Sunday, June 11, 2006

To Be Present During the Enlightenment Does Not a Make Professor Thomas Reid a Major Figure in it

"Scotland’s fantastic 4" by By Julian Baggini, who asks:

“First Jack McConnell [Scotland’s ‘First Minister’, i.e., prime minister, but not in name] called for a new Scottish Enlightenment. Now a BBC TV series is focusing on what happened last time round. So who were the thinkers who did so much to shape the modern world?”

Julian Baggini offers his four names: Francis Hutcheson (Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow and Adam Smith’s mentor from 1737 to 1746), who described him as the ‘never to be forgotten’ professor); David Hume, Britain’s best philosopher by far, and close friend of Adam Smith from 1752-76; Thomas Reid, a professor of philosophy and exponent of ‘common sense’ philosophy, who borrowed Smith’s notes and any from others who might have some, when he took over Smith’s Chair of Moral Philosophy in 1764, and subsequently criticised Smith’s Moral Sentiments, indicating at least to me that he did not understand it; and the man himself Adam Smith, who needs no introduction here.

Why Thomas Reid is included in Baggini’s ‘Scotland’s fantastic 4’ is a surprise, at least to me. I suspect it is his way of making his case that “Glasgow was where most of its [the Enlightenment] kings were crowned’, or, perhaps, Baggini studied philosophy and remembers his student notes. But, anybody’s ‘list’ of ‘top anything’ is open to question and ridicule from the opinions of others.

Here is what Baggini says about Adam Smith:

“ADAM SMITH (1723-90)
Who was he?
The founder of modern economics, Smith was also a moral philosopher, holding the chair once held by Hutcheson in the subject at Glasgow from 1755-64. During that time he published his Theory Of Moral Sentiments, which built upon Hume’s pioneering work on the same subject. But it was for his work in political economy that he was immortalised and, unlike Hume, the importance of his work was recognised in his own time. Pitt the Younger said of him, “we are all your scholars”.

What were his big ideas?

Smith is best-known for his idea of the “invisible hand”. This means that if you leave people to pursue their own apparently selfish interests, what you find is that everyone ends up better off. Although it is blind, the market is much better at making sure everything is produced at the right price and in the right quantities than governments who try to control trade. For example, if you try to regulate milk production by paying farmers, whether people want their dairy products or not, you end up spending far too much producing foodstuffs nobody needs. Leave it to the market, however and farmers will only produce what people are prepared to buy, at the price they are willing to pay.

This may make Smith seem like a darling of modern day neo-liberals who want to reduce the role of the state. But Smith was much subtler than this. First, he recognised the dangers of allowing monopolies to seize control of sectors of the economy, so he was very much for regulating markets to make sure this doesn’t happen. Second, he was in favour of the state providing education and healthcare out of taxation, as he saw that these basic needs would not be provided by the market acting alone.

Was he any fun?

Like Hume, Smith was a bachelor who seemed to be more or less asexual. The most exciting episode of his life came when, aged four, he was kidnapped by gypsies. His uncle soon saved him, however, and from then until his death he led a fairly uneventful, though phenomenally successful, life of the mind.

How did he change the world?

Smith defined a discipline, but has unfortunately come to be somewhat misunderstood and is now seen as a standard-bearer for the kind of no-holds-barred aggressive capitalism he never favoured. However, Gordon Brown recently claimed Smith for New Labour, which if anything is more plausible than seeing him as a neo-conservative.”

I could pick my way through this but I am rather busy today writing my new book on Adam Smith for Palgrave’s ‘Great Thinkers in Economics’ series (tentatively with the working title: Adam Smith on the Wealth of Nations).

I’ll leave Baggini’s statement as a class essay for keen readers (500 words):

“Smith is best-known for his idea of the “invisible hand”. This means that if you leave people to pursue their own apparently selfish interests, what you find is that everyone ends up better off. Discuss."


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