Hands invisible and intangible

Geoffrey Brennan, Philip Pettit

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus citations


The notion of a spontaneous social order, an order in human affairs which operates without the intervention of any directly ordering mind, has a natural fascination for social and political theorists. This paper provides a taxonomy under which there are two broadly contrasting sorts of spontaneous social order. One is the familiar invisible hand; the other is an arrangement that we describe as the intangible hand. The paper is designed to serve two main purposes. First, to provide a pure account of the invisible hand, with some indication of the varieties of invisible hand (and, indeed, backhand) available. Second, to develop and motivate the unfamiliar conception of the intangible backhand. We believe that a recognition of the availability of this latter sort of spontaneous organising mechanism - and the mechanism is implicitly recognised in many traditions - is of great importance in political theory; it is of particular importance nowadays when the usual focus is entirely on the invisible hand.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)191-225
Number of pages35
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1993
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Philosophy
  • General Social Sciences


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