Sleight of Hand


Review of Invisible Hands: Self-Organization and the Eighteenth Century, by Jonathan Sheehan and Dror Wahrman

University of Chicago Press, 2015

In 1984 the Christian Gauss seminars in criticism at Princeton University were given by Amos Funkenstein, who later published them as his classic book Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century (1986). It remains one of the most important works of intellectual history of the last half century.

The core of the book addressed God’s death and transfiguration. By the Middle Ages, older notions of God’s intentional plan for his creation had begun to be internalized to the logic of the created order. God’s presence waned — in the thinking of the Jewish rationalist Maimonides there was already something repellent about a theology that required God to stoop to intervene — but aspects of the religious worldview remained. By the end of the Funkenstein’s story, thinkers attribute a definite logic to the unfolding of social life across time that emerges from uncoordinated actions. For Immanuel Kant the “unsocial sociability” of self-regarding action powered the collective advance of the move from nature to culture, for G.W.F. Hegel there is a “cunning of reason” that makes the seemingly random passions serve its plans, while for Karl Marx history is at work behind the backs of its human actors (and servants). Dropping God, these thinkers had discovered systemic effects. God’s body — his strong hand and outstretched arm saving the children of Israel from their Egyptian bondage — may have disappeared. But his once visible intention had become a matter of immanent emergence. What plan there was arose not from outside the system but endogenously from the uncoordinated acts of men and women. Was this secularization — or surrogate theology?

In Invisible Hands, two of the leading students of the early modern European history working today have revisited and reshaped this insight. Jonathan Sheehan is a gifted intellectual historian; Dror Wahrman, an accomplished cultural historian. They have combined their talents and approaches here to achieve one of the richest recent books on the origins of how we moderns reason. For those familiar with the history of economics in particular, and classics like Albert O. Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests and Jacob Viner’s The Role of Providence in the Social Order, this new book – in effect, an archeology of the belief in spontaneous order -- is at once a worthy companion and a much broader investigation of the conditions of the possibility for an entire mentality today. It is also of great relevance to students of political theory.

Perhaps concerned that a figure like Funkenstein cherry-picked examples from across centuries so as to buttress his story of the intellectual proximity of medieval and modern rationalisms, Sheehan and Wahrman work on a chronologically tighter scale, beginning with providence in the late seventeenth century in order to motivate an extraordinary account of the Enlightenment century that followed. But they agree that it was transformations of God’s providence that allowed for systemic “self-organization” to become thinkable.

With some exceptions, they say, a theology of God’s plan had generally had moral implications alone rather than significant epistemic functions. In Christianity, after all, the point of appealing to providence is sometimes sheer opacity: the Lord works in mysterious ways. If it clarifies things, it is to claim God’s agency behind even the most unfortunate events, in order to prompt faith. Job learns to see a loving God behind his troubles, but also to accept epistemic modesty about how much he can ever understand about how divine power works in the world. Similarly, early moderns like Martin Luther and his Calvinist heirs, Sheehan and Wahrman show, referred to providence with the primary goal of emphasizing our moral obligations to serve God’s will. The divine master plan was only made to serve more specifically epistemic functions in a particular intellectual setting.

It was in response to the victory of mechanistic thinking on the ruins of Aristotelianism that brought about a new brand of materialism in reaction — one that incorporated providence but made it perform specific intellectual work. Sheehan and Warhman focus on Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), the French priest and revivalist of ancient atomism, to show how providence abetted emergence. Ancient theorists like Epicurus and Lucretius had appealed to the unpredictable “swerve” of particles to avoid a cosmology that was nothing but atoms endlessly colliding. Gassendi replaced the unpredictability with God’s hidden but effective will. On Sheehan and Wahrman’s account, it was the precise amalgam needed to reconcile the rise of modern materialism with theological preconception. “Providence,” they write, “was not a kind of theological residue preserved for propriety’s sake … From the body of Lucretius came a materialism that paid attention to complexity and variety… But from the providential soul, this materialism discovered not only the origin of things but also their telos, their operating system, their dynamic structure of change.”

As this “third way” between theology and materialism took command at a critical juncture, celebrations of nature’s diversity burgeoned, guaranteed by the notion that some obscure and imperceptible mechanism of God’s making allowed for order rather than chaos. Like a child embracing new freedoms because she knows her parents are watching to keep her safe, the premise that God guaranteed outcomes that made sense allowed Europeans to embrace more natural anarchy than they might have otherwise been willing to acknowledge before. “Whence arises all that Order and Beauty which we see in the world?” Isaac Newton asked at the turn of the eighteenth century. The answer was the invisible hand (God’s, presumptively). Later, European thinkers maintained the commitment to observable diversity and hidden design that had been bequeathed to them, even if it ceased to matter much to say that the invisible hand must belong to the deity. The metaphor nonetheless provided a clue to where such a belief in orderly results had come from.

