Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Constructive Contribution to the Debate on Adam Smith's Alleged Religiosity

[A reader contributes long comments on my Adam Smith’s alleged religiosity Chapter (see below) and, as it is both interesting, constructive, and educational, it is also posted here on the main board as well as in the relevant comments. (Paragraphs added to make it more readable on Blog pages)]:

“I've been ruminating on your post for a few days, which I found a bit disturbing. I've finally decided to set down some of the reasons why I was bothered. My comments have to be divided in 2 parts for Blogger to accept. It's all well and good to engage in polite scholarly discourse, but I think you should do more to underscore what strikes me (and it seems strikes you as well) as ahistorical history being performed by Dr Long.

Scripture was an important everyday component of the vernacular of Western Europe in the 18thC, shared especially in Scotland by all members of even modestly educated groups (or classes, or orders, or what-you-will). And using apt quotes as part of conversational or epistolary "wit", whether from scripture or poetry or a Latin or French tag, was common place for the urbane and learned, among whom Adam Smith certainly was found. A Whig could quote wittily Alexander Pope or a Tory quote the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury without indicating anything about his personal belief system. A person who didn't believe in particular Providence might nonetheless use a familiar phrase about Providence in lieu of Fate or Fortune. And so on...

I'd go further than your pointing to the fact that Smith's mother, with whom he often lived as an adult, raised him in a (moderate) Calvinist household. Smith's formal education and his teaching responsibilities required he be fluent in the philosophical implications of various niceties of competing Protestant doctrines. According to Phillipson's bio (I'm halfway thru and loving it), Smith raced thru the mandatory theology sessions of the course he gave in Moral Philosophy. But it was essential he cover those topics, and in a way that navigated dexterously among the most sensitive doctrinal issues that were producing massive amounts of both intellectual and political controversy in Scotland at the time. That Smith succeeded in avoiding attacks on his teaching suggests the depth and scope of his knowledge of theology as well as his political savvy, but says nothing about what his personal religious beliefs were.

Dr Long has to demonstrate more than comfort and familiarity with religious language if he is to argue that Smith was (probably) a "committed Christian." That sort of comfort and familiarity was shared by many heterodox intellectuals of the 18thC, whether Socinians or Deists or other sorts of "freethinkers", who were frequently rebels against a grim sort of Christianity they'd been force-fed as children or against the often narrow intellectual, social and political bigotry of the religious establishments, especially though not exclusively in Scotland.

Not to engage in too much snark, but while Dr Long was at Cambridge, didn't he take any courses from Skinner, which would have challenged the methodology Long has adopted for reading textual evidence? Or for that matter, did he read any of Skinner's oeuvre on Hobbes and note how subsequent writers (e.g. Locke) performed the delicate dance of drawing on Hobbes while avoiding the taint of being called a Hobbist? Even in the mid-18thC, any hint of skepticism was likely to elicit hysterical accusations of "Hobbist" or "Spinozist", which were still potentially fatal labels to be attached to a polite thinker like Adam Smith. More importantly, does Dr Long suggest Smith took positions in his writings that in any significant way depend on the core doctrines of Christianity (whether Calvinist or other)? Aren't Smith's philosophical priors for his "science of man" more consistent with those of his intellectual companion, David Hume, who was openly skeptical?

I've just finished Paul Russell's The Riddle of Hume's Treatise (which is, btw, a great road-map to the religious controversial literature in England and Scotland during the first half of the 18thC). After Russell's demonstration of a host of irreligious positions Hume developed in the Treatise, I ask myself whether Smith was any more likely than Hume to buy Clarke's physio-theology or Butler's natural religion apologetics for Christianity, to say nothing of Smith's likely rejection of Biblical revelation as "historical" evidence. And doesn't Smith break with Hutcheson's attempts to moderate Calvinist severity pretty much along the same lines as Hume's approach to human nature? Unlike Hume, Smith doesn't openly dismiss religious beliefs. But it seems to me Smith's thought no more depends on a Christian world-view than Hume's does.

Moral obligations are derived neither from the role of God as creator of mankind nor from salvic grace or promises of redemption, and Smith's history of human social development has no clear role for God as an intervening force in directing that history. Smith's moral virtues, adapted for a commercial culture, are derived as much from antiquity as from Christian models. If Smith was a committed Christian, it was a commitment to a Christianity mostly drained of both philosophical and day-to-day significance. Whatever Adam Smith's private religious beliefs, however, we can say with assurance that for both Smith and Hume, "The proper study of Mankind is Man." And it seems to me that any speculation on Smith's religion has to start from there.

Looking forward to your forthcoming chapter!”



Blogger dunnettreader said...

I'm gratified you found my comment of interest!

I was amused that your editing changed my paragraph breaks. As a stylistic technique, I often use opening sentences of paragraphs as transitions (extension and elaboration of the conclusion from the prior para that leads to the main thought of the current para) rather than using declarative topic sentences to open paragraphs. So your decision to move some of my lead sentences to the end of the prior para is stylistic "no harm, no foul," just produces slight shifts in emphasis. A matter of taste.

With, however, one exception -- what is now the penultimate paragraph. By changing my paragraph break, the declarative statement which now opens the paragraph, "Moral obligations are derived...", reads now as if it is my personal assertion rather than my interpretaton of Smith's treatment of those matters. To avoid that confusion, that sentence belongs in the same paragraph with the prior two sentences, starting "Unlike Hume..."

(I've been told I have the soul of a copy-editor, not always in the most flattering way.)

10:26 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Apologies for my disturbing your layout.

Long paragraphs on a Blog page are less accessible than shorter ones.

Blogs are more tabloid than broadsheet in style.

It comes down to individual taste.

I appreciate your good sense of humour and, of course, your sense of style. Adam Smith wrote long paragraphs (some over a page long). So you are in good company. On this I am not.

Please out it down to my relatively poor pre-university education in the school of life - at 15 (despite some scholastic promise) I emigrated to Australia by myself and re-joined my formal pe-university education at 24, graduating BA at 29, MSc at 30, and PHD at 33.

Not an excuse; only an explanation (of sorts)...


8:53 am  

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