Adam Smith At 300
Wow, You Don’t Look A Day Over 230
Of Adam Smith’s Political Economy almost an infinite quantity has been said, but very little has been said as to Adam Smith himself. And yet not only was he one of the most curious of human beings, but his books can hardly be understood without having some notion of what manner of man he was. There certainly are economical treatises that go straight on, and that might have been written by a calculating machine. But The Wealth of Nations is not one of these. Any one who would explain what is in it, and what is not in it, must apply the “historical method,” and state what was the experience of its author and how he worked up that experience.
Walter Bagehot, “Adam Smith As A Person”, 1876
According to friend and disciple Duguld Stewart, the philosopher and economist Adam Smith had, on his deathbed, regretted that he had written so little. This might surprise anyone who is aware of the heft of Wealth Of Nations (WON). For Smith WON was merely the pendant of a vast project which would range over all subjects in their historical and analytic aspects: “the immense design of showing the origin and development of cultivation and law; or, as we may perhaps put it, not inappropriately, of saying how, from being a savage, man rose to be a Scotchman.” as Bagehot phrased it with his inimitable wit.
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Fortunately for the devotees of Baghot’s “historical method”, Adam Smith was a great celebrity in his time. We can make use of John Rae’s classic biography Life Of Adam Smith as well as Bagehot’s witty article and some other sources lightly sprinkled in. Rae’s book is certainly the best way to absorb Smith’s complex personality. From Rae, we learn that - unlike Hume who adopted French cuisine - Adam Smith never abandoned strawberries, haggis and cock-a-leekie soup. We can also learn that though Smith was absent minded and had no mechanical dexterity, he was an expert card player. Smith, whose religious beliefs are still a matter of debate, regularly sung self-penned Latin hymns to the Divine Geometer but was unable to rhyme in English. “When asked about Shakespeare Smith quoted with apparent approval Voltaire's remarks that Hamlet was the dream of a drunken savage, and that Shakespeare had good scenes but not a good play; but [his unnamed interviewer] gathered that he would not permit anybody else to pass such a verdict with impunity, for when he himself once ventured to say something derogatory of Hamlet, Smith replied, ‘Yes, but still Hamlet is full of fine passages.’.”.
Wherever we look, we can find plenty of material for today’s post. Today, we will look through the sparse but beautiful field of his smaller works organized by the major centers of his life. We will not here enter into casuistry over The Wealth of Nations, there being enough of that everywhere else. Hopefully you will find some freshness yet in Smith on this, his 300th birthday.
The Scottish Years & Background
Adam Smith was born to Scottish parents in Kirkcaldy, Scotland on June 16th, 1723. But we also learn of the intellectual world of Glasgow in the 1750s, now famous the world over. Smith befriended both Whig bishop Frances Hutchinson and Tory deist David Hume. What united the odd trio was their love of scholarship. Hume famously kept Virgil under his pillow, where Smith kept Hume. Enlightenment Scotland was Hume’s home and the influences of that world lasted his entire life. Rae notes in his biography that the last sentences Smith published were a tribute to his math teacher (which were added to Theory Of Moral Sentiments). He further asserts that Smith “is sometimes considered a disciple of Hume and sometimes considered a disciple of Quesnay; if he was any man's disciple, he was Hutcheson's.”. This evaluation is quite just, if one sees the matter from Smith’s point of view.
Yes, Smith had a great, even exaggerated love for the intellectual world he came from. Rae records Smith rating fellow Scots Stewart and Simson above his friend d’Alembert. Smith considered Hume’s History Of England the equal of Livy, this speaks more to his respect for Hume than his agreement with Hume’s famously Tory biased book.
In my opinion, the work of Smith which best displays his affections is his letter to William Strayhan on the death of Hume. Indeed, this may be Smith’s best writing in general. Hume’s cheer and good nature moved many readers. David Dalrymple was stirred to translate the letter into latin verse. In this passage, David Hume sings to Adam Smith of the ailment which will soon end his life:
“...Pol me moribundum, Adame, vocarea
Nomina si rebus dare convenientia quelles:
Altera jam morbo implicitum me detinet aeftas,
Ille quidem, vegeti quanquam quis corporis essem,
Difficilis, senium gravat, haud sanabilis ulla
Arte, Diarrhream medìci dixere Pelasgi.
