The Wealth of Nations

The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith's Ontology

Though Smith is most often seen as an economist, it is important to realize that he also made serious contributions to moral philosophy, and that his philosophical contributions were tied to his nuanced view of human nature.

Smith's deism gave him faith that nature possessed an inherent order. He describes humanity's role in this natural order as similar to that of an audience in an opera house, in which a wondrous spectacle unfolds and is beheld. While our senses allow us to behold the spectacle, we cannot come to understand the principles that produce this order, or that account for the connections between the various aspects of nature. For this reason, Smith thought that the central question of philosophy was not the design of nature, but how we could begin to imagine the design. Philosophy's task was not to uncover the truth, but to tell a story that could account for the order of nature. In conceiving of philosophy in this manner, then, Smith is an empiricist rather than a rationalist.

Though human beings are part of nature, there is an important difference, for Smith, between the human condition and the natural order. This difference is rooted in the idea that humans are rational creatures, but prone to weakness or frailty. It is our reason that allows us to impose elements of our own frailty into the “machine” of human society, disturbing the natural harmony that prevails in nature. The human social order, insofar as it parallels the natural order, is also more complicated that this order. The sign of a particular philosophical system's success lies in its ability to relate to and explain what we observe. The more closely a system corresponds to these observations, the more plausible it becomes that the system in question has come close to representing the hidden links that underlie the order of nature.