Monday, October 31, 2011

Another Excellent Review of Ian Simpson Ross's "Life of Adam Smith" (2nd Edition)

Maureen Harkin (Reed College). “Review of Ross, Ian Simpson, The Life of Adam Smith.” H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. October, 2011

Ian Simpson Ross. The Life of Adam Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-19-955003-6.
“Harkin on Ross's The Life of Adam Smith”

When Ian Simpson Ross published the first edition of his Life of Adam Smith in 1995 it had been many years since the last full-scale biography of his subject. Despite the status of The Wealth of Nations (1776) and to a lesser extent, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Smith had not, until quite recently, attracted much specifically biographical investigation. Before 1995 the most recent major biography had been W. R. Scott’s in 1937, preceded by John Rae’s in 1895 and the foundational text of all Smith biographies, Dugald Stewart’s short biographical sketch of 1795. For all the intimate knowledge Stewart had of Smith’s life and circle, his short narrative concluded with a note of disappointment, the suggestion being that the biographer’s task was, in the case of Smith, rendered extraordinarily difficult by the subject’s life being so “barren of incident.”

… Smith famously had most of his surviving incomplete manuscripts burnt by his executors in a deathbed bonfire a few days before his demise in July 1790; Stewart commented on Smith’s unusually strong dislike of students taking any notes at all on his lectures; and, as the editors of Smith’s correspondence in the Glasgow edition of his works noted in 1977, in the golden age of letter-writing, Smith produced a remarkably small body of correspondence. The total of surviving letters over a fifty-year period from 1740 to 1790 is well under two hundred, with only a few dozen more known to have existed. Such a record was reason both for friends like David Hume to complain of neglect to Smith, and for biographers to hesitate.

The co-editor of the 1977 volume of correspondence, part of the six-volume Glasgow edition of Smith’s works published between 1976 and 1987, was, of course, Ian Simpson Ross, and the meticulous reconstruction of the material circumstances of Smith’s life in the annotations to these letters formed the foundation for the extraordinary detail of his 1995 biography. Now within the same year, 2010, we have not only another major new biography of Adam Smith from Nicholas Phillipson, but a second edition of Ian Simpson Ross’s book. That Smith is now attracting this level of biographical investigation is not the product of the discovery of any major new letters, documents, or facts, but of the dramatic surge of interest in Smith and the reevaluation of the significance of his work across a range of disciplines over the last three or so decades--an interest that the Glasgow edition has itself helped to foster.

Simpson Ross’s biography was acclaimed on its first publication for its command of every material detail of Smith’s daily life in Glasgow and Edinburgh. In its twenty-four chapters it followed the major stages of his personal and professional life, his writing of The Wealth of Nations and the Theory, including his numerous revisions, and other projects. Part of the achievement of Simpson Ross’s book is precisely in its accretion of the details of daily life and the implicit challenge this posed to the traditional image of Smith as unsociable, traditional since Stewart’s first sketch of Smith as awkward in company. Simpson Ross’s portrait stressed instead the range and depth of Smith’s social and familial relationships. Smith’s actual responses to particular situations, however--bringing back the body after the death of the younger brother in his charge, the Duke of Buccleugh, to the family home, for example (p. 234)--remain necessarily somewhat conjectural in light of the absence of Smith’s direct commentary: “It seems ... ”; “It is likely …”; and so on.

The new edition updates the text in incorporating references, albeit necessarily rather brief ones, to the abundant important work on Smith since 1995 (Samuel Fleischacker, Ryan Patrick Hanley, Emma Rothschild et al.) in the text and notes. As in the 1995 edition, Simpson Ross’s focus is on establishing contexts and connections rather than on reinterpreting Smith’s texts. The overall structure of the book is little changed, though Simpson Ross provides a reorganized and expanded account of the social and intellectual context in which Smith turned, in late 1766, from his travels abroad to the composition of The Wealth of Nations. …

Two hundred and twenty years after his death, we now have two impressive and complementary recent biographies of Smith: Simpson Ross’s reconstruction of Smith’s society, daily life, writing habits, and relationships, and Phillipson’s tracking of the development of Smith’s ideas and intellectual character through his texts. While Simpson Ross’s study refrains from interweaving biography with a reinterpretation of Smith’s texts his work lays the strongest foundation for such interpretative work. His account will be mined for many years to come.



Blogger airth10 said...

Adam Smith has been linked to many things, left ideology, right ideology, morals and religious beliefs. But he hasn't been linked, that I know, to something else that occurred the year his Wealth of Nations came out, 1776, the year of the American Revolution.

