Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Adam Smith's Lecturing Technique By One of his Students

“There was no situation in which the abilities of Mr Smith appeared to greater advantage than as a Professor. In delivering his lectures, he trusted almost entirely to extemporary elocution. His manner, though not graceful, was plain and unaffected;
and, as he seemed to be always interested in the subject, he never failed to interest his hearers. Each discourse consisted commonly of several distinct propositions, which he successively endeavoured to prove and illustrate. These propositions, when announced in general terms, had, from their extent, not unfrequently something of the air of a paradox. In his attempts to explain them, he often appeared, at first, not to be sufficiently possessed of the subject, and spoke with some hesitation. As he advanced, however, the matter seemed to crowd upon him, his manner became warm and animated, and his expression easy and fluent. In points susceptible of controversy, you could easily discern, that he secretly conceived an opposition to his opinions, and that he was led upon this account to support them with greater energy and vehemence. By the fulness and variety of his illustrations, the subject gradually swelled in his hands, and acquired a dimension which, without a tedious repetition of the same views, was calculated to seize the attention of his audience, and to afford them pleasure, as well as instruction, in following the same object, through all the diversity of shades and aspects in which it was presented, and afterwards in tracing it backwards to that original proposition or general truth from which this beautiful train of speculation had proceeded’ (in Stewart, Account …, in EPS, 275-6).

John Millar, Professor of Law at the University of Glasgow, former pupil and long- time friend of Adam Smith, quoted by Dugald Stewart, in his Biographical “Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith, LL.D”, which formed his eulogy to Adam Smith before the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1793, and published in first in the Royal Society’s Transactions, volume 3, 1794, and also appeared in every edition of Moral Sentiments throughout the 19th century. It was republished in Essays On Philosophical Subjects (1980) as volume III of the Glasgow edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, pages 265-351.

I have posted this extract from the first biography of Adam Smith because it is related to the extract, quoted below of Adam Smith’s parable of an imagined Chinese earthquake that is reported in Moral Sentiments (1759).

It demonstrates Smith’s lecturing technique, used to effect to make his philosophical comments legible to his student listeners and his readers, which should be borne in mind when considering the importance of this (and many other) examples of this method in his books.

Carelessly stopping a quotation after the first few sentences of a paragraph can lead to misleading conclusions about Smith’s actual views that do not reflect the main points of his discourses. This is often seen clearly in the erroneous notions that often proliferate in modern media and even (shame on them) among modern scholars about Adam Smith's actual views.



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