Membrorum virtutem horae praedantur euntes,
Sensi equidem, et sedes inter vitalia fixit
Dira valetudo, nec te spes lactet inanis,
Adstat summa dies…”
The most noble part of this letter - Hume’s discussion with Charon - and its final sentence letter provoked quite a vicious reaction in late 18th century England. The idea that Hume could have died peacefully offended the principle that an atheist - which Everyone knew Hume was, that far more important thing than whether he actually was - must be in chronic fear of death. Critic, poet and lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson scoffed at it. Dr Johnson confronted Dr Smith. People began to leave the party in droves. Eventually Johnson called Smith a liar to his face. Hearing about this shocked even Sir Walter Scott, no friend to Smith’s theories. Scott asked Smith 'And what did you reply?'.
Sir Walter Scott, in Boswell’s Life Of Johnson, quoted in John Rae’s Life Of Adam Smith
While the logic of these reactions is non-existent, their strength is founded quite honestly in the depth of feeling of the letter. Bagehot warns us not to take the statement that Hume was “approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.” literally. What should be taken for this is that Smith’s praise is not just for Hume the individual but for The Scottish Enlightenment as an age.
Oxford & The Historical Essays
After being baptized in this Scottish intellectual world, Smith left for Oxford as a postgraduate student. It was an infamous catastrophe. In “Adam Smith As A Person”, Bagehot’s attempts to apologize for the state of English learning are accidentally hilarious in their infra-isle bigotry. The fact is that Smith went from hobnobbing with Hume to a university system without a single influential scholar. More modern attempts at a defense are even more pitiful, one writer - perhaps attempting to illustrate the paradoxes of quantification over an empty set - attributed to 18th century Oxford “the most significant traditions and innovations in the history of English music”. In a more honest moment, when ethnic antagonism was not an obstacle, Bagehot admitted that the Oxford of Smith’s time “was at the nadir of her history and efficiency.”. He allows one of Smith’s contemporaries to describe an unusually thorough doctoral examination: “I was asked who founded University College; and I said, though the fact is now doubted, that King Alfred founded it; and that was the examination.”.
As unlikely as the theory is descriptively, Bagehot’s theory provides an excellent excuse to fold in Smith’s historical trilogy. As printed in The Essays Of Adam Smith, the trilogy is
“History Of Astronomy”
“History Of Ancient Physics”
“History Of Ancient Logics And Metaphysics”
The three essays form a trilogy with History Of Astronomy, with each essay highlighting its connections to the previous. There are five other short essays in The Essays Of Adam Smith, of which the most interesting is “Considerations Concerning The Formation Of Languages”. In that essay Smith proposes that verbs were the original linguistic units, all others forming by a congealing process. Though necessarily completely speculative, it is in fact quite modern. David K Lewis’ notion of signaling in Convention proposes the same theory. The signals are acted on by the actors. “One if by land” in this interpretation means “Charge!” and two if by sea means “Fire!”. But there has to be some structure if this is ever going to be finished, so I will say no more.
Instead I will start with “History Of Astronomy”. This is the longest, most researched and best of the historical trilogy. There is no Enlightenment sneer in this history. Rather, Smith’s approach to philosophy of science is highly modern, as can be seen in this appreciation. Adam Smith begins with an analysis of the subjective reactions to unknowledge, which he divides into three categories: Wonder, Surprise and Admiration. Wonder is the most important emotional reaction to surprise as it is the most painful. In Ethica, Spinoza has the following to say about Wonder (“Admiratio”):
“Hæc mentis affectio sive rei singularis imaginatio quatenus sola in mente versatur, vocatur admiratio, quæ si ab objecto quod timemus moveatur, consternatio dicitur quia mali admiratio hominem suspensum in sola sui contemplatione ita tenet ut de aliis cogitare non valeat quibus illud malum vitare posset.”
