26 Pages

Smith and Rousseau in dialogue: Sympathy, pitié, spectatorship and narrative


Some years ago Knud Haakonssen remarked to me during a break in David Gauthier’s Benedict lectures at Boston University that Adam Smith seems to have spent a great deal of intellectual effort responding to the challenges he encountered in Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and the Foundations of Inequality among Men.1 This passing remark prompts one to speculate that Rousseau cost Smith more than a few sleepless nights, and indeed that if Smith was in a dogmatic slumber with respect to the moral and human problems of commercial society, Rousseau woke him from it. The evidence for any such thought is indirect, to be sure. Rousseau’s Second Discourse appeared in 1755 and was immediately reviewed by Smith. His 1756 ‘Letter to the Edinburgh Review’ contains significant commentary on the Discourse and his own translation of three passages.2 Those passages are very well chosen, as they summarize some of Rousseau’s most important criticisms of what one might call modernity. Published within a year of the appearance of the Second Discourse, this must be among the earliest reviews of Rousseau’s hugely influential and controversial essay, and of course preceded by several years the first edition (1759) of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (henceforth abbreviated ‘TMS’; Smith 1982a). Smith never refers to Rousseau by name in TMS, but there clearly are echoes; and in any case Smith refers to relatively few thinkers by name (Hume included). He does refer elsewhere to other of Rousseau’s writings, and appears to have owned all of Rousseau’s major and many of his minor works.3 So far as we know, the two never met; Smith evidently decided to leave that delightful interaction to Hume. Hume certainly found Rousseau preoccupying personally and socially, but not (so far as I can tell) intellectually – the obverse of Smith’s relation to Rousseau. My aim in this essay is not to trace the ways in which Rousseau’s thought

finds echoes and responses in TMS. In their excellent work on Smith and

Rousseau, Dennis Rasmussen and Ryan Hanley have already made very helpful contributions to that project.4 My aim is different: I shall reflect on two points Smith makes about Rousseau in his review, showing how they pose a challenge to Smith that would have warranted some sleepless nights on his part, whether or not Smith took them as such and whether or not Rousseau would have intended them as such. I am less concerned with tracing the historical transmission of ideas than with reconstructing several initial steps of a philosophical dialogue that might have taken place. It is a limitation of my essay that I attribute views to Rousseau that I do not sufficiently substantiate here. For now, let ‘Rousseau’ stand for both the letter and spirit of his views, backed by a promissory note for scholarly substantiation on another occasion. And sleepless nights can issue in decisive rebuttals: it may well be that Smith has the resources for persuasive replies to the Rousseauan criticisms I seek to articulate, and on another occasion I will pursue that further step. I do not here mean to endorse either side of the dialectic I am reconstructing. My reflections amount to work in progress. In the background lies my even

more speculative sense that Smith and Rousseau compose an unusually interesting pair. They share a similar set of concerns, themes, vocabulary, and even arguments; they are of course near contemporaries. In some sense, both espouse sentimentalist views of human nature. And yet what one might call their sensibilities or ‘pictures’ – to borrow a term from Wittgenstein – are deeply different. Rousseau is the great modern progenitor of notions of historicity, estrangement of self, social alienation, perspectivalism and narrative. He’s a critic of philosophy (as an academic discipline) and a partisan of literature; indeed, as Peter Brooks notes, Rousseau’s Julie is ‘a novel that in so many ways announces the nineteenth-century tradition’ of narrative writing (Brooks 1992: 21).5 Rousseau’s works are suffused with the themes of longing, fragmentation, reconciliation, redemption and forgiveness. While Smith is certainly attuned to problems of social and personal fragmentation, he is the great spokesman for the primacy of the social standpoint (crystallized in the ‘impartial spectator’), a commitment not at all at odds with his supposed ‘individualism’ in the economic sphere (the impartial spectator endorses the individual’s bettering his or her own condition, so long as rules of justice are not violated, and spectators admire wealth and greatness, as TMS explains). And while he is well aware of the pull of the Rousseauan vocabulary of loss and longing, and of the issue of paradoxical, unintended, and even ironical processes and outcomes, on the whole his outlook is more confidently reconciliationist, more trusting in the claims of philosophical theory (after all, he wrote a book containing the word ‘theory’ in its title, something Rousseau never did). To return to the specifics to be discussed here: the first point has to do with

what Rousseau calls ‘pitié’, and the second with the rhetoric of the Discourse. I shall discuss these in turn, and hope to show that there is an unexpected connection between the two, between the ‘content’ and narrative ‘form’ of

the text. From the Rousseauan perspective I reconstruct, they jointly amount to a sort of argument against Smithian ‘sympathy’ – one that Smith can rebut only with difficulty. At stake are the meanings of such terms as pity, commiseration, sympathy, sociability and self-love. The possibility of epistemic access to others, of something like spectatorial insight into the situation of another, is also at issue.