In the balance of their book, Sheehan and Wahrman document this set of commitments running pervasively through Enlightenment culture and thought. For complexity was characteristic not only of the natural but of the man-made, including what much later came to be called the “economy.” The market was a graphic example – especially as financialization boomed in these early days of capitalism – of how massive diversity of particular intentions could be said to achieve a general design beyond the actors’ ken. Fifty years before The Wealth of Nations,the 1720s, Sheehan and Wahrman say, were the turning point for the cultural success of a sense of hidden design – even or especially after the John Law Affair inaugurated the modern experience of market crash. Sure, there were bad actors, but paradoxically the recovery from their catastrophic intervention caused observers to reach for deeper meaning – a kind of secular theodicy to match religious explanations of why bad things happen to good people. “’Tis Heaven each Passion sends, / And diff’rent Men directs to diff’rent Ends,” Alexander Pope wrote on the crisis. “Extremes in Nature equal Good produce, / Extremes in Men conduct to general use.” Bernard Mandeville had already hit upon his maxim that private vices conduce to public benefit, but financial crisis led him to “spell out the dynamic” in terms of emergence; more important, many Europeans saw – or needed – the logic to apply to the market societies they had built for themselves (and whose “logic” is still ruefully presumed to obtain).

After a tour through the fields of the biological and mind sciences, Sheehan and Wahrman trace the new figure of thought through the balance of the century in economic and political theory. When they come to Smith himself, they plausibly argue that, whatever its low incidence in his texts, the phrase “invisible hand” is telltale. In a well-meant attempt to immunize Smith from libertarian appropriation, Emma Rothschild tried to minimize the significance of his use of the phrase (which appears only three times in his voluminous writings). Yet the fact that self-organization was so pervasive in European culture, Sheehan and Wahrman write, makes Smith’s offhand if rare use of the phrase “central to his thinking, even if less of a breakthrough than is often assumed.” Similarly, many other famous features of the intellectual history -- for example, the debate between rival theorists of self-organization Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine concerning the rights of man and the sources of order in politics -- take on a new light once you accept Sheehan and Wahrman’s crushing demonstration how prevalent commitments to emergence had become by the French Revolution.

And yet, as Sheehan and Wahrman observe, the figure of thought begs an astounding number of questions. “Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ – a rather belated example of many in this book – explains much even as it explains little,” they write. “Whose hand? Where does it come from? To what end? How do we know it is working?” Among other things, a theory of emergence requires saying why it makes sense to analogize unintended effects to planned design, whether order and disorder differ other than in the eyes of a beholder who insists on meaning rather than chaos, and how to tell what order can emerge from the routine accident that surely pervades the human experience. Sheehan and Wahrman note but then bypass radically different versions of the emergence meme in their materials; for example, in the life and mind sciences a commitment to positive feedback loops that courted anarchy prevailed, while in the social world Europeans were more willing to claim the achievement of self-correcting equilibria.

Sheehan and Wahrman’s response to these matters is not to celebrate the discovery of self-organization – how it became possible to recognize emergence – or to adjudicate among its versions. Instead, they want to describe how historical developments created a new intellectual and cultural sensibility for moderns willing to disbelieve external organization across all domains but put faith in endogenous mechanisms of order. We want a theory of self-organization, they imply, because we are the products of that history, not because the natural or social world demands such a theory. Our authors are aware that today accounts of self-organization in nature and culture are common, but simply say that they are explaining how these became imaginable, not assessing whether they are true (or false).

A massive compendium of examples offered up in engaging prose (and a lot of great snark, especially for an academic tome), Invisible Hands is mostly descriptive, giving most attention to the chronology and dispersion of emergence. “As to the question why such transitions came about,” Funkenstein confessed disarmingly in his old book, “more often than not I do not know.” I have focused on what look to me like the two main explanatory claims that Sheehan and Wahrman make, both of which seem psychological. The bittersweet farewell to a religious mentality made the embedding of providence in matter a perfect solution for unsure believers embracing the wondrous diversity of the world, while the pressure of needing to view market outcomes as working well – if not, what was the alternative? -- created incentives for arguments that would show as much.  But generally speaking, the goal of Invisible Hands is inventory rather than explanation.

The book’s main achievement is like Funkenstein’s: to create the tantalizing or troubling impression that the complex itinerary which Europeans traveled to craft their theories matters. The intelligibility of experience we have inherited from our intellectual ancestors is marked by the conditions of its historical origins. Indeed, had some other path been taken, they — we — might have learned to think in a different fashion. A theory of invisible hands reflects the legacy of captive minds – and, perhaps, the lack of alternatives to such captivity, since our minds, too, are inevitably the products of complex and undesigned history.

SAMUEL MOYN  is professor of law and history at Harvard University. His new book is Christian Human Rights (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).