Front Page Titles (by Subject) The History of the Ancient Physics and the History of the Ancient Logics and Metaphysics - Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence Vol. 3 Essays on Philosophical Subjects
Return to Title Page for Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence Vol. 3 Essays on Philosophical Subjects
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
The History of the Ancient Physics and the History of the Ancient Logics and Metaphysics - Adam Smith, Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence Vol. 3 Essays on Philosophical Subjects 
Essays on Philosophical Subjects, ed. W. P. D. Wightman and J. C. Bryce, vol. III of the Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith and the associated volumes are published in hardcover by Oxford University Press. The six titles of the Glasgow Edition, but not the associated volumes, are being published in softcover by Liberty Fund. The online edition is published by Liberty Fund under license from Oxford University Press.
©Oxford University Press 1976. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be stored transmitted retransmitted lent or reproduced in any form or medium without the permission of Oxford University Press.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The History of the Ancient Physics and the History of the Ancient Logics and Metaphysics
The History of Astronomy, though naturally imperfect, was in a sense complete. After the second edition of Newton’s Principia there was no fundamental change or addition to the ‘system of the world’, that was Smith’s main concern, until long after his death. The mathematical theory was under constant refinement; and Smith shows his continuing interest in the progress of physical astronomy when in the Edinburgh Review article he refers to James Bradley’s important discovery of the aberration of light. But the titles of the two subsequent essays suggest that the restriction to the ‘ancient’ period expressed the fact that he had said all that he intended to say.
The two essays now to be considered, though like that on the History of Astronomy both written with an eye to ‘philosophical investigation’, are in a different class from the first. The title of each reveals a subtle change of aim: the histories of these ‘sciences’ are to be restricted to their ‘ancient’ development. For this and other reasons that will appear during the discussion it is convenient to introduce them under a single heading. To a greater extent than in the ‘history’ of astronomy his account of the ‘facts’ of pre–Socratic ‘physics’ is not only without adequate historical foundation but lacks any historical coherence other than that imposed by Smith’s own ‘likely story’, namely that ‘from arranging and methodizing the System of the Heavens, Philosophy descended to the consideration of the inferior parts of Nature’ (Ancient Physics, 1). There neither is, nor ever was, as far as we know, any evidence for this order of inquiry; on the contrary, Aristotle rightly referred to his predecessors as φυσιολόγοι—those who strove to ‘account for nature’, which for them was the whole cosmos. Their speculations about the objects above the Earth in fact lacked any ‘arrangement or methodizing’: they remained crude and ill–supported by reason. The views on the ‘elements’ (ἀρχαί, Aristotle calls them), on the other hand, put forward separately by the Ionian pioneers embodied a profound insight into the problem of the relation between change and the permanent ground of being. Only later did the Italian, Empedocles, order the elements in such a manner as to make possible the even later ‘square of opposite properties’ introduced by Aristotle.
As has been hinted already, Smith never made explicit the cardinal distinction between ‘physics’ and ‘astronomy’—a distinction that in fact ‘guided and directed philosophical enquiry’ from Aristotle onwards, and which, in somewhat altered terms, is still a living issue in the philosophy of science, notably in the interpretation of quantum mechanics. The basic formulation has never been more clearly put than by the sixth–century Neoplatonist, Simplicius, in his commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, and in which he claims to be quoting the actual words of Geminus summarizing the views of the Stoic Poseidonius, both of them having lived much nearer to the time of Aristotle. After a long and detailed preamble he emphasized that while ‘the physicist will in many cases, reach the cause by looking to creative force’, ‘it is no part of the business of the astronomer to know what is by nature suited to a position of rest and what sort of bodies are apt to move, but he introduces hypotheses under which some bodies remain fixed while others move, and then considers to which hypotheses the phenomena actually observed in the heaven will correspond’.7 The astronomer, in other words, is satisfied if, given certain physical postulates, such as ‘equable motion’, he can devise a mathematical scheme from which the motions of the heavenly bodies can be deduced; the question of ‘truth’ has for him, qua astronomer, no relevance. In the History of Astronomy (notably in the introductory Section II) Smith shows his appreciation of this aspect of ‘philosophical investigation’. But his failure to explicate the notion of cause, latent in the various pre–Socratic speculations and dominating Aristotle’s whole philosophy, reduces his Ancient Physics, despite its elegant and persuasive presentation of certain aspects, to a much lower level of cogency. Detailed justification for this judgement would here be out of place; suffice it to say that the reader of the text will find no hint of the pervasive notion of final causation and the grades of ‘animation’ (the Latin anima replaced ψυχή in the transmission of the Aristotelian corpus) in living beings.
