Saturday, July 17, 2010

On Getting Adam Smith Absolutely Wrong

Michael Happy writes (17 July) on The Educated Imagination (a website dedicated to Northrop Frye) HERE:

"Adam Smith

Frye in “Varieties of Eighteenth Century Sensibility”:

“We saw that Locke, like Descartes before him, based his philosophy on a philosophical man abstracted from his social context, in short, a theoretical primitive. Also that Robinson Crusoe was an allegory of another abstract primitive, the economic man of capitalist theory, whose outlines are already fairly complete in Adam Smith. These are the individual primitives at the core of Augustan culture. But such primitives have voluntarily entered a social contract and a historical tradition. For this attitude nothing in the area of culture can develop except on the other side of the social contract: literature and the other arts are rooted in a historical context in both time and space. (CW 17, 33)”

While it is risky to pick up on writings of literary specialists as a moral philosopher or political economist, this seems to me that Northrop Frye is way outside the boundaries of the ideas of Adam Smith; indeed it gives an entirely misleading appreciation of Smith’s ideas.

For Smith, there was no ‘theoretical primitive’ nor an ‘economic man of capitalist theory’.

Indeed, I should expect a literary theorist to know that the very word ‘capitalism’ emerged in English long after Smith had died in 1790. The word first appeared in English in Thackeray’s novel The Newcomes in 1854 and, therefore, it follows that Smith never had a theory – or even mentioned – capitalism or capitalist – in his writings. It also follows that the statement that the ‘outlines are already fairly complete in Adam Smith’ is, er, nonsense (apologies for being blunt but no offence is intended).

Adam Smith saw individuals as social and moral agents in his Moral Sentiments. Society was the ‘mirror’ by which individuals in society learned to distinguish those behaviours that were acceptable to others and arranged their compliance accordingly.

In Wealth of Nations he explicitly opens with social mankind in their exchange relations with each other, a relationship that went well beyond that of ‘truck, barter, and exchange’ in is writings on the formation of compound languages from the first ages of mankind, which arose from the ‘necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech’ (WN I.ii.2: 25). These faculties were present hundreds of millennia ago and certainly long before 19th century ‘capitalism’!

Similarly, in his Lectures on Jurisprudence (1762-3) and Astronomy (1744-50). Exchange requires at least two people in a relationship (Robinson Crusoe did not exchange anything with anybody – until Man Friday arrived) and is common to all societies from a handful to millions). And what an incredibly narrow view of mankind is in the 19th-century Homo economicus and its modern variants. Neither Robinson Crusoe nor Homo economicus have anything to do with Adam Smith’s philosophy nor his political economy.

I suggest a quick refresher course in Adam Smith's work is in order, as is a re-think about the thinking of Northrop Frye.



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