Adam Smith’s Philosophy of Science: Economics as Moral Imagination



Abstract: The paper takes a fresh look at two essays that Adam Smith wrote at the very beginning of his career. In these essays, Smith explains his philosophy of science, which is social constructivist. A social constructivist reading of Smith strengthens the scholarly consensus that The Wealth of Nations (WN) needs to be interpreted in light of the general moral theory he explicates in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS), as the two essays and TMS stress the importance of the same concepts: e.g., moral imagination, the socially embedded individual, and humility. The connecting tissue between all three works is made up of sentiments and values. Smith regards the socially embedded human as the agent in all three realms (knowledge creation, morality, economics), and humans are always driven by values. Smith not only conceives of economics as an applied moral philosophy, but also bases both research areas on a view of knowledge creation that stresses specific epistemic values. If mainstream economic theory (and business theory that is based on it) wants to have any claim to Adam Smith, it would have to change not only what it argues but also how it argues. Economists would have to replace the language of mathematics with the language and logic of moral philosophy and give values centre stage.