Spinoza, Ethica, Pars Tertia - “De Origine et Natura Affectuum”, Propositio LII - Scholium
Wonder is caused by the object of fear within a surprise, just as Adam Smith says. Admiration is caused by that which is beautiful in a surprise. Spinoza sees wonder as an impediment rather than a spark to science. The passio of wonder is apt to be answered by Peirce’s “method of tenacity”:
“If the settlement of opinion is the sole object of inquiry, and if belief is of the nature of a habit, why should we not attain the desired end, by taking any answer to a question which we may fancy, and constantly reiterating it to ourselves, dwelling on all which may conduce to that belief, and learning to turn with contempt and hatred from anything which might disturb it?”
Charles S. Pierce, “Illustrations In The Logic Of Science I: The Fixation Of Belief”, Section V.
This analysis leads Spinoza to define Wonder as an emotional viscosity:
“Admiratio est rei alicujus imaginatio in qua mens defixa propterea manet quia hæc singularis imaginatio nullam cum reliquis habet connexionem.”
Spinoza, Ethica, Pars Tertia - ‘De Origine et Natura Affectuum’, Affectum Defenitiones - IV
Smith, by contrast, prefers the traditional theory that links the passio of wonder to the passio of active inquiry. “Philosophy is the science of the connecting principles of nature.” says Smith. Wonder is the affective or inner half of a seeming disconnection. Thus it is for the relief if this inner tension connecting principles are tested. This theory can be compared to that of Plato’s Theaetetus. Socrates has just gone through a lightning fast elenchus. Theaetetus responds as follows:
“Θεαίτητος: καὶ νὴ τοὺς θεούς γε, ὦ Σώκρατες, ὑπερφυῶς ὡς θαυμάζω τί ποτ᾽ ἐστὶ ταῦτα, καὶ ἐνίοτε ὡς ἀληθῶς βλέπων εἰς αὐτὰ σκοτοδινιῶ.
Σωκράτης: Θεόδωρος γάρ, ὦ φίλε, φαίνεται οὐ κακῶς τοπάζειν περὶ τῆς φύσεώς σου. μάλα γὰρ φιλοσόφου τοῦτο τὸ πάθος, τὸ θαυμάζειν: οὐ γὰρ ἄλλη ἀρχὴ φιλοσοφίας ἢ αὕτη, καὶ ἔοικεν ὁ τὴν Ἶριν Θαύμαντος ἔκγονον φήσας οὐ κακῶς γενεαλογεῖν.”
Plato, Theatetus, 155c-d
The word for wonder here is θαῦμα, a word for emotions which covers both miracles and magic tricks. Which one Socrates did - and which one Plato believed Socrates did - is a matter of considerable debate. Still, Socrates sees Theaetetus as passing this test of the passio of wonder and thus continues to educate him. Theaetetus - a mathematical genius and perfect gentleman - can be contrasted with the arrogant cruelty of Dionysius II:
“ἡ μὲν δὴ πεῖρα αὕτη γίγνεται ἡ σαφής τε καὶ ἀσφαλεστάτη πρὸς τοὺς τρυφῶντάς τε καὶ ἀδυνάτους διαπονεῖν, ὡς μηδέποτε βαλεῖν ἐν αἰτίᾳ τὸν δεικνύντα ἀλλ᾽ αὐτὸν αὑτόν, μὴ δυνάμενον πάντα τὰ πρόσφορα ἐπιτηδεύειν τῷ πράγματι. οὕτω δὴ καὶ Διονυσίῳ τότ᾽ ἐρρήθη τὰ ῥηθέντα. πάντα μὲν οὖν οὔτ᾽ ἐγὼ διεξῆλθον οὔτε Διονύσιος ἐδεῖτο: πολλὰ γὰρ αὐτὸς καὶ τὰ μέγιστα εἰδέναι τε καὶ ἱκανῶς ἔχειν προσεποιεῖτο διὰ τὰς ὑπὸ τῶν ἄλλων παρακοάς. ὕστερον δὲ καὶ ἀκούω γεγραφέναι αὐτὸν περὶ ὧν τότε ἤκουσε, συνθέντα ὡς αὑτοῦ τέχνην, οὐδὲν τῶν αὐτῶν ὧν ἀκούοι: οἶδα δὲ οὐδὲν τούτων. ἄλλους μέν τινας οἶδα γεγραφότας περὶ τῶν αὐτῶν τούτων, οἵτινες δέ, οὐδ᾽ αὐτοὶ αὑτούς.”
