17 Pages

Adam Smith’s problems: Individuality and the paradox of sympathy


For a quite broad consensus in contemporary Adam Smith scholarship the Adam Smith Problem is just a mistake. The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments are compatible elements of an overall system that, regrettably, Smith left unfinished at his death: but we have his word for it that the system existed as a coherent project in his own mind.1 I am not at all sure that the Problem can be got rid of quite so easily – there is too much of a tendency to take the wish for the deed. However, I am not going to take that up here. Rather, I want to think about some oppositions and tensions within The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and then see how they help us understand its relation to the Wealth of Nations. The great feature of these oppositions and tensions is that they are never

resolved: Smith stands between them; and it is a serious question to ask whether he ever made a decisive move in one direction or the other.2 But far from this being a weakness of Smith’s thought, it is a sign of his willingness to follow what Hegel calls ‘the strenuousness of the concept’ (Hegel 1977: 35, translation modified), that is, to follow where the thought leads. He is thinking about the character of a society that is still in the process of formation. Smith’s problems, at the beginning of the modern era, are also our problems. Smith’s work contains many oppositions and tensions. It also contains

responses to these that may be called silences. He says nothing about how to resolve the tensions that we will see in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Nor does he say anything, for example, about how to resolve the contradiction between the account of the benefits of the division of labour for workers in Book I of the Wealth of Nations with the account of the damage it does to them in Book V: a process founded on human nature causing a terrible deformation of human nature (Smith 1976b, WN I.i.10-11, V.i.f.50-61).3 He is also strangely silent when it comes to naming writers to whose work he is quite obviously referring. He rarely mentions the names of other philosophers in The Theory of Moral Sentiments;4 and we know that he deliberately did not name Steuart once in the whole of the Wealth of Nations.5 Moreover, he never gives a name to what he is doing in the Wealth of Nations, other than

that contained in the title.6 Finally, Smith conceived of a general system of quite breathtaking extent. But in neither of the main texts of the two works that he actually published, and which he claimed to be parts of this system, is there a single word referring to the other, nor to the system itself, for that matter.7