Invisible HandsSelf-Organization in the Eighteenth Century

Invisible HandsSelf-Organization in the Eighteenth Century

Jonathan Sheehan and Dror Wahrman

Print publication date: 2016

ISBN: 9780226752051

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


Invisible Hands proposes a new synthesis of eighteenth-century intellectual and cultural developments that focuses on a new way of thinking about order and disorder. The book charts how, in the eighteenth century, Europeans reimagined the nature and origins of the many orders that they inhabited: natural, social, political, economic, and cognitive. In place of a universe governed by orderly connections between cause and effect and designed by a providential Divinity, this alternative vision combined a recognition of the world's disorder and chance with a new appreciation for complexity, new understandings of causality, and new functions for the divine hand. At the foundation of this novel way of thinking was the ability to imagine complex systems – be they natural or human – as self-organizing. The order of large systems, more and more eighteenth-century people came to believe, needed no external design or direction. Instead, it was immanent in the very operations of the systems themselves, and grew in unpredictable ways from the complex activity of their many parts. Invisible Hands charts how and why this new logic of emergent order burst into the open in the early eighteenth century, and how the languages of self-organization were subsequently applied throughout Western Europe and North America in varied and sometimes incompatible ways, to questions in a wide array of domains as far apart as religion and philosophy, science and economy, mathematics and social thought, and law and politics.