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Spontaneous Order in Smith, Hume, and Kant

Spontaneous Order in Smith, Hume, and Kant

Joseph Tinguely

My paper is in dialogue with Scott Scheall’s pioneering work on the notion of spontaneous order as it emerges as a central theme of the Scottish Enlightenment and develops into a central tenet of Austrian School economics. Whereas Scheall traces how the idea of spontaneous order develops historically in political economics from the 18th to 20th centuries, I examine how the notion of spontaneity ripples out of economics and into other seemingly unrelated areas of philosophy. At the same time that Adam Smith identifies capitalism as a kind of social order that is not planned by an intentional agent, the same logic of spontaneous order appears in Hume’s critique of religion (cosmic order without a cosmic orderer) and Kant’s aesthetic psychology (purposiveness without a purpose).

This paper aims to show how the notion of spontaneous order is crucial to understanding innovations in late 18th century philosophy. In particular I examine four central concepts Kant’s Critique of Judgment—purposiveness without a purpose, artistic genius, the free play of the faculties, and the mathematical sublime—in order to argue that the innovations of Kantian aesthetics are to the philosophy of mind what the “invisible hand” is to capitalist social formation and economic practice. The relevant connection between Kantian aesthetics and Adam Smith’s analysis of the emerging capitalist social order is that each depends on the claim that order can emerge without prior intent, purpose, or conscious control. Along with Hume and the central framework of the Scottish Enlightenment more generally, Smith and Kant both seek to explain how such spontaneous order is possible; they simply attend different domains—Smith looking outward to social order and Kant looking inward towards mental order. However, once the logical and metaphysical structure of spontaneous order is seen as the key issue across multiple domains, then Kantian aesthetics and emerging capitalist social formations appear as two sides of the same coin.


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