Monday, May 09, 2011

Always Remember Context When Citing Adam Smith

Paul Sugar writes in Bad Conscience (HERE)

I thought I might do a post drawing on some of the finer thinkers of the 18th century. Specifically David Hume, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and the problem of political “enthusiasm”. Or as we would now call it, fanaticism.”

For David Hume and Adam Smith ‘enthusiasm’ referred to religious fanatical passions, not politics, which in their view was by far a more disruptive danger to social peace than politics. The mass of people was excluded from politics in the 17th-18th centuries, but they had easily enter into religious enthusiasm.

The results of religious enthusiasm were often extreme disruption as seen, for example, in the public behaviour of the zealots in the battles between the Episcopalians and the Church of Scotland at the time (and formerly against Roman Catholics before them), who prevented Hume from academic appointments and intimidated Smith into silence on religious matters until the later months of his life. They had in mind the ‘enthusiastic’ mobs of religious fanatics in parts of Asia and the Middle East, which we see today, and in terrorist incidents in Western cities also, by ‘enthusiastic’ individuals, in Hume and Smith’s meaning of the word.



Blogger dunnettreader said...

I think a slightly charitable reading of Sugar's post would "cure" the context issue you've raised. He's assuming his readers are familiar with the religious context for deep and abiding suspicion of "enthusiasm" on the part of the three thinkers he cites. Though their opposition to anything smacking of enthusiasm arose in reaction to "fanatiks" and the politico-religious disruptions of the 17thC as that echoed through the 18thC, they applied their suspicion of enthusiasm across most areas of action-motivated-by-ideas.

This approach was common to most of those we think of today as part of Britain's "moderate Enlightenment(s)", and the history of politico-religious conflict in all three kingdoms helps explain why the Enlightenment in Britain was distinctive. The faculty of "judgment" and the discipline of "reasonableness" were constant and explicit touchstones for their thinking. These thinkers all shared, to one degree or another, a Lockean-flavored sceptical empiricism that equated intellectual or theological "certainty" with dangerous hubris. Any claim that smacked of certainty regarding the actions to be pursued to ensure man's "salvation" -- whether in this or another world, whether religion or politics or science -- was emphatically rejected.

There's been a great deal of misunderstanding about the so-called Age of Reason, especially due to the 19th and 20th C reactions against the French Enlightenment, which has tarred the entire 18thC with the excesses of a specific group. The thinkers Sugar was citing were oppposed to the reification of "Reason". Dangerous enthusiasm of fanatiks was possible in all spheres of life, and they opposed it anywhere they thought it threatened to rear its ugly head.

4:39 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thank you dunnnetreader for your contribution.

I often read quotations from Adam Smith or reference to certain ideas he may have expressed and find them not quite correctly ascribed to what he said exactly.

Of course, on a sociological level, 'enthusiasm' as Smith and Hume applied the ascription can applied to the future they knew nothing about and much of the repressive behaviour of political fanatics today can be ascribed to the religious fanatics that Smith had in mind.

But Sugar elides straight into more modern political fanaticism but without mentioning Smith's use of the word in context, it is misleading. That's al my point was. It is also prevalent today in religious enthusiasm.

I hope I am always of a charitable disposition, subject to clarity.

5:25 pm  

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