Attributed to Plato, Ἐπιστολαί, 341a-b
Dionysius II needs not be taught, he already knows... I am not certain there can be a better illustration of the difference between truth and certainty.
Coming back from Plato’s Greece, Smith advises that we look not to Plato but the presocratics: “the philosophy of Leucippus, Democritus, and Protagoras … successfully revived by Epicurus.”. Like most attempts to go back to the presocratics, Smith’s account is a projection of all the virtues that a philosopher should have, which he then easily shows to be far superior to those philosophers - chiefly Plato - who have the temerity to not be projections of ourselves.
Astronomical accounts that predate the presocratics are not remarked upon. In particular, Smith leaves out mythological and astrological sources such as the shield of Achilles and Odysseus navigating away from the isle of Calypso. Smith is of the school that observation leads to science, rather than “myths and the criticism of myths”.
Thus Smith builds a story where observation of the πλανήτης directly leads to the Eudoxan system, the theoreticians of the Pythagorean and Platonic schools providing - at best - moral support. The dismissal of the Pythagorean and Platonic schools reveals Smith’s source exactly: Aristotle. Aristotle criticized these schools so the role of our historian is to figure out why they are wrong, not what they were doing. Eudoxus was Aristotle’s beloved mentor, and so receives no criticism. Smith can be saved here only by noting that he was likely relying on older histories of astronomy unaware of their biases. In addition there is no original source of Eudoxus or any pre-Ptolemaic Greek astronomy to turn to anyway.
A much simpler story can be told if one avoid’s Smith’s Aristotelean fundamentalism. Archaic Greek writers were scarcely aware of the πλανήτης perhaps because they posed no problem for them. Orphic writers already conceived of the universe as a sphere surrounding a round earth (perhaps round like a table, perhaps round like a ball). Pythagoras proposed the theory of Music Of The Spheres not as a “wild and romantic idea” but as a serious proposal to study planetary motion by ratios. This new approach to star charts lead to the discovery that Φωσφόρος and Ἕσπερος are the same object for they have the same ratios to the other πλανήτης. Only with this bold claim did the πλανήτης become problematic and demand theorizing, which climaxed in the work of Eudoxus. This story also has the advantage of flowing from wonder - the shocking identity of Φωσφόρος and Ἕσπερος - to science, as in Smith’s theory.
Moving from Eudoxus to Ptolemy, Smith remarks “Nothing can more evidently show how much the repose and tranquillity of the imagination is the ultimate end of philosophy, than the invention of this Equalizing Circle.”. Truth as an end of philosophy is pointedly left out. But the actual dialectic he follows is more complex. The comedy of science is that we have ways of finding the repose and tranquility of the imagination, but we want ways of finding the truth.
Passing over Smith’s comments on Arabic and Medieval astronomy - which are brief and simple - we come to the Copernican Revolution. Some window dressing is needed before we start. Aristotle considered Eudoxus’s spheres to be physical objects: they can be meaningfully counted and the fact that they don’t make noise when they grind on each other has astronomical implications. Though the point is debated, I think it likely that Eudoxus thought of them the same way. Hipparchus & Ptolemy no longer considered astronomy from a predictive point of view. Their goal was to predict when and where a shiny point of light would show up in the near future. The result, as Smith discusses, is that astronomy, once a vital part of Platonic education, dropped out of the philosophical conversation altogether. Smith argues that the Roman philosophes were so concerned with mores they lost all interest in mere accuracy. Why this should be astonishing if “repose and tranquillity of the imagination is the ultimate end of philosophy” is left unclear. What Copernicus did was, for the first time since Aristotle, propose a theory of the heavens which aimed to be descriptive rather than predictive.
Adam Smith’s discussion of the Copernican system is excellent. He owned a first edition of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, which you can read right here. Copernicus was convinced his system was true because it was “simpler” than its contemporary competitors in the sense that it lacked equants entirely (it still had other Ptolemaic hacks however). In truth, the Copernican system had no real competitors. This perhaps lulled Smith into a false confidence, as he follows Copernicus in talking boldly of the relative simplicity of theories as if that had a simple and uncontroversial meaning. I recommend this workshop as a good indication of how complicated it is to say what simplicity means.
