On Adam Smith's

On Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations": A Philosophical Companion

by Samuel Fleischacker
     
 

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Adam Smith was a philosopher before he ever wrote about economics, yet until now there has never been a philosophical commentary on the Wealth of Nations. Samuel Fleischacker suggests that Smith's vastly influential treatise on economics can be better understood if placed in the light of his epistemology, philosophy of science, and moral theory. He lays out

Overview

Adam Smith was a philosopher before he ever wrote about economics, yet until now there has never been a philosophical commentary on the Wealth of Nations. Samuel Fleischacker suggests that Smith's vastly influential treatise on economics can be better understood if placed in the light of his epistemology, philosophy of science, and moral theory. He lays out the relevance of these aspects of Smith's thought to specific themes in the Wealth of Nations, arguing, among other things, that Smith regards social science as an extension of common sense rather than as a discipline to be approached mathematically, that he has moral as well as pragmatic reasons for approving of capitalism, and that he has an unusually strong belief in human equality that leads him to anticipate, if not quite endorse, the modern doctrine of distributive justice.

Fleischacker also places Smith's views in relation to the work of his contemporaries, especially his teacher Francis Hutcheson and friend David Hume, and draws out consequences of Smith's thought for present-day political and philosophical debates. The Companion is divided into five general sections, which can be read independently of one another. It contains an index that points to commentary on specific passages in Wealth of Nations. Written in an approachable style befitting Smith's own clear yet finely honed rhetoric, it is intended for professional philosophers and political economists as well as those coming to Smith for the first time.

Editorial Reviews

EH.NET
In my opinion, all readers interested in Adam Smith's project and/or the modern Post-Smithian notion of distributive justice, should have access to this book, so they can study this important, provocative contribution to the understanding of Smith's conception of justice.
— Spencer J. Pack
British Journal for the History of Philosophy
[A]n enlightening guide to the philosophical component of the Wealth of Nations and its relation to Smith's other works. [This] is . . . an exceptionally good book.
— D. D. Raphael
Political Studies Review
Fleischacker . . . has a sure philosophical grasp of Smith's ideas. He uses this to great effect, presenting what is the first rigorous philosophical commentary on the Wealth of Nations in English, of which I am aware.
— Duncan Kelly
Eighteenth-Century Scotland
There is no question that Fleischacker has produced a landmark study of Adam Smith's works. His handling of philosophical issues is subtle and suggestive; and in probing 'the virtues that lie within and just beyond the frame of Wealth of Nations', Fleischacker provides new philosophical resources for the debate about the fundamental relation between Wealth of Nations and Smith's larger philosophical project.
— Vivienne Brown
Philosophy in Review
Overall, this is a very useful book whether treated as a companion or, better, read straight through.
— John Douglas Bishop
Eighteenth Century Scotland

There is no question that Fleischacker has produced a landmark study of Adam Smith's works. His handling of philosophical issues is subtle and suggestive; and in probing 'the virtues that lie within and just beyond the frame of Wealth of Nations', Fleischacker provides new philosophical resources for the debate about the fundamental relation between Wealth of Nations and Smith's larger philosophical project.
— Vivienne Brown
EH.NET - Spencer J. Pack
In my opinion, all readers interested in Adam Smith's project and/or the modern Post-Smithian notion of distributive justice, should have access to this book, so they can study this important, provocative contribution to the understanding of Smith's conception of justice.
British Journal for the History of Philosophy - D. D. Raphael
[A]n enlightening guide to the philosophical component of the Wealth of Nations and its relation to Smith's other works. [This] is . . . an exceptionally good book.
Political Studies Review - Duncan Kelly
Fleischacker . . . has a sure philosophical grasp of Smith's ideas. He uses this to great effect, presenting what is the first rigorous philosophical commentary on the Wealth of Nations in English, of which I am aware.
Eighteenth-Century Scotland - Vivienne Brown
There is no question that Fleischacker has produced a landmark study of Adam Smith's works. His handling of philosophical issues is subtle and suggestive; and in probing 'the virtues that lie within and just beyond the frame of Wealth of Nations', Fleischacker provides new philosophical resources for the debate about the fundamental relation between Wealth of Nations and Smith's larger philosophical project.
Philosophy in Review - John Douglas Bishop
Overall, this is a very useful book whether treated as a companion or, better, read straight through.
British Journal for the History of Philosophy - D.D. Raphael
[A]n enlightening guide to the philosophical component of the Wealth of Nations and its relation to Smith's other works. [This] is . . . an exceptionally good book.
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2009 Joseph B. Gittler Award, American Philosophical Association

