Thursday, October 21, 2010

Again Another Review of Nicholas Phillipson's Biography of Adam Smith

Adam Gopnik, Books, “Market Man,” The New Yorker, 18 October, p. 82 (HERE)

Adam Gopnik, Books, “Market Man,” The New Yorker, October 18, 2010, p. 82

BOOKS review of Nicholas Phillipson’s “Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life” (Yale; $32.50).

"1776 was a good year for big ideas, a rare thing. It was also a big year for good ideas, an even rarer one. Our own big-deal Declaration was, in its way, the small pugnacious summary of Enlightenment ideas that had reached their apex that winter, in London.

In February, Edward Gibbon published the first volume of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Then, a month later, his friend Adam Smith published his big book, “The Wealth of Nations.” Classics of English prose, Gibbon’s and Smith’s books don’t just belong to the history of ideas; they helped establish the ideas of history and economics. But where Gibbon is a clear figure in shadowy light, a figure of the Enlightenment who found his place in the twilight of history where reason fell, Adam Smith is a shadowy figure in clear light. He is to most of us the invisible-hand guy, the Scottish face on the British twenty-pound note—the one who showed that greed was good, that the market, left to its own devices, would always set the right price and favor the right goods. Yet a very different Smith is current in the academy.

This Adam Smith is seen not as the apostle of the free market but as one of the fathers of the French Revolution, albeit the nicer, warmer bits of the French Revolution. None other than Noam Chomsky is a fan of this Smith, while one of the most original and mind-altering academic works of the past decade, Emma Rothschild’s “Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet, and the Enlightenment,” claims him for sentimentalists more than for stockbrokers, as a man who believed that feelings of sympathy and engagement preceded impulses of industry and ambition. By cutting off “The Wealth of Nations” from his other great book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” we not only cut off one half of Smith’s mind from the other but lobotomize our own understanding of modern life, making economics into a stand-alone statistical quasi-science rather than, as Smith intended, a branch of the humanities.

Phillipson’s new biography tries, very successfully, to pull together the two Smiths, letting us see how the man of feeling became the little god of finance. Tells about Smith’s childhood in Scotland, his friendship with philosopher David Hume, and the development of his ideas. ”

Niclolas Phillipson's intellectual biography of Adam Smith continues to get great reviews. If you haven't yet acquired a copy, endeavour to do so. I shall comment on his book soon. A conference in London is about to be held on the book with some of the major names among Smith scholars speaking and in attendance.

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Blogger mus said...

Gavin: did you see Antoin Murphy's less enthusiastic review in the Irish Times, back in September?

Brian Ferguson

2:28 pm  

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