Smith’s judgements were obviously pitched to consolidate his narrative, because here they make no difference. The churches that condemned Copernicus did not have a rival theory of the structure of the heavens but rather denied that such a theory was possible or desirable. That is not to say it had no issues with internal coherence or external accuracy. The only objection of any force was that, as Smith says, “A ball, it was said, dropped from the mast of a ship under sail, does not fall precisely at the foot of the mast, but behind it; and in the same manner, a stone dropped from a high tower would not, upon the supposition of the Earth’s motion, fall precisely at the bottom of the tower, but west of it, the Earth being, in the meantime, carried away eastward from below it..”, a matter of internal coherence with Aristotelean physics. This, if true, would have been absolutely fatal, for it threatened not Copernicus’s observations - observations are always fallible anyway - but his entire philosophy of a descriptive understanding of astronomy. Smith explains the Copernican reaction perfectly:
“It is amusing to observe, by what, subtile and metaphysical evasions the followers of Copernicus endeavoured to elude this objection, which before the doctrine of the Composition of Motion had been explained by Galileo, was altogether unanswerable. They allowed, that a ball dropped from the mast of a ship under sail would not fall at the foot of the mast, but behind it; because the ball, they said, was no part of the ship, and because the motion of the ship was natural neither to itself nor to the ball. But the stone was a part of the earth, and the diurnal and annual revolutions of the Earth were natural to the whole, and to every part of it, and therefore to the stone. The stone, therefore, having naturally the same motion with the Earth, fell precisely at the bottom of the tower.”
Adam Smith, “The principles which lead and direct philosophical enquiries, as illustrated by the history of astronomy”, Section IV: “The History Of Astronomy”
This false attack and its phony evasion aside, Tycho Brahe made himself the first true critic of the Copernican system. He was distinguished from his predecessors both by one golden fact. Tycho Brahe took the descriptive aspect of Copernicanism seriously. For Brahe, discovering that the data showed “Venus and Mercury were sometimes above, and sometimes below the Sun; and that, consequently, the Sun, and not the Earth, was the centre of their periodical revolutions” was evidence of something, not just a series of numbers he logged in a table.
The next phase of astronomy was founded by Galileo Galilei, the first to use the telescope in astronomy. Perhaps the revolutionary findings of Galileo can be exaggerated, but it would take a great deal of effort. Pythagoras is said to have discovered that Φωσφόρος is Ἕσπερος and thereby introduce scientific astronomy to Greece. Galileo seemed to make even more shocking discoveries daily. Before Galileo the crescent moon of man’s imagination - a symbol of virginity dating back to Ἄρτεμις - looked like this. Completely pure and silver. After Galileo, the crescent moon looked like this. The Church was so furious that they refused to accept the second painting as an allegory for the immaculate conception. Before Galileo, all heavenly bodies were supposed to glow. After Galileo, only the stars glow - the moon and the πλανήτης (notice the two πλανήτης at the bottom corners) merely reflect light.
After Galielo it could no longer be a mark of sophistication to consider astronomy as a purely predictive science. The heavens - the very place philosophy and religion should be the most secure - was now a place of investigation.
Kepler is the name that follows Galileo most fluidly, neglecting his own students Castelli, Viviani, Guiducci, Borelli, Magiotti, Ricci and Torrecelli who continued and contributed to their leader’s vision and work. Kepler’s discoveries - the elliptical nature of orbits, the conservation of angular momentum, the relation between the orbital period and the mean distance - were of a far more technical nature than Galileo’s bluntly descriptive discoveries. This does not diminish their enormous importance. Smith describes how Cassini confirmed Kepler’s laws for the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, probably a deliberate simplification on Smith’s part, but he is no doubt right that the fact that one could in principle go and see shiny points of light in the sky act according to post-Copernican rules seemed to deflate serious anti-Copernicism.
