15 Pages

Scepticism and naturalism in Adam Smith


Is Adam Smith a sceptic? It’s difficult to imagine a question more fundamental to our understanding of his project. Yet it’s also difficult to imagine a question that has received more varying answers from Smith scholars. Thus we find Charles Griswold on the one hand arguing that Smith is best understood as a ‘nondogmatic sceptic’ whose epistemology ‘unquestionably represents an appropriation of Hume’ (Griswold 1999: esp. 164-6, 171, 336-44; 2006: 22, 40, 50, 53-4, 56 n. 27; cf. Haakonssen and Winch 2006).1 On the other hand we find D.D. Raphael arguing with equal directedness that ‘Adam Smith was not a sceptic’, but a ‘theist’ (Raphael 2007: 104).2 My aim in what follows is to reconsider the evidence for each of these claims. In so doing, I want to argue that Smith’s epistemology is indeed indebted to Hume’s – but for reasons in fact quite different from those often insisted upon. Smith’s chief debt to Hume is not to Hume’s scepticism but his naturalism. This is most evident in the specific concern on which I want to focus: namely Smith’s embrace of Hume’s conception of natural belief. The advantages of this approach are threefold. First, it illuminates a

neglected aspect of Smith’s debts to Hume, debts that extend well beyond the familiar ones to Hume’s scepticism and his conception of the imagination.3

Second, such an approach clarifies Smith’s intention in some of the most enigmatic and frequently misunderstood passages in his writings. Third, and perhaps most importantly, appreciation of the role of natural belief in Smith’s project offers a persuasive alternative to the sceptical and the theistic conceptions alluded to at the outset. Each position of course has considerable merit, at least in its moderate form. But in their strong forms – tending to anti-realism on the one hand and personal theism on the other – they’re less satisfying insofar as they aspire to ascribe to Smith an authoritative position on the nature of external reality or on God’s existence.4 Such ascriptions will strike many as incongruent with Smith’s own intentions – intentions in some respects more modest and in others more daring than such labels suggest. In an effort to illuminate certain of these intentions, this essay suggests an interpretation focusing on naturalism and natural belief as an alternative to both strong sceptical and strong theistic interpretations of Smith’s project.