Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Reclaiming What From Who?

Report Part 2: Columbia University conference

Immediately under the title of the Columbia Conference, ‘Reclaiming Adam Smith’, the first thing I wrote on my note pad was: ‘from “what” or “who” are we reclaiming him?’ At the end of the conference I was in no better position to answer my question.

About half way through, I concluded, provisionally, that it was about reclaiming Smith from (neo-classical) economists, not because this was made explicit but because I could identify nobody else who was the ‘culprit’ from what I had heard so far, and as I had heard nobody who sounded like an economist, by elimination I concluded they must be the ‘target’. Yet, by the time that contributors began to consider some economic ideas, I was not so sure, because an underlying theme among all contributors was an acceptance of the assertions of neo-classical economists in some fairly clear litmus tests that I apply to views about him in ‘Lost legacy’.

For example, Smith was associated with the theory of ‘the’ invisible hand (not, of course by Emma Rothschild, who demolishes that notion in her magnificent ‘Economic Sentiments’), and all speakers assumed Smithian economics to be synonymous with laissez-faire, despite his not using such a concept in his writings, which, to the contrary, include quite a bit about how ‘merchants and manufacturers’ cannot be trusted to desist from monopolistic practices, hence they cannot be ‘left alone’, as per laissez-faire. There was too little time in the busy agenda for interventions along these lines, and anyway I was there to listen and learn.

But if it is not the economists from whom we must reclaim Adam Smith, then who? At the end of the conference I was none the wiser. A participant who spoke to me at the Warden of Barnard College's reception, as the conference ended, offered, without prompting, the same question with his answer that the English faculty wanted to ease themselves into Smithian studies (‘Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres’, and Smiith's essays on poetry, plays and dancing, all published posthumously) and reclaim him for ‘literary and cultural history’. Emma Rothschild wondered in her supplementary remarks, about the 'covert agenda, or one of them'(!) behind the conference. I would have liked to ask her what she meant by these innocuous remarks.

Well, in my mind the field is large enough for all disciplines to contribute their perspectives. Two literary contributions from James Chandler, University of Chicago, (‘Smith and Sentimental Mobility’) and Ian Duncan, Berkeley, (‘The Fate of Sympathy’) attracted genuine attention – I certainly was stimulated by them - though it had little to do with political economy; all means to get closer to Smith’s holistic thinking are appropriate, but this was not ‘reclaiming’ as I understood the title.

James Chandler’s linking of sentimental perspectives of ‘players’ – especially his account of ‘stage play’ single view perspectives, and the cinematic techniques of ‘cutting back and forth’ (shot and reverse shot) among talking heads, seemed to strike a chord among those I spoke with about his imaginative allusion to the mediation of moral sentiments.

Along complimentary lines, Ian Duncan, opened discussion of Scottish historical thinking (Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet, 1824, and his many historical novels, and James Hogg’s ‘Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, 1824) and the Enlightenment, with Edmund Burke (Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas and the Sublime and beautiful, 1757) thrown in. This was a strong paper and it would have benefited from more time for more elaboration (he lectured well, too). The respondent, Kirstie McClure, UCLA, was enthusiastic about his ideas (she also teaches political science to English students) and was the last person with whom I briefly discussed near the end of the conference (we shared a space during coffee), indicating in my mind that some evening session (informal dinners) would have been most productive if they had been loosely arranged for participants to engage with others to develop their ideas. I certainly would have benefited from hearing her thoughts developed. Where people do not know each other it is difficult to match them by leaving them to their own devices; generally those who already ‘know’ each other make such arrangements; strangers are left to drift off, as I did.

Sam Fleischacker (University of Illinois) was a strong ‘first bat’ on behalf of philosophy, speaking on ‘Hume and Smith on Sympathy’. It was a brilliant technical performance, typical (that is not meant to be derogatory) of a clear thinking, even fastidious, philosopher professor in complete command of his material (I speak after many School Boards and University committee meetings where the association of high intelligence and common sense are rare aberrations). He focussed on the relations between ‘ideas’ and ‘imagination’ in Hume and Smith, but being ignorant of Wittgenstein’s work, and Kant’s significance (I know of the ‘categorical imperative’, however) and I missed aspects of his argument, which may be crucial to his paper’s conclusions; an offence, I suspect, no student of his is allowed to commit.

This was the session much affected by lousy acoustics and poor voice projections from interveners (not Sam Fleischacker), so I missed large parts of the brief discussions from the other side of the room. Unfortunately too, Sam had to leave sharp that afternoon to return home to Chicago for an important family event, curtailing a too short discussion. His book, 'On the Wealth of Nations: a philosophical companion' is high on my list of favourite books on Smith.

Later today, perhaps, but certainly tomorrow, I shall report on themes in papers by Gareth Steadman Jones (Cambridge) and Sankar Muthu (Princeton), and Ivan Hont.


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