Emma Rothschild: an inspirational teacher on Adam Smith
Peter Berkowitzs recycles (17 July, 2013) a review he wrote in the New Republic. Here
“From the stacks: “money and love: October 1, 2001”
A review of Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment by Emma Rothschild.
[GK: Extracted; to read the long introduction to follow the link]
“Emma Rothschild believes that commercial life today and our attitudes toward it--particularly our openness and our enthusiasm and our sense of boundless possibility--correspond in crucial ways to the situation that was confronted by Adam Smith at the dawn of the era of liberal capitalism. This makes the moment ripe, she suggests, for a reconsideration of the achievement of the great eighteenth-century Scottish thinker; and this is the task to which she devotes the bulk of her interesting and learned book on the original understanding of laissez-faire, or free market, economics.
Smith, in Rothschild's account, has been badly misunderstood. According to the common caricature, he is a conservative, a crude enthusiast of laissez-faire economics, a "cold-souled enemy of the poor," "a relentless proselytizer of free enterprise," who engages in The Wealth of Nations (1776) in "an extended and relentless critique of government." In fact, Rothschild argues, there is nothing crude or relentless--or, she seems to want to say, conservative--about Smith's economics, or about the larger and quintessentially Enlightenment philosophical system in which he unfolded them.
The "`real' Smith," Rothschild argues, is simultaneously an economist and a moralist, who, in his other masterwork, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), derived virtue from the passions, and discovered the ground of moral judgment in our natural sympathy for our fellow human beings, and in our imaginative capacity to adopt the perspective of an impartial spectator and to see things from their point of view. The real Smith is a progressive, a friend of the poor, for whom the relief of poverty is one of government's primary responsibilities. The real Smith is a comprehensive thinker who saw the close connection between sentiment and conduct, and to whom the disciplinary boundaries of contemporary intellectual life were foreign, because he understood that the spheres of human conduct-- economic, moral, political, religious--are interwoven and mutually dependent. The real Smith is a courageous philosopher who believed that commercial and liberal society would foster the ideal of an "unfrightened mind," and who developed his comprehensive account of human nature and human conduct without recourse to the certainties of religious faith or a fixed standard of human perfection.
In coming to understand the real Smith, moreover, one comes to understand much more than the principles of modern economic life. "To rediscover a different political economy," declares Rothschild, "is also to rediscover a different, and more open, enlightenment." Indeed, a larger aim of her study is to combat the image of "the cold, hard rationalist enlightenment." The real Enlightenment, or the best part of the Enlightenment, in Rothschild's judgment, champions a universal disposition, "a way of thinking and seeing," in which the mind is "undepressed and unneglected." And Smith, according to Rothschild, believed that "the universal disposition of enlightenment," which was a "disposition of universal discussion," both was fostered in economic life, which he conceived as "itself a form of discussion," and took economic life as one of its prime topics.
It is a peculiar feature of Rothschild's approach that she does not search for Smith's different political economy and Smith's different Enlightenment by means of an extended analysis of his major works. Instead, in the manner of the school of political theory that is associated with the University of Cambridge, where she teaches, she focuses on the economic and political disputes of the late eighteenth century in which Smith participated, and in which his ideas themselves became a subject of heated debate. The reasonable assumption behind this approach is that arguments and ideas ought to be studied in historical context. The conceit that cramps the assumption is that the study of the historical context is more challenging and more revealing than the sustained analysis of the books in which a writer develops his ideas.
With a wealth of detail, Rothschild sketches the forgotten lineage of selected concepts that are critical to Smith's system, and reconstructs the reception of Smith's ideas, and deftly guides the reader through debates whose terms and stakes are distant and unfamiliar. Her practical intention--"using the past to illuminate the present"--is admirable, though it is hardly a "now unfashionable possibility." Rothschild is a serious historian who brings to her call upon the past an extraordinary knowledge of it. What is most startling, for this reason, in her attempt to gain insight into the present by regarding Smith in historical context, is the comfortable familiarity of the Smith that she rediscovers, his conformity in salient respects to certain signature ideas of today's leading academic moralists.”
I came across Emma’s volume in Foyle’s Bookshop, Charring Cross Road, while on a short visit to London on Edinburgh Business School business, and started reading it on the train back to Edinburgh. This was in late 2003 while writing an early draft of my “Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy”, published in 2005, following publication of which I started this Blog (and, coincidentally, retired from Edinburgh Business School as Director of Contracts, mainly to create space to conduct serious research in the history of economics held in abeyance by my busy day job).
Emma Rothschild’s “Economic Sentiments” is an excellent study of Smith in context and also links his contribution to the Scottish end of the European Enlightenment, particularly in relation to the contributions of Condorcet and his circle in France (of whom I knew little at the time).
Rothschild’s chapter on the “invisible hand” was, of course, striking, and was summed by her as an “ironic joke” on Smith’s part. I thought then, as I said later, when she attended a seminar on Adam Smith at Balliol College, Oxford, at which I spoke briefly, that “if it was an ‘ironic joke’, I for one did not get the joke”. This was possibly because I was not drilled in the Cambridge intellectual tradition. Thankfully, she took my comments well and our paths have crossed since at other seminars, where she speaks well and authoritatively on Adam Smith - and at several levels above mine in her depth and broadness of knowledge of the 18th century.
I recommend that you read her “Economic Sentiments” (follow the link above) whatever your interest and level of knowledge of Adam Smith. She is a powerful exponent of her intellectual stature and also, in private, a patient and empathetic teacher.
Peter Berkowitzs deserves praise for recycling his 2001 review in the New Republic.