I think the coincidence is interesting because what Smith laid out in that book was of the substance that America needed to build a great nation and be a model for the rest of the world. What Smith proposed - the promotion of enlightened self-interest, was the required ingredient on which to build a sustainable society born of many different groups and nationalities. What he proposed was a universal idea, which happened to address and fit in well with America's goals and aspirations.

3:57 p.m.  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Thanks for your comment.

I see references to Adam Smith and the American Revolution regularly in modern media, usually suggesting that Wealth Of Nations somehow contributed to it or that it was significantly coincidental.

Smith considered the discovery of America by European (though clearly Asians [ex-Africa] had discovered the empty continent sometime around 13,000 years earlier), with the discovery of the passage to the East Indies, were "the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind" (WH IV.vii.c.85: 626). Some praise indeed! He also spent several chapters discussing the British colonies in North America.

Smith refrained form discussing the significance of the American revolution, partly because the Declaration of Independence came after publication (4 July, 1776) while the first edition of WN was published on 9 March, 1776, and the new state was
established in 1783.

Smith had high hopes for the USA and even made (for him) a rare prediction that by 100 years, it would be a larger economy than the UK, a tiny island with all its institutional problems - mercantile economy, an ancient agriculture, and cloying legacy of its past - compared to a small American coastal, but rising, population, vast 'empty' land mass, minor habits of primogeniture and entail,s and high wages, likely to kick-start development.

Much of the next two centuries, right up to this one, is a record of unfree US trade, protectionism, tariffs, monopolies,and such like, much criticised in WN. How much the USA today reflects the contents of WN is debatable.

Prof Kennedy

8:18 p.m.  
Blogger airth10 said...

Thank you Gavin Kennedy.

Nevertheless, I haven't come across anybody else noting the juxtaposition of the two events. Granted, Smith may have been inspired by what he heard of America and its growth to believe what he believed, about the wealth of nations and the pursuit of self-interest. My interest in their juxtaposition is the web I see being weaved by those two events, a web on which the future trajectory and order of the world will be built.

The pursuit of self-interest is at the core of capitalism or liberalism, as it was known in Smith's day. Smith must have also been inspired by John Locke's understanding of things, that the pursuit of self interest was a reasonable way of keeping the state and governments at bay. This balance Locke espoused is at the core of and a facilitator of democracy. So, Smith's declarations was an addition in the pursuit of democracy. Which reminds me of a wisdom imparted by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr: Democracy is impossible without private ownership [ and the pursuit of property] because private property — resources beyond the arbitrary reach of the state — provides the only secure basis for political opposition and intellectual freedom. (Private property also being labour and intellect.)

Obviously the writers of The Declaration of Independence knew something about what they were doing when they included in it the 'pursuit of happiness' (property) clause. The writers understood the gravity of both Locke's and Smith's words and how important their ideas were in creating a legitimate and viable society.

2:22 p.m.  
Blogger Robert Vienneau said...

Off topic: You might want to look at the Harvard student's open letter about their walk out on Mankiw's intro class there. And you might want to look at Mankiw's quoted response at, for example, CNN. Both contain statements about Adam Smith that I think can be claimed to be ill-informed.

5:41 a.m.  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Robert

Thanks for the lead.

I commented today on the students revolting against Mankiw's teaching (oral and textbook). I have not seen Mankiw's response and will try 'CNN" (any reference?).

If it gets students reading for themselves, well and good.

I am surprised that he does not recommend additional readings (like Brad Long does). These total-packaged textbooks are not helpful for more serious students and it allows sloppy ideas about older classics to slip into general circulation.


2:09 p.m.  
Blogger airth10 said...

The Mankiw debate is interesting. But one issue that it doesn't bring up about why there is a growing disparity between rich and poor is the simple fact that 'money begets money'.

In other words, people who have money have the opportunity, connections and wherewithal to invest so their money increases. Perhaps if there was more basic education about money matters those who have less would have more.

2:54 p.m.  
Blogger airth10 said...

Earlier I wrote that I had not come across anyone who had linked Smith's The Wealth of Nations and the American Revolution. Well, I just did in a book entitled "Economics Explained" by Robert Heilbroner and Lester Thurow.

It was the Declaration of Independence of 1776 that set off the American Revolution. Heibroner and Thurow wrote, "All things considered it is not easy to say which document is of greater historical importance. The Declaration sounded a new call for society dedicated to 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness'. The 'Wealth' explained how a society worked."

Another significant event of 1776 was the first publication of Edward Gibbon's 'The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'. Like the other two events that book also had a narrative that figured and pertained to the expanding human enterprise and its sustainability.

1:50 p.m.  

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