Copernican revolutions revisited in Adam Smith by way of David Hume

In this paper I revisit Adam Smith’s treatment of Copernicanism and Newtonianism in his essay, “The History of Astronomy” (hereafter: “Astronomy”), in light of a surprisingly ignored context: David Hume. This remark will strike most scholars of Adam Smith as unfounded—David Hume’s philosophy is often invoked as a source of Smith’s approach in the “Astronomy” or as its target. Yet, Hume’s occasional remarks on Copernicanism nor his treatment of the history of science in the History of England (1754-62, but revised throughout Hume’s life) have not been carefully analyzed in light of the “Astronomy.” In the first five sections of this paper I offer a detailed analysis of all of Hume’s remarks on the Copernican system in his oeuvre. I show that David Hume believed that Copernicus achieved a “revolution” in philosophy. Moreover, I argue that Hume increasingly treats Galileo as the hero of the Copernican revolution. In doing so, Hume appears surprisingly blind to the importance of post-Galilean natural philosophy, especially the (dynamical) arguments that Huygens and Newton provided for the rotation of the Earth. In the last section of the paper, I argue that Adam Smith does show appreciation of dynamic views. I show that Smith and the mature Hume agree on the importance of Galileo, even describing his method in strikingly similar language, but that they evaluate the evidence differently in light of two conflicting commitments: i) Hume is committed to the “true philosophy”—-a certain kind of scepticism which Smith does not share; ii) Hume never seems to have assimilated the way Newton changed the evidential standards within science.
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