Saturday, August 14, 2010

Best Review of Nicholas Phillipson's 'Adam Smith: an enlightened life.'

James Buchan writes, what I regard as the best and most authoritative review, so far, of Nicholas Phillipson’s, Adam Smith: an enlightened life, Allen Lane, London in The Guardian, 14 August, HERE.

James Buchan is himself a worthy biographer of Adam Smith (Profile Books) and has written on 18th-century Edinburgh in the Enlightenment generation (Capital of the Mind Birlinn, Edinburgh).

In The Guardan review he writes (my comments are in square [ ] brackets).

Smith destroyed many of his unpublished manuscripts, leaving posterity a few ravishing fragments, a couple of hundred letters and two highly finished essays in philosophy, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776).’

[He also left a short (70-pages] essay, known as the History of Astronomy (written 1740-50s; published posthumously, 1795), the first part of which is an insightful demolition of the ‘pusillanimous superstition’ of pagan and heathen religion, also lightly hinting at the inadequacies of the ‘revealed religion’ that raplaced them.]

Dugald Stewart's eulogy, delivered to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in the winter of 1793, supplied most of what little there was to know of Smith's life, and was supplemented by anecdotes in John Rae's Victorian biography in 1895. That year, a set of lecture notes from Smith's jurisprudence course at Glasgow turned up in Edinburgh and began to transform our notion of the man. The "Scottish Enlightenment" was invented. Scott (1937), Ross (1995) and now Phillipson present Smith as the model intellect of the 18th century, in which thought itself changes direction and modernity begins to take form.

Far from being the unworldly fellow of Stewart or an economist avant la lettre, this new Smith passed a long life wrestling with a stupendous theory of everything. Phillipson calls this project nothing less than a "Science of Man", in which introspection in the manner pioneered by David Hume and a profound study of ancient and modern history would lay bare the principles of social organisation, the well-springs of the arts and sciences, and the ideal government and code of laws. Such an enterprise, wildly ambitious even in antiquity, was in the much broader circumstances of the 18th century utterly doomed, and Smith died in 1790 in a dejection bordering on despondency. According to one of his last visitors, "I meant (said he) to have done more

[Yes, but, the significance of his seeking to be appointed a Scottish Commissioner of Customs in 1778, and then not treating it as a sinecure, is missed by Buchan and all other biographers, when the Customs House records show that Smith diligently attended 4-days a week, and signed the majority of its correspondence and minutes. The purpose: to avoid completing his third book on Jurisprudence, which would have to address the phenomenon of the United States Constitution with all of its uncomfortable (for Smith) implications as a critique of Britain’s constitutional monarchy.]

Phillipson … brings a great knowledge of the industrial and commercial processes transforming Scotland after the 1730s, and a sensitivity to the currents of religion in Scotland and philosophy in Britain and France.’

‘… Phillipson's chronology [reduces] the juvenile the influence of both Presbyterianism and the classical authors. For Phillipson, The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a response to the cult of savagery in Rousseau (who is not mentioned in it) rather than the stoicism of Cicero and Epictetus (who are, often).

In Phillipson's reading, the theory is not so much an ethics as a theory of polite sociability, contra Rousseau and also Hobbes, and per Hume, in which imagination plays the starring ethical role. Through the exercise of imaginative sympathy, we form notions of justice, morality, beauty, taste, good manners and order and also, this being the 18th century, subordination. This "natural" sociability also – and this is the hinge of Phillipson's argument – justifies the new world of luxury and commerce opening to Scottish 18th-century view.’

‘There follows a master stroke. Phillipson argues that, having established sociability in The Theory, Smith had no need to take commercial society back to its root in The Wealth of Nations, but could content himself with a sort of shorthand (the non-benevolent butcher, brewer and baker; truck, barter and exchange one thing for another; invisible hand). Alas, the economists took these rather vulgar aphorisms as the foundation of their science and ignored those parts of Smith's system that concerned humanity's sociable, moral, intellectual and aesthetic nature.’

‘Here is the problem. The transformation in Smith's biography since the discovery of the first jurisprudence lectures in 1895 has had no influence at all on the theory and practice of economics. Economists reject biography, as they reject history. Yet having failed so royally to predict or ameliorate our present distress, some economists may come to examine their assumptions and be drawn to this fine book and its mighty subject.’

[This last paragraph is absolutely beautiful as an expression of what modern economists from the 1940s (Samuelson, et al) have done to Adam Smith’s legacy.

One, they never understood it (most probably never read it), and two, they invented a wholly false version of it to suit, early public concerns of the vulgar critique of capitalist economics and institutions, as represented by Stalin’s Marxian socialism, and then to regularize their claimed legitimacy for their influence on economics and academe and their concomitant access to public fame and private incomes.]

Follow the link to The Guardian to read Buchan's review in full.



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