This dissertation focuses on the eighteenth-century origins of the idea that society is a system, exploring how this concept was elaborated and justified by its most compelling disseminator in the period, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith. Smith viewed social systems as emerging necessarily, and apart from any purposively authored laws, contracts, or plans, in the natural course of human relations, due to the operation of universal, passional principles of human nature. He saw these principles as prompting individuals to actions that are uncoordinated with those of others and that yet, seemingly paradoxically, contribute to group processes in which they are inescapably enmeshed.
Contemporary culture has reduced Smith's elaborate theories of this mysterious, fascinating systemic causality to a single, damning metaphor he used in his explanations—the "Invisible Hand," a figure whose best-known instance occurs in his Wealth of Nations (1776) (Each man "intends only his own gain" yet "is...led by an invisible hand" to advance the general welfare). Rather than construe this metaphor as a telling rhetorical alibi that anchors Smith's theories, only to unravel them, my project restores the figure to its self-reflexive formal context. Embedded in discourse that consistently draws attention to its tropes, the invisible hand is Smith's witting condensation of the total causal workings of the social order whose agency the figure seems to personify. It stands as an ironic troping of a system as a "design without designer," a newly current, intriguing formulation of social systems' systematicity.
The generic shape of Smithian theory depends upon and complements this riddling characterization. The purpose of mid-eighteenth-century human-centered scientific projects was to disclose social systems' contradictory causality, the philosopher's task to provide a synchronic account of the mechanisms energizing systems and keeping them in place by offering a diachronic account of how these systems had originated and then developed into their present complex forms. As a solution to a puzzle with specified parameters, a human natural scientific theory had to employ a highly conventionalized literary form, its fulfillment of this form's generic criteria the very ground of scientific authority. While Smith never commented directly on this essentially discursive scientific method, his theories helped to consolidate it by their self-conscious, rigorous adherence to it.
Through close critical readings of Smith's texts and comparative analysis of them with other major works of the era, this dissertation elucidates the complicated, suasive theory-genre of eighteenth-century human natural science, addressing its provocative framing of its object of inquiry, its conventions, and its modes of proof, thereby enabling us to see how it generates its remarkable authority-effects. It argues further that Smith, composing his explanations in an era intensely preoccupied with prose style and with forging a language appropriate to science, himself sought to make his writing hand visible in his work. Often pointing to his use of figures, Smith acknowledged their necessity while deploying various strategies to turn them towards explanatory truth.
The dissertation covers Smith's major works: his two published treatises, Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759; 1790), his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1748-63), his essay on the origins of language (1761), and his early, incomplete meta-philosophical work on the history of astronomy (c.1746-58).