chapter
12 Pages

Introduction

BySAMUEL FLEISCHACKER, VIVIENNE BROWN

Adam Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) in 1759 (final, sixth edition in 1790), to great acclaim. It was translated three times into French and twice into German before the end of the century,1 and was widely read – by Hume, Burke, Lessing, Herder, Kant and Thomas Jefferson, among others.2 TMS was regarded for a long time as a major accomplishment in its own right, a contribution to moral philosophy of no less importance than those of Shaftesbury, Butler, Hutcheson or Hume, and it set the stage for Smith’s subsequent fame – it spread his name so widely that many people were eager to read An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WN) when it appeared 17 years later. Nonetheless, TMS eventually fell out of the accepted canon of great works

in moral philosophy, and is today rarely taught in philosophy curricula. Exactly why that is so is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it is seen as lacking by the standards of argumentation expected of philosophers after Kant, or perhaps it has been eclipsed by Smith’s own economic masterpiece. In recent years, however, there has been a revival of interest in TMS. Smith, many now think, has an intriguing conception of sympathy, different from and perhaps superior to Hume’s, and a unique view of the nature of moral judgment and conscience. Having been interpreted, along with Hume, as a proto-utilitarian, Smith is now often understood to be one of the earliest critics of utilitarianism. And Smith’s views on justice and religion have been re-examined and held up as a nuanced alternative to those of Hume, as well as to other views of his time. This re-assessment of Smith’s moral philosophy was stimulated by the publication of the scholarly edition of TMS in 1976 as part of the definitive Glasgow Edition of Smith’s Works and Correspondence (1976-87), but it has been gathering momentum over the last decade or so (we list some of the contributions to this renaissance in the bibliography). And 2009, which marks the 250th anniversary of the first publication of

TMS, opened with what was probably the largest conference ever held on that book, sponsored by the International Adam Smith Society and The Adam Smith Review, and held in Balliol College, Oxford, where Smith himself was

a student in the 1740s. This volume comprises essays based on talks and papers presented at that conference, selected with an eye towards the range of issues of philosophical interest that may be found in TMS, and to its continuing relevance to debate over those issues today. We hope it will fan the flames of the burgeoning interest in TMS as a philosophical work, and perhaps restore the book to the place it once had, among the canonical works of moral philosophy studied in colleges and universities. We have also included a lovely memoir of Smith by his modern biographer,

Ian Simpson Ross (Ross 1995). This memoir, ‘Adam Smith’s smile: his years at Balliol College, 1740-46, in retrospect’, was presented as an after-dinner talk at the conference, providing new insights into Smith’s time at Balliol College. In this Introduction, we summarize Smith’s life and the major themes of

TMS, then sketch the main lines of argument that concern our contributors.

Although Ross’s memoir captures Smith’s personality better than any summary of the events in Smith’s life could do, perhaps a sketch of those events will nevertheless be useful. Adam Smith was born into a modest family in Kirkcaldy, Scotland in

1723. He was educated at schools in Kirkcaldy, after which he attended Glasgow University where he studied under Francis Hutcheson, Professor of Moral Philosophy. Smith then went to Balliol College, Oxford, with the award of a Snell Exhibition designed for students intending ordination into the Scottish Episcopal Church – although, at least by the time he left, Smith had no interest in becoming a clergyman. Smith’s stay at Oxford was an important time of private study and intellectual development, but he disliked Oxford and was critical of its slack approach to teaching. In 1746 he returned to Scotland and in 1748-51 he gave a series of lectures on rhetoric, literature, jurisprudence and the history of science at Edinburgh; on the basis of his rhetoric and literature lectures, he has been called the first professor of English. In 1751, he moved to Glasgow as Professor of Logic at the university, and in 1752 he was elected to the Chair in Moral Philosophy earlier held by his teacher Francis Hutcheson. From some of the lectures he gave in this position came his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and the early versions of many of the ideas that went into the Wealth of Nations. In 1764, he left Glasgow University to serve as a tutor to the young Duke of Buccleuch, a stepson of Charles Townshend, then President of the Board of Trade. In this capacity, Smith travelled to France and Switzerland meeting many philosophes, including Voltaire, and others who later came to be known as Physiocrats. He returned to Britain upon the death of one of his pupils, spending almost a decade largely at home in Scotland in the preparation and writing of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WN). Throughout his life, Smith participated actively in Scotland’s