Having momentarily forgotten his most promising hypothesis that ‘philosophical enquiries’ stem from ‘surprise and wonder’ Smith opens the essay on the ‘History of the Ancient Logics and Metaphysics’ with a liberal application of the term ‘evident’ to assumptions that to thinkers in another tradition seem far from evident. This apart, however, he rightly insists that ‘philosophy, . . . in considering the general nature of Water, takes no notice of those particularities which are peculiar to this Water, but confines itself to those things which are common to all water’. From which it follows that ‘Species, or Universals, and not Individuals, are the objects of Philosophy’ (§ 1). In the succeeding passage, amounting to little more than twenty lines, Smith condenses all that he has to say on the relation between the ‘ancient’ sciences of ‘logics’ and ‘metaphysics’. Restricted to such a compass his account of what came to be regarded as ‘logic’ and ‘metaphysics’ might do well enough, though the exclusive emphasis on classification is hardly warranted. But viewed as a stage in the achievement of his historical aim it is quite inadequate. In claiming with some justice that these two sciences ‘seem, before the time of Aristotle, to have been regarded as one’ and, with less justice, ‘to have made up between them that ancient Dialectic of which we hear so much, and of which we understand so little’ (Ancient Logics, 1) Smith gives no hint that λογική and its derivatives covered a huge range of meaning as much to do with ‘words’ as with ‘reasoning’; nor that the term ‘metaphysics’ came only long after Aristotle’s death to refer to those of his books which embodied a consideration of ‘those causes and principles the knowledge of which constitutes Wisdom’—‘First philosophy’ as Aristotle himself described it. The throw–away comment on the ‘ancient Dialectic’ may have been prompted by Smith’s native caution: the subtle and even inconsistent use of the term by Plato and Aristotle is still the subject of scholarly debate. The inappropriateness of the remark becomes even more remarkable in the light of the following definition proposed by the Stranger from Elea: ‘Dividing according to kinds, not taking the same Form for a difference or a different one for the same—is not that the business of the science of Dialectic?’ (Plato, Sophist, 253 D.) This ‘division by kinds’ is precisely the method that Smith himself regarded as being the essence of the ‘ancient logics’ and one of which he himself makes frequent use. This account of dialectic differs from the more basic requirement stipulated by Socrates (i.e. the effort to attain truth by correction of agreed hypotheses rather than the confutation of an adversary) but is not inconsistent with it. Equally regrettable is Smith’s failure to make clear, as Aristotle had, that the pre–Socratic φυσιολόγοι (as Aristotle calls them) were asking ‘metaphysical’ questions but for the most part (Parmenides being clearly an exception) giving ‘physical’ answers.
The part of the essay devoted to an exposition of Plato’s attitude to Nature and its relation to the general theory of ‘Ideas’, though disproportionately long, is almost the only part that carries conviction that the author had adequately prepared himself for the ambitious task he had undertaken. But even here he fails to drive home the lesson, so important for his own thesis, that what Plato was for the most part concerned with, even in the dialogue that looks like natural philosophy, the Timaeus, is perhaps not even metaphysics, but rather natural theology as it was perhaps understood in the original scheme for the Gifford Lectures. This was far from being without influence on the development of natural philosophy and subsequently of the natural sciences; but by placing ‘cause and principle’ of nature as it were outwith nature and providing only a ‘likely story’ of how it (δημιουργός) might have operated, Plato effectively closed the door on further investigation on the lines initiated by the φυσιολόγοι. Or rather he would have closed it, had not his independent–minded pupil, Aristotle, put his foot in the doorway—at least for the sublunary world!