“If the Earth and the Five Planets were supposed to revolve round the Sun, these laws, it was said, would take place universally. But if, according to the system of Ptolemy, the Sun, Moon, and Five Planets were supposed to revolve round the Earth, the periodical motions of the Sun and Moon, would, indeed, observe the first of these laws, would each of them describe equal areas in equal times; but they would not observe the second, the squares of their periodic times would not be as the cubes of their distances: and the revolutions of the Five Planets would observe neither the one law nor the other. Or if, according to the system of Tycho Brahe, the Five Planets were supposed to revolve round the Sun, while the Sun and Moon revolved round the Earth, the revolutions of the Five Planets round the Sun, would, indeed, observe both these laws; but those of the Sun and Moon round the Earth would observe only the first of them. The analogy of nature, therefore, could be preserved completely, according to no other system but that of Copernicus, which, upon that account, must be the true one. This argument is regarded by Voltaire, and the Cardinal of Polignac, as an irrefragable demonstration; even M‘Laurin, who was more capable of judging, nay, Newton himself, seems to mention it as one of the principal evidences for the truth of that hypothesis. Yet, an analogy of this kind, it would seem, far from a demonstration, could afford, at most, but the shadow of a probability.”
Adam Smith, Adam Smith, “The principles which lead and direct philosophical enquiries, as illustrated by the history of astronomy”, Section IV: “The History Of Astronomy”
Smith does his best to do justice to Descartes’ system of vortices. This speaks to both his francophilia and generosity, as recently deceased systems are far harder to give their due than those long dead. Essentially, the vortex picture encouraged people to think of the heavens as an immense ocean. It was then easy to picture the planets as globally moving but locally stationary, even if the vortex picture actually does not do justice to that picture.
Finally, the essay concludes with a discussion of the Newtonian system. Smith considered this portion of the essay imperfect, but its imperfections lie in the direction of being standard rather than being deeply flawed.
The next essay is “History Of Ancient Physics” and it is. I put it this way because, as one can see from the table of contents, this essay is 10 pages - scarcely a sixth of the length of “History Of Astronomy”. The essay begins with an apparent connection to the previous, but this connection is only to the title. “If the imagination, therefore, when it considered the appearances in the Heavens, was often perplexed, and driven out of its natural career, it would be much more exposed to the same embarrassment, when it directed its attention to the objects which the Earth presented to it, and when it endeavoured to trace their progress and successive revolutions.” says Smith, but is this perplexion wonder? The appearance of a rainbow - color with no pigment! - is often surprising, but surely the natural reaction is admiration rather than wonder. One can tell from this that this essay does not refer to its noble predecessor but to the idea of it, a draft that lacks all that makes the “History Of Astronomy” unique.
Smith says, and it is natural enough, that a simplicity behind all the myriad phenomena of nature must be supposed in order for physics to begin. But then he starts not with the monists, who offered the simplest of all possible theories but with Empedocles and the four elements. The only excuse for this is that the four elements is the physical theory Aristotle prefers, so obviously it is the only one worth taking seriously. We have already seen the previous essay also has this defect, but since this essay is so much shorter the result is much more powerful here.
After a bit of description of the Four Elements theory, Smith goes on to discuss the origin of the world. Archaic Greece had no notion of a creator god. Gods were masters of this or that, even if they were supposed eternal and omnipotent in hymn. Anaxagoras and the Pythagoreans are credited with originating the notion of archaic mind/order which reaches its complete form in Plato.
Aristotle, contrariwise, is credited with proposing the eternity of the world. “[W]hat could hinder…” Aristotle may have asked “the First Cause from exerting his divine energy from all eternity[?]”. Certainly there could be have been no cause to arrest him! The cool reason of Aristotle so completely harmonized the human vision of the world that it, Smith says, “saps the foundations of human worship”, which probably would have connected to the analysis of surprise had this truly been a completed essay. Despite this - as Smith notes - it is Aristotle’s system which gave birth to the Scholastic system. The world would have to wait until Hegel until someone took up the thread of this analysis.
