My Review of Nicholas Phillipson's "Adam Smith: an Enlightened Life"
I first met Nicholas Phillipson in September 2006 at a conference, entitled: ‘Reclaiming Adam Smith’, at Columbia University, New York. It was never made clear just who the organisers were ‘reclaiming Adam Smith’ from, or even ‘why’ it was necessary. Lost Legacy (September 06) carried my reports of the conference and my opinions of various speakers. Here is an extract:
“I would like to comment first on the ‘joint-star’ of the conference (in fact he slightly edges it), Nicholas Phillipson, Emeritus Reader in History at the University of Edinburgh. Until the conference I had not heard of him or his work (though many other attendees did know him, judging by how warmly they greeted him during the intervals). I found his performance outstanding, as he showed everybody how to lecture, and he clearly followed Adam Smith’s advice in ‘Rhetoric and Belles Lettres’: to know his subject (he does), to be perspicuous (he was) and to be enthusiastic (which he is in spades).
[He told me that] that he is writing an intellectual biography of Adam Smith, of which, if his session was but a sample, augurs well for what is coming, to which I certainly await with anticipation of not being other than educated in aspects of Adam Smith, so far untouched by what has been written to date.”
Well, Phillipson’s intellectual biography of Adam Smith is now available. My four-year wait has been worth it, though it actually took years for its gestation. I am not disappointed in any degree; in fact, quite the reverse, for it exceeds all my expectations. Quite frankly it is outstanding and it will be many years before it is superseded.
While it contains some necessary biographical material, it is not comparable, intentionally, to the detail of Ian Simpson Ross’s definitive biography, "The Life of Adam Smith” (2nd edition, 2010: now available from Oxford University Press - which I shall be reviewing shortly on Lost Legacy).
Phillipson’s is an intellectual biography – the history of Smith’s startling ideas – carefully developed over his lifetime and their germination from Smith’s solid grasp of the work of those who preceded him, particularly David Hume, whose ideas he applied and developed, but also ‘the never to be forgotten, Francis Hutcheson, whose ideas he sympathetically critiqued and developed, as well as host of others, including Newton (by analogy), and by critical attention to contemporaries.
It is not just a talented account of Smith’s ideas. Phillipson delves into their development, taking just enough space to keep his theme of their evolution rolling along at a non-exhausting page-turning pace. And in the background, all the time, is the ever-present brave mood of Enlightenment in struggle with the cloying embrace of theological superstition, under the watchful eyes, and lurid imaginations, of the Presbyterian zealots, and to be fair, of the timid and intimidated Presbyterian Moderates who, privately, knew better but remained silent in public (as Smith did, sadly, until the last, sixth edition, of Moral Sentiments a few months before he died in 1790).
Refreshingly, Phillipson, makes full use of all of Smith’s works, published under his direct authorship, Moral Sentiments (1759) and Wealth Of Nations (1776), his posthumous Philosophical Essays (1795), and the detailed near-verbatim notes of his Lectures On Jurisprudence (1762) and Lectures On Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1763), and what remains of Smith’s Correspondence. Phillipson’s mastery of these materials gives the necessary ballast to his account, without weighing the reader down with seemingly endless quotations, because he weaves his judicious selection of illustrative quotations seamlessly into his discourse.
From the beginning at the local Kirkcaldy school, Smith aptitude for the Latin and Greek classics prepared him for the more arduous work he undertook at the Universities of Glasgow (tutored by talented teachers such as Professors Hutcheson on moral philosophy, Simson on mathematics, and Dick on Newtonian physics), and at Oxford (untutored and mainly by self-study), an experience of Oxford which he denounced in Wealth Of Nations thirty years later.
It was at Oxford from around 1744 (when 21 years-old) that he started his ‘intended juvenile essay’ on the History of Astronomy that displayed his budding genius for philosophy, both moral and natural. In the clearest terms, Phillipson places the ideas in this early work on the ‘origins of philosophical thought’ in the ‘psychological need to explain the unexpected, to soothe the imagination and to restore the mind to a state of order and tranquillity’ (provoking James Buchan’s wonderful quip: ‘philosophy as a tranquiliser’).
Smith explained that only when men had some ‘security and leisure to reflect on the world’ could they ‘attend to the train of events which passes around them’. Meanwhile, they would cower in frightful superstition and fear at everything they could not understand, until they could seek ‘the invisible chains which bind together all these disjoined objects’ so as to ‘… render the theatre of nature a more coherent and therefore a more magnificent spectacle’. Knowledge grew slowly and the remnants of ignorance, accompanied by imaginary and invisible polytheistic gods and ‘pusillanimous superstition’ (which persisted unsaid into monotheistic modern times).
Phillipson casts his understanding eye over the milieu within which Smith’s intellectual mind developed throughout the years of the Scottish Enlightenment. He uncovers, from hints and fine deductions, the probable content of Smith’s Edinburgh lectures (1748-51), which I have not seen attempted credibly in other authors. In particular, he gives an account of the role of Smith’s neglected ideas of the Origins of language (1761), which was to be articulated as an Essay attached to ‘Moral Sentiments’ (from the 3rd 1767 edition). This Essay was particularly important, not just for its originality, but as an early indication of his conjectural-historical method that can be seen in all of his works.
