Tuesday, November 23, 2010

An Indian Review of Nicholas Phillipson's New Book

From The Hindu (India’s National Newspaper), a review of Nicholas Phillipson’s, ‘Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life’ by K. Subramanian (HERE):

“Adam Smith: his life & times

Phillipson's account is more about the intellectual evolution and contributions of Smith than about his life per se.

Adam Smith is one of the most celebrated authors in history and, as it emerges from a close study of his writings, the most misunderstood as well. For the defenders of capitalism, he is a messiah. In truth, he had no such pretensions.

There are many who venerate him even after the recent crisis and the near-collapse of global capitalism, and many others who despise him. There are scholarly blogs on Adam Smith's lost legacy. Noam Chomsky described him as “pre-capitalist, a figure of Enlightenment,” and went on to lambast how people read snippets of Adam Smith and the few phrases they teach in schools and don't get the full import of Smith's philosophy.

Indeed, Smith was a creature of his times. More importantly, he was also a contributor to the intellectual fervour of the times. Later historians described the developments in the 18th century as the ‘Age of Enlightenment'. …

… Unfortunately, Smith was a very private or secretive person. He had friends; but hardly communicated with them. He left behind very few letters. He did not marry and the only woman he was close to was his mother. Like Franz Kafka, he wanted all his private papers to be destroyed. While Kafka had in Max Broad a friend who disregarded his wish and got them published posthumously, Smith ensured the destruction of his papers.

Daunting task
Writing the biography of Adam Smith should have, obviously, been quite a daunting task. What Nicholas Phillipson has done is an achievement beyond measure. His bibliography runs to 12 pages covering historical and other biographical accounts. He has also drawn upon the notes of a couple of students to trace the development of Smith's views on many issues. Truly, it is a tour de force. …

… Smith's two books have to be taken together to get the message. It was unfortunate that The Wealth of Nations came to acquire notoriety as a fundamentalist's apologia for capitalism.

These words should chasten the later-day reform zealots. It is to the credit of Phillipson that, in a lucidly written and persuasively argued book, he has restored the real contributions of Adam Smith. The book is a rare academic achievement

While not much may be known about Adam Smith as a private person a great deal is known and knowable about Adam Smith’s contributions to the times he lived in and his relationships with the people in the institutions.

These can be seen in Ian Ross’s excellent biography, ‘The Life of Adam Smith’, 2010, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press.

What Adam Smith did not leave in his own hand for posterity, Ian Ross has detailed in a lucid and most admirable text, which digs a great deal from contemporary records.

I would suggest that Ross adds enormous context to Phillipson’s necessarily shorter and narrower ‘intellectual biography’, including his making excellent use of Smith’s surviving correspondence and the known facts about Smith’s life, which scholars may find missing when deriving a balanced view purely from his ideas.

Overall, the balance from the many reviews of Phillipson – of which I include my own admiration for his achievement, accepting that I was able to add in the relevant background from my readings of Adam Smith’s works, and, I candidly affirm, from my study of Ian Ross’s two editions of his Life of Adam Smith (1995 & 2010) – has been very favourable, as evidenced by the reviews I have quoted on Lost Legacy.

I would not want readers to form the opinion that somehow the biographical details brilliantly covered in Ross are in any way redundant. For these Phillipson is not sufficient; it is, however, necessary.



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