Finally, there is a brief note on the Stoics “the most religious of all the ancient sects of philosophers.”. The Stoics, Smith claims, smoothed and symmetrized all that was difficult and cutting in Plato’s analysis. The Stoic’s model world is both eternal and created, these opposites joined by the simple supposition of a cyclic cosmos. This ordering speaks to Smith’s proto-Hegelian logic rather than to historical fact: it’s very possible (though the point is much debated and I in fact doubt it) that Heraclitus proposed a cosmic cycle from conflagration to conflagration and Plato’s theory is a reaction against it. This is not a true flaw since the point of the essay is to derive what principles we can from the practice of physics not present a complete and independent history of physics. The flaw is the incompleteness of the essay: it simply stops here.
The last essay, “History Of Ancient Logics And Metaphysics”, is even more imperfect than its predecessor. The essay relies very little on the research and speculations of the previous essays. Honestly, it reads rather like someone quite smart but over opinionated going over summary articles and pontificating.
Anyway, to get into the text, the majority of “History Of Ancient Logics And Metaphysics”’s length is a defense of the Aristotlean system which takes the form of downplaying the pertinence and existence of deviations from The Philosopher. The essay starts off reasonably enough, though following Aristotle’s version of the history of philosophy to a fault. The principle of primeval philosophy announced in the title comes easily in the first sentence “In every transmutation … there was something that was the same and something that was different.”. This leads naturally enough to monistic presocratic philosophy, which laid a solid metaphysic for science. Opinion relates facts about a particular arrangement of the one substance - say, waters. Science looks to that which is common to all waters.
This was a reasonable starting place even by Smith’s lights. However, it obviously both could be and actually was exposed to great criticism. Smith then moves on to discuss Plato and swiftly loses all patience and good sense. “...Plato …imagined [he] could still further confirm, by the fallacious experiment, which showed, that a person might be led to discover himself, without any information, any general truth, of which he was before ignorant, merely by being asked a number of properly arranged and connected questions concerning it.”. The fallacy comes in the undefendable addition‘, of which he was before ignorant,’. The fallacy thus was both created and demolished by the critic, as it so often is. The invented flaw is then magnified beyond all proportion by taking one passage of Meno as Plato’s final and complete theory of education, ignoring successes such as Theatetus and failures such as Dionysius II, as discussed above.
Seemingly aware of the weakness of his own argument, Smith abandons all pretense of finding principles which lead and direct philosophical enquiries for mere verbal criticism: “What seems to have misled those early philosophers [i.e. Plato], was, the notion, which appears, at first, natural enough, that those things, out of which any object is composed, must exist antecedent to that object.”. This would immediately obliterate rather than support the theory of education which Smith attributed to Plato, as it would necessarily contradict the ignorance existing before the knowledge. That this paragraph does not at all follow from the previous discussion of how the notion of All Triangles arises when every experienced triangle is obtusangular, or rectangular or acutangular except in being is another serious demonstration of the imperfect state of the essay.
The essay ends with a discussion of the Stoic philosophy of fine grained distinctions. The essay ends with no particular conclusion with a list of these distinctions. In other words, it follows the exact pattern as “History Of Ancient Physics”, yet another clue as to its undigested fate. All that I can say is that it is sad that the author died before this essay could be brought to the level of its grand first entry. Had he lived longer, perhaps Smith could have disproven Sydney Smith’s sneer (quoted with approval by Bagehot) “Greek has never crossed the Tweed with any force.”.
