Monday, March 07, 2011

NEW Interest in Smith's Origins of Language Essay Looks Promising

Edmund W. Schuster writes on his Blog in Cambrdge, Mass. 6 March (HERE):

‘Adam Smith and Language”

“I did not realize that Adam Smith did so much thinking about the origins of language. As an early aspect of his research, Smith reasoned through how words and language came into being as an essential part of human life.

Several of Smith's early ideas are evident in the version of the M Language brought forward by myself, Stuart Allen, and Ken Lee. In later posts I will show these linkages that we collectively developed independent of and without the knowledge of Smith's writings on the subject.”

Edmund W. Schuster writes a personable but technical Blog to do with higher-level computer languages (e.g., ‘the M Language’ reference, which is well beyond my ken) and his interest in Smith’s Essay On Language is from the technical (quasi-linguistic?) content of the 1961 Essay. However, his views on its early historical value may be interest to Smithian scholars, among whom I assume there may be some who are computer-language literate).

Adam Smith took an early interest in the origins of language, as did several other luminaries of the contemporary mid-18th century Republic of Letters, including Rousseau and

When Smith travelled in France between 1764-1766 he discussed the ideas on the topical 18th century question: ‘how did different languages evolve?’ (implicitly ignoring the Biblical fable of the Tower of Babel and dead-end side-issues of pronunciation).

Quite separately, he had published his own (and still much neglected) Dissertation upon the Origin of Languages in 1761 in an obscure and, after its first issue, a defunct publication: The Philological Miscellany, (1761: i. 440-79); one-volume only from Becket and Dehondt). Smith was probably frustrated by the absence of knowledge of his Essay by his French hosts.

One consequence was his determination on is return to London to see his Language Essay republished in the later the third edition (1767) of his popular first book, Moral Sentiments (1759). He remained in London for several months on his return, primarily to see to his social obligations to mourn with the young Duke of Bucleugh and his family over the death of his younger brother in Paris in 1766, but also to respond with his usual methodical labours to his publisher’s request for a 3rd edition of TMS.

Among other editorial changes and additions, Smith instructed his publisher to add his Essay on Languages to Moral Sentiments. Daniel Klein and Brandon Lucas of George Mason University, Virginia, suggests that Smith was motivated by a desire to arrange for the centralizing of the ‘invisible-hand’ paragraph in Part IV to accord with student notes of a paragraph in his university Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (first published posthumously in 1983) by Thucydides, namely that the essence of the main and central idea of an argument was best placed in a few words in the centre of a narrative, in contrast to the ‘tiresome’ style of the earlier historian, Polybius (See: Daniel Klein and Brandon Lucas, “In a word or Two, Placed in the Middle: the invisible hand in Smith’s Tomes”, October, 2009), (HERE)

Klein and Lucas demonstrate that the additional 23 pages of the Essay (see pages 203-226 Lectures On Rhetoric had the effect of moving the famous invisible-hand’ metaphor to the physical centre of Moral Sentiments. The significance that they attribute to this contention, I have debated on Lost Legacy (2009-10 passim) and in my paper: The Centrality of the Invisible Hand in Smith’s Books: using a metaphor as an antidote to ‘tiresome’ and ‘less pleasant’ narrative styles. (HERE).

The issue for scholars is whether my contention that Smith’s decision to append his Essay On Language was the result of his decision to make it more widely available by including it in his popular Moral Sentiments (the first and second editions had sold out) and any consequence for the centrality hypothesis was purely accidental and incidental.

Fortuitously, his publisher had asked for a 3rd edition, which assured Smith of a wider audience for his Languages Essay. Klein and Lucas argue that Smith had more likely ordered its inclusion simply and deliberately to manipulate the physically centrality of the metaphor in the extended pagination, which they support by the non-coincidental physical centrality of the second use of the ‘invisible-hand’ metaphor in Wealth Of Nations from 1776.

Bear in mind that Smith had begun to lecture on Rhetoric from 1748 to 1751 in his privately sponsored lectures in Edinburgh. He continued his series on Rhetoric at Glasgow University through to 1763 (see Adam Smith, Lectures On Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, 1983, which contains a few pages on the origins of language, showing that his language theories were a significant part of his teaching: see the editor’s introduction to the Rhetoric Lectures, pages 23-27, which show the context for his continuing interest in the consideration of the grammatical origins of language, and also Smith’s essay ‘Of the origin and progress of language’, pages 9-13, with several other relevant though isolated comments throughout the Rhetoric lectures. These show Smith’s abiding interest in his original thinking.

According to the student’s notes of the Rhetoric lectures, he mentioned Thucydide’s suggestion on the rhetorical advantage of physical centrality (Rhetoric, Lecture XVII, 5 January pages, 1763, pages, 89-97). However, he made no comment on the centrality issue in his Essay On Language either in 1761, nor as it was republished in 1767.

The effect of inclusion of the Language Essay and other revisions was to bring the metaphor physically into a central place in the pagination of Moral Sentiments from 1767, and in all further editions in his lifetime to the 6th , and also thereafter, at least until the Glasgow edition was published in 1976, where it was moved by editorial decision in that series from Moral Sentiments to a separate inclusion in that edition’s Lectures On Rhetoric.

However, in the new Penguin edition of Moral Sentiments, edited by Ryan Patrick Hanley in 2009 (introduced by Amartya Sen), the Essay on Language (full title: ‘Considerations Concerning the First Formation of Languages, and the different Genius of Original and Compound Languages’ has been restored to it ‘proper’ place (pages 407-32).

Dugald Stewart, the son of Smith’s student and academic friend, the professor of mathematics, Michael Stewart, said in his eulogy to Smith delivered to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1793), that Smith considered the Language Essay very important in its own right:

“It deserves our attention, less on account of the opinions it contains, than as specimen of a particular sort of enquiry, which, so far as I know, is entirely modern in origin, and which seems, in a peculiar degree to have interested Mr Smith’s curiosity. Something very similar to it may be traced in all his different works, whether moral, political, or literary; and in all of these subjects he has exemplified it with the happiest success.”

(D. Stewart, [1793], “Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith, LL.D.” ed. I. S. Ross, 1980, p 292, in Essays on Philosophical Subjects” ed. W.P. Wightman and J. C. Bryce, 1980).

This insightful suggestion was followed up in James Otteson’s remarkable Adam Smith’s Market Place of Life, 2002, Cambridge University Press, in which he applied a simple model of Smith’s ‘particular sort of enquiry’ to others of his works (page 108). I discussed this model in my ‘Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy, 1st edition, pages 43-45 – unfortunately deleted for the 2nd edition for space reasons in the 2nd paperback edition).

Otteson applied a four-step model of the elements of Smith’s method to Moral Sentiments, Wealth Of Nations and the Language Essay (Otteson, 2002, 286). The four elements are 1: Motivating desire; 2: Rules Developed; 3: Currency; and 4: Resulting Unintended System of Order. I tried the model by applying it to Smiths’ Essay On Astronomy [1795] and to his Lectures On Jurisprudence [1763] (Kennedy, 2008, p 43, figure 2.2), I think successfully (though that is for others judge).

Otteson’s application to the Language Essay shows: 1. Desire to make mutual wants intelligible to each other; 2: Rules of Grammar, pronunciation; 3: Words, ideas and wants; 4: Communication through mutually intelligible languages (Otteson, 286).

I consider Otteson’s market (exchange model) a valuable tool for understanding what Adam Smith was about. It makes the Essay On Languages more deservedly more accessible than a mere isolated curiosity.



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