THE METAPHOR OF THE IMPARTIAL SPECTATOR
Edward D. Kleinbard posts (10 November) a 9-page essay in Commonweal HERE
This interesting, long essay fails on two grounds; first, it misinterprets Smith’s alleged religiosity by ignoring his biographical details in the context of the 18th-century inhibitions on acadmics expressing views that differed from the dominant Calvinistic theology of the times, and secondly, it ignores completley Smith’s teachings on the role of metaphors in the English language.
My focus today is not on Smith’s use of the ‘invisible hand’ metaphor, of which I usually comment several times a week. Instead, it is on the metaphoric meaning of Smith’s use of the ‘impartial spectator’.
Turning to the “impartial spectator”, Smith in his ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’ (1759; 6th edition, January 1790 - he died in July 1790) describes and discusses in detail of an inner-voice in all of us that acts as our judge of our conduct towards others. We learn from that ‘voice’ from a young age from parents, guardians, relatives, school pals and acquaintances, and others who observe us. Living in societies, rather than alone like an Hermit in the forest, other people in society act as a metaphoric ‘mirror’ of our conduct, and from them we learn which behaviours are acceptable or not in the ‘great school of self-command’. Much of our internal thinking about our behaviour is ‘hidden’ and is not articulated openly or truthfully to others. But our ‘impartial spectator’ sees all and we learn which behaviours and motives are acceptable and which are unacceptable and, should we forget the difference, our ‘impartial spectator’ reminds us, even if we try to repress, ignore or deny it. Our nagging inner voice never shuts up. Smith’s ‘impartial spectator’ was a metaphor for a complex phenomenon that all experience from participating in families in societies.
As a metaphor the ‘impartial spectator corresponded to Smith’s teachings on Rhetoric from 1748-51 in Edinburgh in private lectures at Edinburgh Philosopical Society rooms. He establishd his reputation among those who attended one or more (including professors from Glagsow University who informally visited). In 1751 he succcessfuly applied for the Chair of Logic at Glasgow and, a year later, he was appointed the Professor of Moral Philosophy. Throughout his professorship he delivered each year his 30-lecture series on Rhetoric until 1764. A set of student notes of these lectures were published in 1983 by Oxford: Smith, A. “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres” (LRBL). The best biography of Adam Smith is by Ian S. Ross, “The Life of Adam Smith”, 1976, 2nd ed. 2010, Oxford University Press.
Smith’s biographical details are significant because they are not widely known. Many scholars have not read his ‘Theory of Moral Sentiments’, let alone heard of his ‘Lectures on ‘Rhetoric and Belles Lettres’, and consequently they insufficiently understand the significance of Smith’s teaching on metaphors, resulting in widespread errors in their assertions about them, especially in his famous use of the metaphors of the ‘invisible-hand” and, as crucially and less famous, the “impartial spectator”.
To write on Smith’s thinking without first studying his ‘Lectures on Rhetoric’ is too common among many of those who pontificate about his Works and meanings. It leads them to crass mistakes of interpretation, all too common even among some senior scholars.
Metaphors are common in everyday literature and speech. Smith writes:
“In every metaphor it is evident there must be an allusion betwixt one object and another”. … [No Metaphor] “can have any beauty unless [it] gives the due strength of expression to the object to be described and at the same time does this in a more striking and interesting manner” (LRBL, p. 29).
Applying Smith’s definition of the role of metaphors in the English language to the ‘impartial spectator’ there certainly is “an allusion between one object (our internal dialogue with ourselves) and another (our consciousness of our internal ‘voice’ self-assessing our conduct). And, like all brilliant metaphors, the ‘impartial spectator’, describes its object - our private internal judgements of our conduct - “in a more striking and interesting manner”.
I shall reinforce Smith’s assertion by quoting from Hugh Blair, Smith’s contemporary, who eventually took over Smith’s public Rhetoric lectures in Edinburgh, and subsequently moved his lecture series into Edinburgh University as its first Professor of Rhetoric (Ross, 1976, 2011). Hugh Blair’s exposition of the role of metaphors expands Smith’s spartan definition (and both correspond to modern uses of metaphors, see Oxford English Dictionary, 1983, 2nd ed. Vol. IX, p 676):
“When I say of some great minister ‘that he upholds the state, like a Pillar which supports the weight of a whole edifice’. I fairly make a comparison; but when I say of such a minister “that, he is the Pillar of the state,” it is now become a Metaphor. The comparison betwixt the Minister and a Pillar is made in the mind, but is expressed without any of the words that denote comparison. The comparison is only insinuated, not expressed: the one object is supposed to be so like the other, that, without formally drawing the comparison, the name of the one may be put in place of the other: “The minister is the Pillar of the state.” This therefore, is a more lively and animated manner of expressing the resemblances which imagination traces among objects. There is nothing which delights the fancy more, than this act of comparing things together, discovering resemblances between them, and describing them by their likeness. The mind, thus employed, is exercised without being fatigued; and is gratified with the consciousness of it own ingenuity. We need not be surprised, therefore, at finding all Language tinctured strongly with Metaphor.” (Blair, 1787, pp. 372-73, Lectures of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. 3 vols. 3rd Ed. London and Edinburgh. Strahan, Caddel, and Creech).
Edward Kleinbard turns to the ‘impartial spectator’ after dismissing modern misinterpretations of the ‘invisible hand’ metaphor, with which I readily concur. For example, he writes: “Smith’s famous invisible hand has today become a dead hand, stifling meaningful debate over the roles of government and private markets. … Smith never intended his metaphor of the invisible hand to become synonymous with an omniscient and efficient Mr. Marketplace. Specialists have known this all along, but the caricature version of Smith continues to distort our policy discourse.”
However, Edward goes on to make theological interpretations of Smith’s “Moral Sentiments” free from the constraints that Smith wrote under. Edward doesn’t have such constraints (though, unhappily, if he lived in some other countries he would be disposed off for his views). This thought would get him closer to Smith’s world. The three Glasgow Professors (Professors Simson, Hutcheson and Leechman - all orthodox Christians - two were also ordained) immediately before Smith’s tenure were brought before the Glasgow Presbytery on charges of teaching ideas unpalatable to the Christian Calvinist zealots who dominated university teaching.
Smith’s students were all at least formally confirmed as Christians and the majority of his readers were also likely, in the main, also to be similarly inclined. To read TMS as if it was a candid expression of Smith’s own beliefs is as unwise as it is inaccurate. Space precludes me elaborating on these statements here and they will be discussed in a new book that I am writing currently. I mention, for instance, that Smith gave a detailed lecture on how humans developed their lives compared to animals and their increasing differences without mentioning at all the events in the Eden Garden (Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence, 1763, pp. 330-9).
However, I have published my contrary theses and interpretations in two publications: see Kennedy, 2010.’The hidden Adam Smith in his theology’, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, vol. 33, no 3, and Kennedy, 2013. ‘Adam Smith on Religion’, pp. 464-84. in The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith, ed. Berry, Paganelli, and Smith, Oxford University Press. Meanwhile, readers may note that in his last, 6th edition of TMS Smith made major and significant changes of tone and on his use theological language throughout, including the removal of overtly Christian terminology. He was declining as he finished it in January1790 and anticipated his early death. If he remained a Christian believer it is unlikely that he would have made so many changes in his language if he believed he was soon to meet his maker and face the final judgement.