Thursday, August 05, 2010

Another Endorsement of New Book on Adam Smith

Another great review (‘Making Adam Smith’( in The Economst) of Nicholas Phillipson’s new book on Adam Smith HERE:

Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life. By Nicholas Phillipson. Yale University Press; 368 pages

ADAM SMITH has inspired some fierce books in recent years: books that seek to rescue him from the economists, or indeed, to rescue economics from him. Nicholas Phillipson’s diligent biography is a quieter work of scholarship, ignoring Smith’s disciples and critics to reclaim him for the historians. Mr Phillipson is more interested in documenting Smith’s influences than in exploring his influence. He traces the ancestors of Smith’s ideas, but largely ignores their many offspring, legitimate and illegitimate.

This intellectual story is nonetheless lively. It is like the tale of a sporting hero who springs from relative obscurity to triumph over a string of worthy opponents, often by assimilating their techniques. Smith’s early patron was Henry Home, a philosopher and lawyer who sponsored the Edinburgh lectures that launched Smith’s career in 1748 when he was just 25. His great sparring partner was his friend and fellow Scot, David Hume, who taught Smith many of his best punches. Most of Smith’s opponents were French or French-speaking, including the philosopher Etienne Bonnot de Condillac and the Baron de Montesquieu.

Smith’s first book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, “turned the tables” on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that society enslaved man to vanity and ambition. Smith argued, instead, that society taught man to be good. This tuition started from man’s capacity for “sympathy”: his ability to feel what another man feels. It continued with his capacity for sympathy squared: his ability to sense what other men feel about him, putting himself in the shoes of other men putting themselves in his shoes. The moral education was complete when a person chose the perfect shoes in which to put himself: those of an “impartial Spectator”, who “considers our conduct with the same indifference with which we regard that of other people”.

This is a significant endorsement of Nicholas Phillipson’s intellectual biography of Adam Smith. It is receiving the positive attention that I have expected since I heard about what Phillipson told me about it some years ago.



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