lively intellectual circles. A particularly close friend of David Hume, he was also well acquainted with most of the other major figures in the Scottish Enlightenment, including James Boswell, the chemist Joseph Black, the historian William Robertson, and the social and political thinker Adam Ferguson. After WN’s publication in 1776, Smith took up a position as a Commissioner of Customs in Edinburgh – somewhat surprisingly, given his famous opposition to tariffs – which he retained, apparently enjoying his work, until his death in 1790. He wrote to La Rochefoucauld in his later years (Smith 1987, Corr. Letter 248, 1 Nov. 1785) that he still had ‘two other great works upon the anvil’ – ‘a sort of Philosophical History of all the different branches of Literature, of Philosophy, Poetry and Eloquence’ and ‘a sort of theory and History of Law and Government’ – but he never published a book after TMS and WN, and he insisted that most of his unpublished notes be burned prior to his death. These instructions apparently did not apply to several early writings on literature and the history and philosophy of science, which were published in a small volume after his death (Smith 1980 [1795]). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, student notes on his lectures on law and government and his lectures on rhetoric and belles-lettres were discovered and published as well (Smith 1978, 1983). Who was Adam Smith? A moral philosopher dabbling in social and

economic analysis? A pioneering social scientist with a background in moral philosophy? An Enlightenment belle-lettrist, whose writings about both moral philosophy and economics are just parts of a larger body of work? For a long time, as we have seen, Smith’s work has hovered on the margins of the philosophical canon, and while many economists claim him as the father of their discipline, few of them now actually study WN. Smith’s curiously eccentric relationship to the more technical aspects of

philosophy may be at least partially explained by a central thread running through all his work: an unusually strong commitment to the soundness of the ordinary human being’s judgments, and a concern to fend off attempts, by philosophers and policy-makers, to replace those judgments with the supposedly better ‘systems’ invented by intellectuals. In one of Smith’s earliest writings, he is concerned to refute the notion that the ordinary person objectifies secondary qualities (Smith 1980: 141-2); in the ‘History of Astronomy’, he characterizes philosophy as a discipline that attempts to connect and regularize the data of everyday experience (Smith 1980: 44-7); in TMS, he tries to develop moral theory out of ordinary moral judgments, rather than beginning from a philosophical vantage point above or beyond those judgments; and a central polemic of WN is directed against the notion that governments need to guide the economic decisions of ordinary people. Perhaps taking a cue from Hume’s scepticism about the capacity of philosophy to replace the judgments of ‘common life’, Smith represents one of the first modern philosophers to be suspicious of philosophy itself – at least of philosophy as conducted from a foundationalist standpoint, outside the modes of thought and practice it examines. Smith brings out the rationality already

inherent in common life, mapping it from within and correcting it, where necessary, with its own tools, rather than trying either to justify or to criticize it from an external standpoint. It is consistent with this attitude that he hoped to bring philosophy, literature, and the social and natural sciences into one large whole, treating each of these disciplines as equally an outgrowth of ordinary human thought and interests. Smith’s corpus aims in good part to break down distinctions between different types of theorizing, and between ‘theoretical’ and ‘ordinary’ thought. This intellectual aim is not unconnected with, and no less important than, his political interest in guaranteeing to ordinary individuals the ‘natural liberty’ of thought and action he believed they rightly possess. It is also not unconnected with the growth of his philosophical reputation

in recent years. As the idea that there is any single right methodology by which all philosophy should be conducted has lost its hold, and as philosophers of many sorts have taken a greater interest in working with scholars in other disciplines, the virtues of a philosopher who long ago saw his work as continuous with ordinary thought, and with the work of historians and literary theorists, shine ever more brightly.