"In my opinion, all readers interested in Adam Smith's project and/or the modern Post-Smithian notion of distributive justice, should have access to this book, so they can study this important, provocative contribution to the understanding of Smith's conception of justice."—Spencer J. Pack, EH.NET

"[A]n enlightening guide to the philosophical component of the Wealth of Nations and its relation to Smith's other works. [This] is . . . an exceptionally good book."—D. D. Raphael, British Journal for the History of Philosophy

"Fleischacker . . . has a sure philosophical grasp of Smith's ideas. He uses this to great effect, presenting what is the first rigorous philosophical commentary on the Wealth of Nations in English, of which I am aware."—Duncan Kelly, Political Studies Review

"There is no question that Fleischacker has produced a landmark study of Adam Smith's works. His handling of philosophical issues is subtle and suggestive; and in probing 'the virtues that lie within and just beyond the frame of Wealth of Nations', Fleischacker provides new philosophical resources for the debate about the fundamental relation between Wealth of Nations and Smith's larger philosophical project."—Vivienne Brown, Eighteenth-Century Scotland

"Overall, this is a very useful book whether treated as a companion or, better, read straight through."—John Douglas Bishop, Philosophy in Review

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781400826056
Publisher:
Princeton University Press
Publication date:
01/10/2009
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
352
File size:
3 MB

Read an Excerpt

On Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations

A Philosophical Companion
By Samuel Fleischacker

Princeton University Press

Samuel Fleischacker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0691115028


Chapter One

LITERARY METHOD

I begin with Smith's writing style, since I will contend throughout this book that scholars have persistently misread the Wealth of Nations (WN), and I'd like to show right off why it is easy to do that. WN tends to appear, in both scholarly and popular literature, by way of striking snippets. One can properly grasp its teachings, however, only by engaging in the painstaking exercise of reading the long, elaborate arguments from which the snippets get snipped. So I begin with some warnings about how not to read Smith and some suggestions about what can be gained by submitting to the discipline of reading Smith slowly, of treating him as the refined eighteenth-century belles-lettrist that he set out to be.

By comparison with most philosophers, Adam Smith is easy to read. There is no abstract jargon, as in Kant or Hegel, no stilted syntax, as in Locke, and there are few passages with the subtle argumentation to be found in Descartes or Hume. Smith the economist is also easier to read than many other social scientists, abjuring technical coinages and mathematical algorithms in favor of historical narrative and explanations, laced with vivid examples drawn from ordinary life. Smith also organizes his material very clearly, announcing in the beginning of a chapter or section which two or three items he will be discussing and then proceeding to take up those items one by one, in the order in which he listed them. I suspect that many scholars are drawn to working on Smith by the ease and pleasure of reading him, and he has certainly thereby lent himself to quotation, by everyone from teachers of elementary economics to public intellectuals.

The clarity of these quotations can be misleading, however. This is partly because Smith is, even on the surface, a more complex writer than might appear from such famous lines as the one about appealing to the self-interest of butchers and bakers. In addition, Smith was well aware of the uses of rhetoric, and his seeming straightforwardness does not preclude him from making use of a variety of literary devices, either for polemical purposes or to add levels of suggested meaning to his literal one. Finally, the very project of writing philosophy and political economy in appealing, everyday language flows from a sophisticated theory about how human knowledge works, which itself needs to be grasped in order to make clear the full import of Smith's teachings. Let us take up each of these factors in turn.

