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Smith’s Allegory and Organon: Attractive Aspects

by Daniel B. Klein, 25 April 2016

Acknowl: These notes emerged in response to Eric Hammer, who has generously fought me on allegory and the organon.

Introductory discussion of allegory in political economy is found here. Smith's organon is explained here.

More specific instructions

The allegory/organon involves a sketchy characterization of Joy/impartial spectator. See pp. 223, 320 of my book.

Attractive aspects of Smithian allegory and the organon:

  • Models (blackboard, equilibrium, agent-based) are metaphor, but not allegory. Allegory is somewhat distinct from other figurative devices that create a comparison between the target and the figure (metaphor, simile, analogy, parable). Allegory seems to entail an entering into, or sympathy, between the target unfolding experience and the allegorical unfolding experience; the two unfolding experiences cannot simply be two human beings (as with a parable). One has to be other than a human being. As for models, the figurative unfolding experience is too mechanistic, too cold. The Walrasian auctioneer is a metaphor, not an allegory; we don't enter into the experience of the auctioneer.
  • Eyes watching, as in study of cleaning up dishes with different images on the wall.
  • Allegorization of Joy holds people accountable to their characterizations of their tacit, subconscious beholder.
  • Allegorization gets us to take seriously exemplars, authorities, to enter into their outlooks. It impels us to read great thinkers seriously, scrupulously, and to argue over them (see here). Wayne Booth wrote: "The notion that values are found and established in valuers entails the notion that some valuers are better at the task than other—not a popular notion these days but one we cannot avoid." (The Rhetoric of Irony, 1974)
  • Allegorization impels us to confess the many embarrassments of rightness, embarrassments including the following:
    • Looseness of our larger aesthetic-like sensibilities.
    • By-and-large status of verities (maxims).
    • That we are exploring both ends of the conversation, not only whether X leads to Y, but whether Y (or X) is beautiful: We develop our notion of beauty, not just what serves our notion of beauty. Griswold uses “protreptic” to describe edification of the larger end of the conversation, our sense of the beautiful.
  • Allegorization enables us to advance benevolence without benevolence. Theorizing about what serves Joy’s benevolence becomes a game or contest; humans are natural game players and contestants. We enter such games or contests and may serve wisdom and virtue without necessarily being much impelled by benevolence ourselves. But we naturally believe that excelling in such a contest calls for competently entering into Joy's benevolence, and such entering into would instruct, reinforce, nurture, and enhance our own benevolence. Smith writes:

    [W]e sometimes seem ... eager to promote the happiness of our fellow-creatures, rather from a view to perfect and improve a certain beautiful and orderly system, than from any immediate sense or feeling of what they either suffer or enjoy. There have been men of the greatest public spirit, who have shown themselves in other respects not very sensible to the feelings of humanity. ...Who had ever less humanity, or more public spirit, than the celebrated legislator of Muscovy [Peter the Great]? (TMS, 185-86.11).

  • We may advance benevolence without assuming the sort of superiority that benevolence implies (at least according to Heineccius). Heineccius:

    Since love always tends towards good. But whatever we embrace with affection as good, must either be a more perfect being than our selves, equal, or inferior to us, and less excellent. Love of the first kind, we call love of devotion or obedience; love of the second kind, we call love of friendship; and love of the third sort, we call benevolence.

    Compare Smith: " "In a civilized nation the man who gives the presant [sic] is superior to the person who receives it. But in a barbarous nation the case is directly opposite" (LJ(B), 405).

  • By characterizing (if only tacitly) a Joy-like being, we have a sense of a superior to whom we are obliged: “Only if one can find in nature the will of a superior can there be said to be a law of nature, as opposed, say, to a natural good. Obligation, and thus law, can ensue only when there is an antecedent superior/subordinate relationship” (Zuckert 1994, 189). Allegorization thus inspires a humility that formulae and axioms do not.
  • Political economy: By allegory, and only by allegory, we may elaborate and sustain talk of communication, cooperation, error, correction, etc., throughout the system. Such talk gets us to focus on the mechanisms: What are the signals, etc? What makes them function better rather than worse? (my book 73-75, Ch. 14, also here). Jeremy Bentham says: "The work of Adam Smith [WN] is a treatise upon universal benevolence... [N]ations are associates and not rivals in the grand social enterprise" (here, italics added).
  • Simple metaphor such as “the high price told me to buy less than I usually do” is like “the cloudiness told me to take an umbrella.” It does not suffice to elaborate Hayek’s “communication” and the other important terms. One could say, “the pristine snow around the house told the burglar to break in.” The do-X message that Hayek says is communicated is something other than simply “do X for your own good.” It is a more elaborate system of communication, emanating from a benevolent being (allegory), of quarterbacking, of cooperation, not just simple metaphor about the price telling you “buy this thing” or "don't buy this thing." That would be on par with the pristine snow telling the burglar to break in.
  • Allegory, and only allegory, can sustain the idea that to be virtuous is “to co-operate with the Deity” (Smith TMS 166.7, likewise warmies Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, and Butler quoted in my book 33-34). The allegory gets us to see that our idea of virtue and our idea of the good of the whole are mutually constitutive; we acknowledge and affirm the holiness of the whole (discussed here).
  • Understanding the allegorical in TMS is crucial to understanding why TMS fell into oblivion, how Hume and Smith differ from most of the rest of the Scottish enlightenment (see Haakonssen 1996 p. 7 and related chapters), and how things developed thereafter. Smith's contemporaries Kames, Reid, and Ferguson all disliked the allegorical element, and quietly objected; much of the next generations -- including Stewart, Th. Brown, Mackintosh, A. Bain -- openly condemned the allegorical element. TMS was not understood. The book was openly disparaged by such figures as H.T. Buckle, Bagehot, L. Stephen, and H. Laski (see my book, 241). Understanding the rejection of allegory is crucial to understanding how things went thereafter.


(Incidentally, the whole drift of all of the foregoing runs against Smith's own suggestion that the question of how we are to understand the operations/mechanisms/faculties of approving "is a mere matter of philosophical curiosity" (TMS, 315.3).)