At this stage some readers may reasonably protest that it is an editor’s function at most to comment on the text and not to argue with its author. To leave without qualification the rather disparaging remarks which this editor has felt it necessary to make would amount to a failure to view the matter in that historical perspective for the lack of which Smith has been censured. Well versed in the classical tongues as the young Adam Smith undoubtedly was, he cannot be blamed for having failed to transcend the limitations set by the materials available to him. And these were meagre indeed, for though we may think of the eighteenth century as one in which classical scholarship was most highly appreciated and familiarity with the classical authors more widely spread than perhaps at any other time, it is apt to be forgotten that both scholarship and familiarity were almost wholly restricted to grammatical and stylistic aspects; it is probable that Smith’s contemporaries were far less conversant with the matter of the Greek classics than had been the humanists of three centuries earlier. In his valuable Greek Studies in England, 1700–1830 (1945) (which in fact includes a knowledgeable chapter on Scotland) M. L. Clarke states that ‘the undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge read only a few isolated dialogues of Plato and learned nothing of his philosophical theories’. Before 1759 there was no English translation, except of the Phaedo, to which the Scottish scholar, Spens, added the Republic only in 1763. Aristotle was in like case. Smith’s dismissal (Astronomy, III.6) of the Ionian φυσιολόγοι on the ground that the extant accounts ‘represent the doctrines of those sages as full of the most inextricable confusion’ is of a piece with Clarke’s judgment that ‘of the remarkable speculations of the pre–Socratics there was no appreciation’ (op. cit., 114); he would have had to rely upon Aristotle’s biased views put forward in the Metaphysics. In respect of ‘Logics’ he was presumably the victim of the ‘trivialization’ of Aristotle’s logic, unavoidable if it was to be taught to the lower end of the teenage stream! His point of view (putting ‘objects’ into the ‘right’ classes) seems to be based on the Topics, even perhaps mediated through Ramism; but of the structure of inference as expounded by Aristotle himself in the two Analytics he gives no hint. If this ‘conditioning’ was effected at Glasgow it would not have been unique; it is only in our time (by Jan Lukasiewicz and others) that the ‘modernity’ of Aristotle’s canon has been made generally known. Smith was also unlucky in setting forth on this immensely ambitious endeavour at a time when Giambattista Vico’s principles of critical historiography based on critical philology (Scienza Nuova, 1725–44) were still wholly unappreciated outside Italy. Nevertheless, when all allowance has been made for the handicaps under which Smith must have laboured when composing these ‘juvenile’ historical pieces, there remains an air of brashness about the two (presumably) later ones that provokes the question whether the author of the Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations would have countenanced their publication in the form in which he had left them. It is true that as late as November 1785, in the letter (248) to Rochefoucauld referred to above, the ‘sort of Philosophical History’ he mentions as still being ‘upon the anvil’ must have been at least based on the ‘great work’ mentioned in the letter to Hume twelve years earlier. But in that letter he expressly stated that none of his papers were worth publishing except a fragment—the history of the astronomical systems—and even that one he suspected contained ‘more refinement than solidity’. How much more apposite would this judgment be of the two subsequent essays! In view of his repeated request—as he neared his end—for assurance that his papers had been destroyed, it seems more than a little doubtful whether his editors were not doing his memory a disservice in making public these two essays without a more extensive caveat than the rather fulsome and misleading last sentence of their Advertisement.
The survey on which this Note has been based was restricted to the following institutions: British Library (BL), National Library of Scotland (NLS), Bodleian (O), Cambridge University (C), Trinity College, Dublin (D), and the four Scottish universities existing before the recent expansion: St. Andrews (StA), Glasgow (G), Aberdeen (A—see, however, No. 6 below), Edinburgh (E). Eight editions prior to 1900 have been established, at least one copy of each having been examined. Only NLS has a copy of every edition, two of these being accessions from the library of Lauriston Castle near Edinburgh. Thanks are due to members of the library staff at NLS, C, StA, and D for information about their holdings.
The full title–page of the First Edition is provided together with brief descriptions of the remaining editions. Only ‘sample’ collations have been carried out; no substantial differences in the texts have been discovered.
Note on the Text
The present volume follows the text of the first edition (published by Cadell and Davies in 1795, five years after Smith’s death), but with printer’s errors corrected. Since the essay is designed to illustrate ‘the principles which lead and direct philosophical enquiries’ rather than to provide a history of astronomy per se, no attempt has been made to achieve that completeness of documentation which would be appropriate in a definitive classic.
the PRINCIPLES which lead and direct PHILOSOPHICAL ENQUIRIES;