Wednesday, August 18, 2010

An Interview with Nicholas Phillipson

Nicholas Phillipson Interviewed in Edinburgh Festivals (The Scotsman) HERE:

"Interview By Susan Mansfield
: Nicholas Phillipson - 'This is Adam Smith as mountain gorilla"

Nicholas Phillipson took the David Attenborough approach to his biography of the great Scottish economist, he tells Susan Mansfield

'IF I were to travel back 210 years, from the spot where I'm sitting now in The Scotsman's Holyrood offices, I might be able to make out plumes of smoke from a bonfire rising above Edinburgh's Canongate. At his home in Panmure House, Adam Smith is dying, and at his behest his papers are going up in smoke.

Correspondence, lectures notes, chapters from unfinished books - historians today can only speculate at all which was carried away on the wind that day in 1790. "But Smith does things right," says Dr Nicholas Phillipson, whose new biography has just been published. "So he did his bonfire right. It all went up. We have the account of his executors who had to do it."

It does mean that anyone undertaking a biography of Smith has rather less to go on than for many of the other great figures of the Enlightenment. The author of The Wealth of Nations, the man described as the father of modern economics, was determined that his legacy would live on only in his published works.

"What makes the thing even worse is that Smith was a lousy letter writer," Phillipson continues. "Take any of the great 18th-century letter writers - David Hume, James Boswell, Rousseau - these are people who are writing letters the whole time, as much as we write e-mails, they're chattering to each other in letters. Someone tried to collect Smith's letters; it's not a very fat volume - you find friends ticking him off for not answering letters."

So Phillipson, who is an honorary research fellow at the University of Edinburgh and a leading Enlightenment scholar, knew that a different approach would be required. Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life is the product of years of research, telling the story of Smith's intellectual formation, the various forces which shaped the mind of the studious boy from Kirkcaldy into one of the great thinkers of his day.

"I'm not an economist and I'm not a philosopher, I'm an observer," Phillipson says. "What I want to do is to watch Smith at work. When I look at what philosophers do, I see myself as David Attenborough pursuing a rare species of mountain gorilla. It's enormous fun just going into the jungle and watching what these extraordinary creatures do and how they behave, and to do it in the knowledge that it's inherently fascinating and not altogether incomprehensible. This is Smith as mountain gorilla."

He deliberately decided to study Smith's intellectual life without making the assumption that everything he did led up to the writing of what is now regarded as his masterwork, The Wealth of Nations. "I don't want to make any ex-historical judgments about which is the most important [of his works]. At the very end of his life, Smith said that he actually preferred [his earlier book on ethics] The Theory of Moral Sentiments

That is just a taster from a relatively long and insightful report of an interview with Nicholas Phillipson, author of the new intellectual biography of Adam Smith from Allen Lane, London: Adam Smith:An Enlightened Life by Nicholas Phillipson is published by Allen Lane, London.

Follow the link and find out more, both of Adam Smith and Nicolas Phillipson. It's a good read.



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