Thursday, July 22, 2010

Who was Adam Smith?

I have an advance reader’s copy of Nicholas Phillipson’s Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (Yale University Press, October 2010). For those unfamiliar with the book publishing business, this means a paperbound copy of uncorrected page proofs, with illustrations merely empty boxes marked FPO, for position only, some key production data described as TK, to come, and some elements—most notably, the index—not yet typeset. It also means that my Amazon link will have no image.

This book is the intellectual biography of a man who wanted to have a not quite invisible hand in shaping his intellectual biography. His first serious biographer, Dugald Stewart, whose work was published in 1794, wrote that “he seems to have wished that no materials should remain for his biographers, but what were furnished by the lasting monuments of his genius, and the exemplary worth of his private life.” (p. 3) For instance, he saw to it that all his letters and lecture notes were destroyed.

Naturally, no one of Adam Smith’s renown could micromanage his legacy to the extent that he wished. We know that he was an eccentric who never married and who lived with his mother for many years. When she died at the age of ninety he wrote to his publisher that “the final separation from a person who certainly loved me more than any other person ever did or ever will love me; and whom I certainly loved and respected more than I shall ever either love or respect any other person, I cannot help feeling, even at this hour, as a very heavy stroke upon me.” (p. 11)

He had a few close friends, David Hume being the most famous, but did not shine in society. Samuel Johnson considered him “as dull a dog as he had ever met with.” (p. 210) His students didn’t agree. After a stint teaching at Edinburgh, he moved on to Glasgow where he lectured for more than a decade and became something of a cult figure. Students could buy his portrait bust at local bookshops. And what did he teach? At Edinburgh he gave lectures on rhetoric and jurisprudence; at Glasgow he lectured on moral philosophy.

Adam Smith was first and foremost a philosopher whose ambition it was to develop a “science of man” that would incorporate law, history, aesthetics, economics, and ethics. The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments were meant to be part of this overarching project, never completed.

He wrote most of The Wealth of Nations in Kirkcaldy, where he was born and where his mother still lived. His business in Kirkcaldy, he wrote to Hume, “is Study in which I have been very deeply engaged for about a Month past. My amusements are long, solitary walks by the Sea side. You may judge how I spend my time. I feel myself, however, extremely happy, comfortable and contented. I never was, perhaps, more so in all my life.” (p. 201)

Although Adam Smith spent most of his life learning, teaching, and writing and was renowned for his formidable erudition, he also demonstrated management skills. He was an academic administrator and a customs commissioner. He advised the Duke of Buccleuch on running his estates and when the Ayr Bank collapsed in 1772, three years after its founding, he spent a great deal of time trying to extricate some of his friends, including Buccleuch, from the fallout.

It is impossible to do justice to Phillipson’s biography in this brief space. I have touched on only Adam Smith the man, not Smith’s ideas, the primary focus of the book. In closing, let me correct this bias ever so slightly.

In The Wealth of Nations Smith pays tribute to Quesnay, whom he met in Paris when traveling with the young Buccleuch and who influenced his thinking on economics. But Smith’s empiricist roots led him to criticize some of Quesnay’s ideas. As Phillipson writes, according to Smith “...questions of price and value were regulated by ‘higgling and bargaining’, not mathematical necessity. …whereas Quesnay believed that economics could be turned into an exact, mathematically based science, Smith remained firmly committed to the Humean view that systems of philosophy could only appeal to the understanding, and that their credibility in the eyes of their readers would depend on the philosopher’s ability to illustrate his principles with examples drawn from common life and history.” (p. 206) Smith famously demonstrated this ability in his claim that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Phillipson interweaves Adam Smith’s philosophy, the intellectual and commercial setting in which he lived, and his personal story. It’s a fascinating tale.

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