"So violent a metaphor." Adam Smith's metaphorical language in the Wealth of Nations

  1. 1. Thomas Rommel

    Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing, Universität Tübingen (University of Tubingen / Tuebingen)

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1 Introduction
Adam Smith, philosopher, rhetorician and economist, was one of the foremost representatives of
the Scottish Enlightenment. As an author of the
18th century, Smith was much concerned with
language, style and the use of imagery. In his
Wealth of Nations he places particular emphasis
on metaphorical language by explicitly marking it
with short meta-fictional statements. A computerassisted approach that traces all instances of these
statements across the text supplies valuable insights into one particular phenomenon of 18thcentury poetics.
2 Imagery in the Wealth of Nations
Adam Smith’s monumental study of some 900
pages, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of
the Wealth of Nations (1776), is a seminal study
of the state of the nation and a treatise on economics. In addition, this book was intended to exemplify Smith’s notion of plain and thus adequate
language and concise presentation. In this, the
book serves the double function of a scientific
analysis of social and economic matters on the one
hand and as an exercise in impeccable prose style
on the other. As a recent edition of the English
journal The Economist puts it: “The ‘Wealth of
Nations’ [is] a work of literature rare among economic tracts.”
Adam Smith, the professor of Rhetoric, claimed
that the proper way of dealing with complex social
and philosophical problems in a serious study was
to avoid excessive or florid metaphor, simile and
metonymy. In his posthumously published Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1762–63)
Smith says about the function of language:
When the sentiment of the speaker is expressed in a neat, clear, plain and clever
manner [...] then and then only the expression has all the force and beauty that
language can give it.
He thus professed to use language in a manner that
would allow the reader to concentrate on the subject in the first place, and that would make language only serve the purpose of communication.
Smith, who was highly critical of Shaftsbury’s
“pompousness” (Smith’s word) and who strongly
disliked the use of imagery for purely ornamental
purposes, prided himself on a sober, simple,
straightforward style that would convince the reader by the force of the argument and not obfuscate
the issue under consideration.
Thus, in a philosophical treatise like the Wealth of
Nations, Smith strongly favoured plain language
in order to focus the reader’s attention on the
subject matter of the treatise or discussion rather
than on its form and medium, language as such.
His narrative strategy relies on repetition rather
than on striking singular impressions. Smith supplies a vast number of observations taken from
everyday life to emphasize his point, even if his
arguments become “tedious”. After the publication of the Wealth of Nations, even Smith’s friend,
the philosopher David Hume, said in a letter:
Not that the reading of it [Wealth of Nations]
necessarily requires so much attention, and the
public is disposed to give so little, that I shall still
doubt for some time of its being at first very
popular, but it has depth, and solidity, and acuteness, and is so much illustrated by curious facts
that it must at last attract the public attention.
Smith made it very clear that to attract the public’s
attention he was not disposed to use an appealing
prose style. On the contrary, his personal poetics
clearly state that total command of language and
narrative organization are best displayed in a neutral way. Thus, in those instances where he deviates from his self-proclaimed sober style and reverts to imagery, Smith explicitly marks
metaphorical language in the Wealth of Nations.
Even a cursory reading suggests that the analysis
of those passages that are introduced by specific,
repeated phrases merit close inspection.
3 Marked imagery
Most frequently Smith uses the phrase “if one may
say so” or “if I may say so” to introduce or identify
unusual imagery, and in addition a number of
other phrases appear consistently. A computerassisted analysis that scans the text for all instances of explicit marking concentrates on a specific
set of repeated words and phrases that indicate
overt narrator intervention. Based on a detailed
knowledge of the text and aided by a variety of
wordlists and lists of collocations, search-patterns
for nearly all explicit references to imagery could
be designed. Identifying, indexing and extracting
all passages that contain marked imagery eventually provided a large corpus of “pre-filtered” text.
This text could then be classified according to the
set of words and phrases that Smith uses for marking and, more importantly, according to the text
that actually gets marked and that he apparently
considered noteworthy or special. In this context
it is not of primary interest to note what kind of
repeated or varied references Smith uses for a
meta-discourse on his own text, but it is much
more rewarding to analyse the imagery he thus
isolates from the main body of the text. For the
first time, a specific kind of metaphorical language
can be extracted from the text electronically, relying on explicit information provided by the narrator.
The following passages from the Wealth of Nations constitute typical examples:
Sometimes they have been introduced, in
the manner above mentioned, by the violent operation, if one may say so, of the
stocks of particular merchants and undertakers, who established them in imitation
of some foreign manufactures of the same
Home is in this manner the centre, if I may
