The latter-day image of Adam Smith has long turned upon his role as a crucial figure – indeed, commonly regarded as the key figure – in the formation of political economy as a distinct social science. Perhaps even more, at least in the popular imagination, he has been widely viewed as providing one of the most substantial intellectual cases for liberal capitalism as the best possible system for arranging human society. These are two very different claims to fame, unless economic science itself can be thought of as favouring capitalism, an idea almost too absurd to take seriously. In any case, in the last few decades these beliefs about Smith have been much questioned. The publication from 1976 to 1983 of the Glasgow Edition of Smith’s extant writings and related documents (in particular, lecture notes) undoubtedly provided impetus to renewed interest in Smith’s intellectual work as a whole, naturally encouraging a more holistic approach to interpreting his thought. The resulting research endeavours, and much of their outcome, were certainly to be welcomed, and remain so. However, there is also a danger that something important about Smith’s intellectual achievement might be lost in this orientation towards his thought. There are a number of particular ideas for which Smith is perceived as famous – perhaps most notably, at least in the last half century or so, the ‘invisible hand’. Another is the benefits of ‘division of labour’. But Smith also regards the intellectual division of labour between the various sciences and arts as one of the dimensions of that beneficial process of specialization. In short, prefiguring one of the conclusions of this study, however much he has an all-encompassing and unified
conception of science as such, or of the social sciences in particular, Smith has also an understanding of political economy as a separable science, though not thereby an autonomous one.