Here, I would enter a small quibble in that Phillipson has not reported on the potential suggestions of a common core in all of Smith’s work in ‘Moral Sentiments’, ‘Wealth Of Nations’ and ‘Languages’, as found credibly in James Otteson’s “Adam Smith and the Market Place of Life” (2002): ‘Motivation desire’ (in TMS: ‘pleasure of mutual sympathy’); ‘Rules Developed’ (TMS: ‘standards of moral judgement’); ‘Currency’ (TMS ‘personal sentiments and moral judgments’); and ‘Resultant unintended system of order’ (TMS: ‘Commonly shared standards of morality and moral judgement’), which, incidentally and in addition, can also be applied to Smith’s ‘Astronomy’ and his ‘Jurisprudence’ lectures. (See the 1st hardback edition of my Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy, 2008, p 43, Palgrave.)
Phillipson suggests there is a common methodology in Smith’s work and I agree, and I think Otteson provides a skeletal outline of that common method, with fruitful research implications.
Phillipson’s discussion of Moral Sentiments is both engaging and thoughtful. I enjoyed it particularly for its perspicuity (as Smith would have expressed it). He covers a lot of ground (we are nearly half-way through Phillipson’s book). I found Phillipson’s account of Smith’s none too obvious philosophical response to Rousseau’s critique insightful, though, as an economist, I consider Smith’s analysis of the historical evolution of post-hunter economies, as outlined in his ‘Lectures On Jurisprudence’ and ‘Wealth Of Nations’, a fuller and more complete answer in respect of the relative conditions, and continuing promises, of European ‘day labourers’ and the African or North American ‘savages’, post-1776.
However, Smith’s moral philosophy is a deeper analysis of real morality – and potential for humanisation - through the device of an ‘imaginary man within the breast’ - the impartial spectator – and more convincing to contemporary readers in and beyond 1759. It made Smith’s reputation in Scotland and England, and to some extent in France.
It was the latter country that entered Smith’s life and exposed him to company of the French Physiocrats around Quesnay and others. Before he met them (1764-6) Smith had developed and finalised many of his early ideas in political economy. His Lectures On Jurisprudence (1762-63) show sections that were to appear in Wealth Of Nations – some verbatim – in 1776 and he delivered detailed elaborations in Book I and II, particularly in regard to the historical significance of the division of labour, the propensity to ‘truck, barter, and exchange’, the crucial influence of the extent of the market, the importance of inter-connected supply chains, market and natural prices, the role of money, foreign trade, monopolies, competition, stock (capital), loan finance, the mercantile errors in their concepts of ‘wealth’, advantages of ‘free commerce’, bargaining, and an historical account of the decline of feudalism.
His contact with the Physiocrats and others did not teach him his economics. He listened, admired their ideas (but not those of ‘laissez-faire’), and severely criticised their major error, as he saw it, of the primacy of agriculture as the sole productive driver of the economy and their outright dismissal of commercial industry as ‘sterile’. As always, Smith remained on good personal terms with Quesnay, Mirabeau and Turgot. He respected them but did not agree totally with their views, as Phillipson shows brilliantly.
One review of Phillipson’s ‘An Enlightened Life’ seemed to complain that his account of the Wealth Of Nations was too short. I did not get that impression when I read it. He had already introduced much of Smith’s political economy before he wrote a separate chapter on Wealth Of Nations, where he concentrated on Smith’s critique of mercantile political economy (‘the very violent attack’).
I do not know what he is alleged to have missed out that fitted the book’s theme. Adding in a detailed discussion of, say, the ‘labour theory of value’ controversy, would not add much. Anyway, the LTV controversy in Wealth Of Nations is much misunderstood by modern economists, from Ricardo onwards, as I have made clear on Lost Legacy and in my books. Phillipson’s account is competent, relevant, and complete. Familiar as I am with the torrid, not to say arid, disputes among economists about almost every idea uttered by any economist before Smith’s time, and since, not to mention what they have done to Smith’s Legacy, I am not surprised that a distinguished historian shied away from ‘kicking over the hornet’s nest’ of what passes for economic theory today.
In discussing the importance to Smith of his last major revision of Moral Sentiments much of what Phillipson says is undoubtedly true and I think he deals well with the arguments of Smith’s critics (for example Thomas Reid). I would add that he 6th edition of TMS (1789-90) was also notably less ‘religious’ in expression and tone than the previous five editions.
I suggest that both old-hands at Smithian studies and new readers of anything from Smith, will gain a great deal of satisfaction from reading Nicholas Phillipson’s considered thoughts on the Works and contributions of Adam Smith to moral philosophy, political economy, and the broader ‘science of man’ that he articulated so consistently throughout his life. It is a remarkable achievement worthy of the attention it has attracted so far, among general readers and the cognoscenti.