say so, round which the capitals of the
inhabitants of every country are continually circulating, and towards which they are
always tending, though by particular causes they may sometimes be driven off and
repelled from it towards more distant employments.
In these paragraphs unusual illustrations, visualisations but most frequently not-too-original imagery is explicitly marked by the first-person narrator. Personifications can frequently be found,
and a rather striking metaphor likens the movements of celestial bodies to the financial transactions on earth. This imagery, typical for the 18th
century (Smith himself wrote a long essay on “The
History of Astronomy”) visualizes the forces of
gravitation and selective affinities that influence
economic matters in the sublunary world. In the
Wealth of Nations the narrator frequently interacts
with the reader, and, for instance, in his explanations at the beginning and ending of most chapters
he talks of the need for further examples even if it
is wearisome. The narrator supplies metainformation on the structure, organisation and setup of the text and occasionally he even introduces
some unusually boring chapter with “I must very
earnestly entreat both the patience and attention of
the reader.” [I.iv]
In addition to these passages Smith uses proverbs
when they fit the context, but he explicitly points
out that they are proverbs or quotations from other
sources (like fellow philosophers) and that thus
other criteria apply than those that he would accept
for his own style:
Wealth, as Mr. Hobbes says, is power.
It is better, says the proverb, to play for
nothing than to work for nothing.
These and many other examples to the same effect
point out that this kind of language clearly deviates
from the strict norm of Smith’s style. Together
with the first group of examples they form the
body of Smith’s explicitly identified images, and
from the frequency of these instances – there is one
to be found every five pages – and their even
distribution over the text they slowly but steadily
develop into an idiosyncratic stylistic feature.
They seem to lose their original function of alerting the reader and are soon perceived as linguistic
But finally there are those examples that really
merit closer inspection, those passages that are
introduced with more emphasis and that clearly
point out to the reader that a shift of stylistic levels
is taking place:
The judicious operations of banking, by
providing, if I may be allowed so violent a
metaphor, a sort of waggon-way through
the air, enable the country to convert, as it
were, a great part of its highways into good
pastures and corn-fields, and thereby to
increase very considerably the annual produce of its land and labour.
The comparison of monetary circulation with a
highway is first introduced and then, having fulfilled its function by illustrating again a process of
circulation, gets expanded into the image of lightweight, speedy and airborne banking.
With these images, clearly marked for easy identification, Smith underlines his claim for total
mastery of language and style; his deviations from
a sober, scientifically detached discourse provide
the reader with ready-made conceptualisations of
complex problems and thus enhance understanding. By explicitly marking his wellchosen
and adequate imagery, Smith celebrates his mastery of both content and form.
4 Conclusion
The computer-assisted analysis traces those explicit meta-fictional statements of the narrator in the
Wealth of Nations that are designed to influence
the reader’s perception of certain, predefined concepts. A detailed analysis and the ensuing interpretation, based on the complete set of data from
the long text, makes possible a thorough thematic
analysis of one particular type of explicit reference.
Imagery, notoriously difficult for computer-applications to deal with, thus becomes the object of
electronic indexing and eventually yields an interpretation that can be substantiated with findings
from the text. The result illustrates that this particular aspect of 18th-century poetics can be dealt
with effectively. Adam Smith, the meticulous collector of data and examples, would have liked a
thorough investigation of his Inquiry by means of
a computer, because “everybody must be sensible
how much labour is facilitated and abridged by the
application of proper machinery.” [I.i]
5 References
Campbell, Thomas D. Adam Smith’s Science of
Morals. Glasgow: University of Glasgow
Press, 1971.
Fass, Dan. “Met*: A Method for Discriminating
Metonymy and Metaphor by Computer.”
Computational Linguistics 17:1 (1991), 49–
Fowler, Roger ed. Style and Structure in Literature. Essays in New Stylistics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1975.
Griswold, Charles L. Jr. “Rhetorics and Ethics:
Adam Smith on Theorizing about the Moral
Sentiments.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 24:3
(1991), 213–237.
Koch, Christian. “On the Benefits of Interrelating
Computer Science and the Humanities: The
Case of Metaphor.” Computers and the Humanities 25 (1991), 289–295.
Miall, David S. ed. Metaphor: Problems and Perspectives. Brighton: The Harvester Press,
Muller, Jerry Z. Adam Smith in His Time and
Ours. Designing the Decent Society. New
York: The Free Press (Macmillan), 1993.
Rommel, Thomas. “Aspects of Verisimilitude:
Temporal and Topograpical References in Robinson Crusoe.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 10:4 (1995), 279–285.
Sutherland, Kathryn. “Fictional Economics:
Adam Smith, Walter Scott and the Nineteenthcentury Novel.” ELH 54 (1987), 97–127.

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June 25, 1996 - June 29, 1996

147 works by 190 authors indexed

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