheel of circulation”; “waggonway through the air”; and “Daedalian wings”.

      In whatever manner modern scholars import other meanings for these metaphors from modern experiences they are no longer referring to Smith’s metaphoric meaning a a “figure of speech”. Broadly, we know what he meant metaphorically from reading his text and conclude that the metaphor, “gravitation”, gives “due strength to the expression” in a perfectly clear, “striking and interesting manner” without investigating different meanings of his distant predecessors or his distant successors in the 21st century.