Sunday, August 07, 2011

A Review of my ''Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy"

I do not remember posting this review of my book, so here it is:

John McHugh, PhD, visiting assistant professor of Philosophy at Denison University in Granville, OH, reviews in Metapsychology, Jun 21st 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 25) the second, paperback, edition of my recent book on Adam Smith HERE:

Adam Smith: A Moral Philosopher and His Political Economy
by Gavin Kennedy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010,

"Like much recent scholarship on Adam Smith, Gavin Kennedy's Adam Smith: A Moral Philosopher and His Political Economy aims to shatter some common misconceptions. One misconception in Kennedy's sights is that Smith was a "purist advocate" of laissez-faire economic policy (2; 180-189). Another, the one that most concerns Kennedy, is that Smith's Wealth of Nations is nothing but a primitive predecessor of contemporary mathematically-focused "textbook[s] on economics" (2). Kennedy believes that many modern economists have failed to appreciate the fact that Smith employs a "method" that is not an imprecise ancestor of the ones they use but one that is "entirely different" (1). Although Kennedy suggests that Smith's alternative way of "understanding how societies and their economies work" could serve as a "learning aid" for modern economists, he mostly leaves to others the task of showing what these economists should learn from it (2). His primary goal is to ensure that his readers are clear about the nature of Smith's work.

Kennedy's efforts result in an accessible yet thorough reader's guide to the Wealth of Nations. In keeping with Kennedy's objective of demonstrating that Smith was never interested in building clean mathematical models of economic activity, the book illuminates the elements of history, sociology, and psychology at work in Smith's use of Britain as a "case study" to show how modern commercial societies have developed, wherein lies their wealth, and what policies will best promote the growth of this wealth (2). The book is also sprinkled with interesting observations regarding the development of what Kennedy sees as the inaccurate depiction and use of Smith by economists writing after him (e.g., 158-62; 173-4).

The book's greatest strength, however, lies in its attention to the unity of Smith's thought. Kennedy sets up his treatment of the Wealth of Nations with a chapter on Smith's method of performing educated thought-experiments to trace the development of important human institutions (famously dubbed "conjectural history" by Dugald Stewart), a chapter on Smith's moral psychology, and a chapter on what is reported to be Smith's multifaceted theory of law (as Kennedy points out, most of our information about this aspect of Smith's thought comes from notes taken by students attending his lectures at

The unity of Smith's thought and his concern with actual human behavior become particularly evident in Kennedy's discussion of the specifically human propensity to bargain and negotiate. Following philosopher James Otteson, Kennedy points out that this propensity plays as central a role in Smith's developmental accounts of language and of morality as it does in his developmental accounts of the division of labor and of commerce in general; underneath all these institutions, Smith argues, is our natural desire to make agreements (15-18; 25-38). Kennedy also points out that since this foundational propensity is social in nature, economists cannot claim inspiration from Smith if they decide to represent commercial interaction exclusively as the antagonistic clashing of solely self-interested atoms (61-4). Although Kennedy does not fully articulate what he takes to be the social aspects of our propensity to "truck, barter, and exchange," his emphasis on its general "other-centeredness" makes quite clear the complex, non-simplistically egoistic way in which Smith understood the psychology of economic behavior (53; 62).

We see what is perhaps an even more striking instance of this complexity when Kennedy observes that Smith's understanding of economic interaction between the "mutually anonymous" members of modern commercial societies mirrors in important ways his account of the kind of interaction that fosters the development of an agent's impartial moral conscience (32). If the former mirrors the latter in teaching us to take seriously others' points of view, it, surprisingly, must have some moral value. Thus, we see another source of unity within Smith's project and another source of difference between his and many modern understandings of economic interaction.

The remaining chapters walk the reader through all five books of the Wealth of Nations. Obviously, this is a lot of ground to cover in (roughly) 150 pages, but Kennedy does so without sacrificing detail. Many of these chapters contain helpful lists of the myriad examples and arguments that Smith uses to explain things like the differences in wage rates between professions (88-9) and the psychological traits, social practices, and official polices that have served as "obstacles to the progress of opulence" (111-2). As in the earlier ones, most of the writing in these chapters is admirably non-technical (although there are some spots in which more precision would have been welcome, as when Kennedy discusses the tendency of "modern authors [to] imply that the [invisible hand] metaphor itself was its own object"; he seems to mean that these authors simply make too much of the metaphor, but it is not clear why this exaggeration amounts to "making the metaphor the object of itself"; 154, 157). Also like the earlier chapters, these ones are titled and structured around a quoted Smithian phrase. This organizational device would work better if it were paired with a more straightforward indication of the chapter's subject matter. This is especially true in the chapters on the Wealth of Nations, which should also state the exact sections of Smith's text to which they correspond; the same goes for the titles of the subsections of these chapters. The book would better perform its function as a commentary on the Wealth of Nations if it made more explicit the way it follows the structure of Smith's text.

This flaw, however, is by no means fatal. On the whole, Kennedy's book is a competent addition to the literature on Adam Smith. It is recommended primarily to those interested in the history of economics."


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