Wednesday, November 03, 2010

A Review of Ian Simpson Ross, The Life of Adam Smith, 2010 (2nd edition): Part 1: Introduction

A review: Ian Simpson Ross, “The Life of Adam Smith”, Oxford University Press (2010).

Part 1: Introduction

Ian Ross, “The Life of Adam Smith”, without doubt is recognised as the definitive account of the life and times of Adam Smith. The new second edition, published in September 2010, will ensure that Ross’s account in unlikely to be surpassed for decades to come.

The first biography, "An Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith, LL.D" was published in 1795 by a contemporary who knew him well, Dugald Stewart, Professor of Mathematics and then Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, who also knew many of Smith’s contemporaries too (Dugald’s father, Michael Stewart, was a fellow student with Smith at the University of Glasgow and Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh). It remained the most commonly known account of Smith’s life until the end of the 19th century when John Rae published his “Life of Adam Smith” in 1895. William Robert Scott, carefully using the archives on Smith held at Glasgow University, published “Adam Smith as Student and Professor” in 1937. The aforementioned three authors and their books constitute the serious sources for Smith’s biographical works before 1995, when Ian Ross published “The Life of Adam Smith”.

Should new materials emerge, such as missing letters, and lecture notes, presently lying neglected in dusty and forgotten archives, all students of Adam Smith’s legacy would warmly welcome them. It is my hope that if and when the lofty powers that decide such things, give the go-ahead to Edinburgh Business School (Heriot-Watt University) for the renovation of Panmure House, Smith’s Edinburgh home from 1778 to 1790 (presently awaiting planning permission from the Scottish Government), the very existence of such a dedicated research centre will become widely known as the obvious place for the safe-keeping of any newly discovered letters to or from Adam Smith and other relevant materials that may be found.

Lecture notes by Smith’s students were discovered in 1896 in Oxford and Aberdeen in 1953 and various letters have turned up too. While the likelihood of there being many more unknown items to be discovered diminishes each year (Smith ordered from his death bed his private and unpublished papers to be burned), but something new and exciting may yet turn up. In the past three years, I know of two donors who offered their copies of Smith’s first editions of Wealth of Nations and Moral Sentiments to a relatively obscure charitable library in Scotland and to a private Edinburgh bank. If Panmure House had been well on the way to its needed and sympathetic renovation, instead of languishing in a planners’ limbo, and thereby available, I am sure a case could have been made for Smith’s former home acting as their trustee for their safe keeping and widespread, but secure, scholarly access. Panmure House is quite independent of public funding or private commercial interests.

Working with whatever scarce materials that we have is a major undertaking. That so much is written about what Adam Smith meant, and means today, by writers who, frankly, are ill-equipped in a basic knowledge of his life and Works, let alone his biographical details, is practically inexcusable, given the four serious biographies published since 1795 (now added to by a fifth excellent work, that of Nicholas Phillipson’s, “Adam Smith, an Enlightened Life”, published last month (and reviewed last week on Lost Legacy). That is why Ian Simpson Ross’sThe Life of Adam Smith” is of such importance: it set, and continues to set, the standard by which all other biographies of Adam Smith must be judged. Ross is the arbiter of scholarly authority on the details and themes of Adam Smith’s life and Works.

For this reason, Lost Legacy will provide my reader’s review of Ian Ross’s scholarship over the next few weeks (at least within my modest abilities). I shall raise questions, not normally raised, which have occurred to me since reading the first edition, and try to answer them as honestly as I can. I shall point out the lessons that appear to me to be fundamental to Smithian scholarship that point to the excellence of what Ian Ross has done, and why all serious scholars – and perhaps a few epigones too – should read carefully his “Life of Adam Smith”.



Blogger EBS Staff said...

In March 2010, Edinburgh City Council Planning sub-committee gave conditional planning and listed building consent for the renovation of Panmure House.

The condition was that the council's decision had to be referred to Scottish Ministers for review in case they signalled it had to be ‘called-in’ for Public Inquiry in view of Historic Scotland’s standing objection to the exterior alterations.

In August after months of deliberation, Scottish Ministers 'called it in' and Edinburgh Business School is now awaiting notification of the the date for the Public Inquiry.

11:27 am  

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