Edinburgh & Theory Of Moral Sentiments
That ended on a rather disappointing note. We can see that Oxford provided little material for Smith’s life’s work and then saw his life end before he could transcend it in his historical work. But Smith did not live a sad life. Smith left Oxford for the more intellectual environment of Edinburgh. There he found again the stable base to write his first masterpiece, Theory Of Moral Sentiments (TOMS). Bagehot accurately but unfairly reviews TOMS in the already mentioned article as follows:
“In Adam Smith’s mind, as I have said before, [moral sense] was part of a whole; he wanted to begin with the origin of the faculties of each man, and then build up that man—just as he wished to arrive at the origin of human society, and then build up society. His Theory of Moral Sentiments builds them all out of one source, sympathy, and in this way he has obtained praise from friends and enemies. … One party says the book is good to gain authority for the conclusion, and the other that you may gain credit by refuting its arguments. For unquestionably its arguments are very weak, and attractive to refutation. If the intuitive school had had no better grounds than these, the Utilitarians would have vanquished them ages since. There is a fundamental difficulty in founding morals on sympathy; an obvious confusion of two familiar sentiments. We often sympathise where we cannot approve, and approve where we cannot sympathise. … Adam Smith could not help being aware of this obvious objection; he was far too able a reasoner to elaborate a theory without foreseeing what would be said against it. But the way in which he tries to meet the objection only shows that the objection is invincible. He sets up a supplementary theory—a little epicycle—that the sympathy which is to test good morals must be the sympathy of an “impartial spectator”. But, then, who is to watch the watchman? Who is to say when the spectator is impartial, and when he is not? If he sympathises with one side, the other will always say that he is partial. As a moralist, the supposed spectator must warmly approve good actions and warmly disapprove bad actions; as an impartial person, he must never do either the one or the other. He is a fiction of inconsistent halves; if he sympathises he is not impartial, and if he is impartial he does not sympathise. …”
Of course, Bagehot is as ever sublimely hubristic in his confidence in Imperialistic Utilitarianism. But a quite opposed thinker, Noam Chomsky, says something similar. “Adam Smith… felt that it shouldn’t be too difficult to institute humane policies.”, he wrote with obvious irony. This flaw left “[c]lassical liberalism shipwrecked on the shoals of capitalism,...”.
For myself, I agree with Brad DeLong that Smith’s theory has aged far better than the simplistic unidimensional theories of utilitarianism that Bagehot defended. Further, Bagehot misinterprets TOMS as a theory of moral acts, rather than as a theory of the foundation of virtues. It is a theory that aims to do the work of Mill’s variation of pleasures into sorts. The impartial spectator is merely the Socrates who knows both sides rather than the pig who knows but one. The matter which Smith’s impartial spectator judges is not the relative merits of the possible actions by multiple parties, but of the relative weights of conflicting virtues. The bulk of TOMS shows by construction that this theory sublated the best of our variegated moral feelings - Burke enumerated “the just, the fit, the proper[ and] the decent” in his review - into an internally ordered unity. Only in the last part of the book, Section IV of Part VI, does Smith turn to the problem of applying his constructions to the engineering of actions. It is rather later, in WON, that Smith constructs a partial theory of moral acts (by a state) out of his theory of moral sentiments.
The last paragraph of TOMS promises a philosophical history of jurisprudence. Smith makes a distinction between old methods of ordering society - mere police - and the new method of justice. Smith abandoned this plan, which has been fulfilled as Hegel’s Philosophie des Rechts. That plan became WON rather than what was advertised. In WON, Smith would develop his concept of justice in an economic rather than historical order. I wrote at the top that I wouldn’t discuss WON in detail, there being enough of that here, there and everywhere. However, I would like to end on some kind of summative notion so we can see how TOMS leads into WON.
The method of justice is, we would now say, is that of freedom. Freedom is when, within wide limits, one’s conduct is guided by reason: symmetry, efficiency and equity. It is the brutish man who is the slave, not those who fear him. The slave to his passions fears justice and knows, or will soon will know, that time and chance brings equality.
Smith’s Justice is not freedom from government, no, it is freedom of government. Whig history - Smith would appreciate this - is to try to interpret him in the light of 20th Century totalitarianism or libertarianism. Nowhere in Smith do we see anything like Montesquieu’s notion of the eternal tax break: once a petty aristocrat is promised tax relief all his descendants are so sheltered for the law is the aggregation of history. Instead, the government is free to adjust taxes. Free is the government guided by reason: symmetry, efficiency and equity. The injudicious tax creates the smuggler who must be punished in proportion not to the crime but to the tax. The despot always prefers caste and hierarchy, but it is caste and hierarchy which creates racial and other strife.
The necessary addition to Smith’s notion of free government, in my view, is the principle of continuity that says the free government is continuous with its free people: government of the people, by the people, for the people. As another old reader of Adam Smith said: Nur Dann –
aus dem Kelche dieses Geisterreiches
schäumt ihm seine Unendlichkeit.
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