Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Andrew Skinner; doyen among Smithian Scholars, 1935-2011

Eric Schliesser, a fine scholar who is much appreciated for his knowledge of 18th-century leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, has written a tribute to Andrew Skinner, whose death was reported today:

This has been a terrible week for the history of economics: two of its giants, Andrew Skinner and Mark Blaug, died a few days apart. Skinner was the Daniel Jack Professor of Political Economy from 1985 to 1994 and Adam Smith Professor of Political Economy from 1994 until 2000 at University of Glasgow. Skinner is best known for his superb editing of the 2-volumes of the The Wealth of Nations in The Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (1976).

He was also the author of a very fine collection of essays on Adam Smith, A System of Social Science: Papers Relating to Adam Smith. (He also edited several volumes of scholarly papers on Adam Smith.) He should have been better known for his very helpful (1966) edition of Sir James Steuart (1767) An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy. (The edition does contain some cuts, so let the buyer be aware.) Steuart was a subtle reader of Hume's political economy, and was deliberately ignored by Adam Smith; it mattered a lot to Skinner to ensure that Steuart was not forgotten.

I did not have much interaction with Skinner. But one is worth recounting. At the start of 2000, I sent him a draft of my main methodological/interpretive chapter on Smith's Wealth of Nations of my dissertation-then-in-progress. (We had never met.) Skinner was a natural choice because he was the leading scholar of the connections between Adam Smith's economics and Smith's Kuhnian theory of science. A few months went by, and just before his official retirement from the university he sent me his (kind) reflections on my chapter. Then I did not realize how rare such generosity is. He concluded his letter with a remark that I quote: "I met [Thomas] Kuhn in 1975 in Princeton when he told me, as I recall, that he was unaware of [Adam Smith's "The History of] ASTRONOMY" - if true, intriguing in that both Kuhn and Smith cite Copernicus' introduction as a classic example of the crisis state?

Eric characterises an important aspect of Andrew Skinner, whom I first met in 1972, as he passed through the University of Strathclyde meeting some of my then colleagues, and we had a conversation, typically on Adam Smith. I was researching that year on the history of defence economics and he recommended that I read Wealth Of Nations in which (Book V) Smith had much to say about the importance of defence in history. Typically of Skinner, as I came to know him during the years, he sent to me within days a two-page summary of Smith on the ‘first duty’ of government and the defence of the nation against barbarous invasions and violence. I noticed Andrew's paper recently somewhere in a pile of old papers and meant to file it where I could find it again. Alas, it seems to have rejoined another pile …

When I retired and was working on my 'Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy' (2005), I contacted Andrew and he expressed his usual enthusiasm, mentioning some of his books on Adam Smith, including those ‘fine essays’, cited by Eric, ‘A System of Social Science: Papers Relating to Adam Smith'. Anybody writing about Adam Smith who has not read that volume is surely deficient in her range. But every scholar has surely read – and regularly consulted – Andrew’s co-edited Wealth Of Nations in the Glasgow Edition from Oxford University Press, as I do almost everyday, both the edited text and its footnote references, which are gold mines of relevant facts, lifting that edition above all others.

When I was working on my second book: ‘Adam Smith: a moral philosopher and his political economy’ (2008, Palgrave; 2nd edition, 2010), I sent chapters to Andrew to which he replied with comments. Later, I gave him copy of the published 1st edition at a meeting of the History of Economics 40th annual conference in Edinburgh. To my surprise and delight, he responded many months later in 2009, with a very long phone call saying how much he had enjoyed it (from him, that was praise indeed!) and he asked several interesting questions about some of the contents, and was kindly supportive of some of my main themes.

That was typical of Andrew Skinner, a fine teacher and supportive scholar of those whom he met and conducted discourse. The last time we met at an event in Glasgow, he confided in a distinct whisper, that he did not think Smith was quite the kindly old soul that he was credited to be among some scholars, citing his poor treatment of Sir James Steuart by completely ignoring him. He also noted positively my speculative remarks (‘Did Smith Block Hume?’) that Smith may have been less than proper in his possible duplicitous role in David Hume’s potential soundings in 1751 about a post at Glasgow, when Smith was seeking promotion to the same vacant chair of moral philosophy as the Professor of Logic.

He found my other speculation that Smith’s applying for the post in 1778, as a Scottish Commissioner of Customs and the Salt tax, was principally to avoid completing his much advertised work (from 1759) on Jurisprudence (i.e, how states ‘ought’ to be governed), once the ‘disturbances in America’ flared into a successful outright rebellion against the obdurate King George and the radical proposals for government in the Declaration of Independence. There was no obvious way that Smith could avoid offending the British government and the King in such a work and his private sympathies could not do let him otherwise (best then to say nothing). The facts are that Smith did not finish his near completed manuscript and he ensured from his deathbed that Professor Black or Hutton burned the mss ‘unread’.

Andrew Skinner took a great interest in the rebellion by the British residents (published recently). He said he thought my speculation was at least worthy of note and did not dismiss it out of hand, as some other scholars have done. I read Andrew's later publication of his essay, 'The Mercantile System', with great interest, in Jeffrey T. Young, editor, 2009. 'Elgar Companion to Adam Smith', pp. 261-76. Cheltenham, Edward Elgar, with great interest. Its precision is another fine example of fine scholar's work. Readers would do well by reading it. Andrew sets a high bar for all those who want to emulate him.

Andrew was and is regarded rightly as the doyen of Adam Smith scholars in the recent past. I hope that something may be arranged to honour Andrew and his work posthumously.


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