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That imagination plays a fundamental role in Smith’s accounts of both sympathy and scientific inquiry is well documented. Smith scholars have also long recognized that the accounts of these roles presented in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the History of Astronomy are broadly Humean. In particular, the exercise of imagination in both the social and scientific domains is limited by the extent of our experience. Whether we are “changing places in fancy” with our fellows, thereby giving rise to that all-important sentiment of sympathy, or conjecturing relations between observed phenomena in an effort to quell the sentiments of wonder and surprise, acts of imagination draw on what is already familiar in order to fill in the gaps in our understanding of new phenomena we encounter. Hankins and McDavid extend the traditional analysis of Smith’s conception of imagination in three ways. First, they highlight the heretofore unappreciated role imagination plays in Smith’s account of technological invention. Second, they argue that close scrutiny of Smith’s discussion of invention reveals a distinction between two modes in which imagination is exercised: (i) a mimetic mode in which simple ideas from previous experience are faithfully applied to new circumstances and (ii) a creative mode in which much wider gaps are filled in with complex rearrangements of familiar ideas. Third, they argue that these two modes are operative in each of the domains in which imagination operates, and that exercises of imagination in one domain often help us overcome the limits on our imaginative capacities imposed in other domains.



Publication Date





New York


Economic History | Economic Theory | Other Philosophy | Political Economy


In Alberto Burgio (Ed.), Adam Smith and Modernity: 1723–2023.


Taylor & Francis

Adam Smith and the Creative Role of Imagination