Adam Smith was a philosopher before he ever wrote about economics, yet until now there has never been a philosophical commentary on the Wealth of Nations. Samuel Fleischacker suggests that Smith's vastly influential treatise on economics can be better understood if placed in the light of his epistemology, philosophy of science, and moral theory. He lays out the relevance of these aspects of Smith's thought to specific themes in the Wealth of Nations, arguing, among other things, that Smith regards social science as an extension of common sense rather than as a discipline to be approached mathematically, that he has moral as well as pragmatic reasons for approving of capitalism, and that he has an unusually strong belief in human equality that leads him to anticipate, if not quite endorse, the modern doctrine of distributive justice.
Fleischacker also places Smith's views in relation to the work of his contemporaries, especially his teacher Francis Hutcheson and friend David Hume, and draws out consequences of Smith's thought for present-day political and philosophical debates. The Companion is divided into five general sections, which can be read independently of one another. It contains an index that points to commentary on specific passages in Wealth of Nations. Written in an approachable style befitting Smith's own clear yet finely honed rhetoric, it is intended for professional philosophers and political economists as well as those coming to Smith for the first time.
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Princeton University Press
August 21, 2005
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Excerpt from On Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations by Samuel Fleischacker
I begin with Smith's writing style, since I will contend throughout this book that scholars have persistently misread the Wealth of Nations (WN), and I'd like to show right off why it is easy to do that. WN tends to appear, in both scholarly and popular literature, by way of striking snippets. One can properly grasp its teachings, however, only by engaging in the painstaking exercise of reading the long, elaborate arguments from which the snippets get snipped. So I begin with some warnings about how not to read Smith and some suggestions about what can be gained by submitting to the discipline of reading Smith slowly, of treating him as the refined eighteenth-century belles-lettrist that he set out to be.
By comparison with most philosophers, Adam Smith is easy to read. There is no abstract jargon, as in Kant or Hegel, no stilted syntax, as in Locke, and there are few passages with the subtle argumentation to be found in Descartes or Hume. Smith the economist is also easier to read than many other social scientists, abjuring technical coinages and mathematical algorithms in favor of historical narrative and explanations, laced with vivid examples drawn from ordinary life. Smith also organizes his material very clearly, announcing in the beginning of a chapter or section which two or three items he will be discussing and then proceeding to take up those items one by one, in the order in which he listed them. I suspect that many scholars are drawn to working on Smith by the ease and pleasure of reading him, and he has certainly thereby lent himself to quotation, by everyone from teachers of elementary economics to public intellectuals.
The clarity of these quotations can be misleading, however. This is partly because Smith is, even on the surface, a more complex writer than might appear from such famous lines as the one about appealing to the self-interest of butchers and bakers. In addition, Smith was well aware of the uses of rhetoric, and his seeming straightforwardness does not preclude him from making use of a variety of literary devices, either for polemical purposes or to add levels of suggested meaning to his literal one. Finally, the very project of writing philosophy and political economy in appealing, everyday language flows from a sophisticated theory about how human knowledge works, which itself needs to be grasped in order to make clear the full import of Smith's teachings. Let us take up each of these factors in turn.
1. Obstacles to Reading Smith
When I say that Smith's writing is more complex than it seems even on a surface level, I mean above all to draw attention to his irony and his prolixity, two features of his style that are not uncommon in eighteenth-century writers, but that are rather more pronounced, and carry more weight, in Smith than in many of his peers. Smith's conception of morality made the way one expresses one's emotions central to virtue, and he believed strongly that modes of literary expression could reflect character. In his lectures on rhetoric he told his students, "When the characters of a plain and a simple man are so different we may naturally expect that the stile they express themselves in will be far from being the same" (LRBL 38).1 Cicero's elegance and propriety make evident, he says, "that the author conceive[d] himself to be of importance, and dignity" (LRBL 159). Xenophon's style expresses his "simplicity and innocence of manners" (LRBL 169). We may, accordingly, expect the ironic and prolix features of Smith's style to express something about his character, or at least about the character he wished to present to his readers. And in any case we must be careful, as many readers have not been, to recognize Smith's irony when we see it, and to unpack his unhurried way of getting to a point, or we will misunderstand even the literal level of his meaning.
The irony is sometimes obvious: "The fortunate and the proud wonder at the insolence of human wretchedness, that it should dare to present itself before them, and with the loathsome aspect of its misery presume to disturb the serenity of their happiness" (TMS 51).
But on other occasions it can be hard to tell whether Smith is being ironic or not. About love, he says that "[t]he passion appears to every body, but the man who feels it, entirely disproportioned to the value of the object," and that "though a lover may be good company to his mistress, he is so to nobody else" (TMS 31). Is this simply supposed to describe a fact about love, or does it include some gentle mockery of that passion?
In pondering this question, we should bear in mind two points. First, Smith was a great admirer of Jonathan Swift, who was supremely gifted at stating the most outrageous of propositions in the most moderate of tones. Often, Smith emulates this tight-lipped way of conveying moral outrage. It fits well with his theory of how to express emotions, and especially anger, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS): to win the sympathy of our audience, he says, we must "lower [ . . . our] passion to that pitch, in which the spectators are capable of going along with [us]" (TMS 22; on anger specifically, see 37-8). But Smith also differs from Swift in an important respect, and that brings us to a second reason for his understated tone. Swift, in part perhaps out of a gloomy disposition and in part, certainly, out of deep Pauline convictions, is willing to condemn human nature entirely. Smith's strongly naturalistic orientation, his belief that moral standards--the very standards we might use to condemn human nature--arise out of human nature itself, leads him instead to try to understand what good purposes even bad features of human nature might serve. The difficulty of this commitment is something he worries about explicitly. He says, for instance, about our reaction to the consistently sorrowful person: "we . . . despise him; unjustly, perhaps, if any sentiment could be regarded as unjust, to which we are by nature irresistibly determined" (TMS 49). Knud Haakonssen nicely describes a passage in Smith on one of our natural tendencies as a "piece of teasing, double-edged scepticism" (SL 81), and that description captures Smith's stance toward natural human impulses throughout his work. On the one hand, he sees some of them as foolish or dangerous, as leading us away from virtue and happiness. On the other hand, as something natural, they cannot simply be rejected. An ironic distance may enable us to moderate their force, or to see ways of acting against them, and he gently urges us to achieve such a distance. But he also wants us to recognize that our natural tendencies will not go away, even when we do achieve ironic distance from them, that we are "irresistibly determined" to be drawn by them. We need to reconcile ourselves to that fact even while trying to avoid the pitfalls to which they lead us. A Socratic irony--or, better, what Kierkegaard would later call "humor" as opposed to irony2--can encourage this wry acceptance of what we cannot change. Rather than railing against human nature, Smith would have us adopt a humorous, unanxious attitude toward our own failings, a resolution to work against them where possible conjoined with a clear-eyed acceptance of the fact that they will never fully disappear, hence the odd ambiguity in passages like the remarks on love quoted above.