1. Obstacles to Reading Smith

When I say that Smith's writing is more complex than it seems even on a surface level, I mean above all to draw attention to his irony and his prolixity, two features of his style that are not uncommon in eighteenth-century writers, but that are rather more pronounced, and carry more weight, in Smith than in many of his peers. Smith's conception of morality made the way one expresses one's emotions central to virtue, and he believed strongly that modes of literary expression could reflect character. In his lectures on rhetoric he told his students, "When the characters of a plain and a simple man are so different we may naturally expect that the stile they express themselves in will be far from being the same" (LRBL 38).1 Cicero's elegance and propriety make evident, he says, "that the author conceive[d] himself to be of importance, and dignity" (LRBL 159). Xenophon's style expresses his "simplicity and innocence of manners" (LRBL 169). We may, accordingly, expect the ironic and prolix features of Smith's style to express something about his character, or at least about the character he wished to present to his readers. And in any case we must be careful, as many readers have not been, to recognize Smith's irony when we see it, and to unpack his unhurried way of getting to a point, or we will misunderstand even the literal level of his meaning.

The irony is sometimes obvious: "The fortunate and the proud wonder at the insolence of human wretchedness, that it should dare to present itself before them, and with the loathsome aspect of its misery presume to disturb the serenity of their happiness" (TMS 51).

But on other occasions it can be hard to tell whether Smith is being ironic or not. About love, he says that "[t]he passion appears to every body, but the man who feels it, entirely disproportioned to the value of the object," and that "though a lover may be good company to his mistress, he is so to nobody else" (TMS 31). Is this simply supposed to describe a fact about love, or does it include some gentle mockery of that passion?

In pondering this question, we should bear in mind two points. First, Smith was a great admirer of Jonathan Swift, who was supremely gifted at stating the most outrageous of propositions in the most moderate of tones. Often, Smith emulates this tight-lipped way of conveying moral outrage. It fits well with his theory of how to express emotions, and especially anger, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS): to win the sympathy of our audience, he says, we must "lower [ . . . our] passion to that pitch, in which the spectators are capable of going along with [us]" (TMS 22; on anger specifically, see 37-8). But Smith also differs from Swift in an important respect, and that brings us to a second reason for his understated tone. Swift, in part perhaps out of a gloomy disposition and in part, certainly, out of deep Pauline convictions, is willing to condemn human nature entirely. Smith's strongly naturalistic orientation, his belief that moral standards-the very standards we might use to condemn human nature-arise out of human nature itself, leads him instead to try to understand what good purposes even bad features of human nature might serve. The difficulty of this commitment is something he worries about explicitly. He says, for instance, about our reaction to the consistently sorrowful person: "we . . . despise him; unjustly, perhaps, if any sentiment could be regarded as unjust, to which we are by nature irresistibly determined" (TMS 49). Knud Haakonssen nicely describes a passage in Smith on one of our natural tendencies as a "piece of teasing, double-edged scepticism" (SL 81), and that description captures Smith's stance toward natural human impulses throughout his work. On the one hand, he sees some of them as foolish or dangerous, as leading us away from virtue and happiness. On the other hand, as something natural, they cannot simply be rejected. An ironic distance may enable us to moderate their force, or to see ways of acting against them, and he gently urges us to achieve such a distance. But he also wants us to recognize that our natural tendencies will not go away, even when we do achieve ironic distance from them, that we are "irresistibly determined" to be drawn by them. We need to reconcile ourselves to that fact even while trying to avoid the pitfalls to which they lead us. A Socratic irony-or, better, what Kierkegaard would later call "humor" as opposed to irony2-can encourage this wry acceptance of what we cannot change. Rather than railing against human nature, Smith would have us adopt a humorous, unanxious attitude toward our own failings, a resolution to work against them where possible conjoined with a clear-eyed acceptance of the fact that they will never fully disappear, hence the odd ambiguity in passages like the remarks on love quoted above.

This ironic stance and tone pervade TMS, but show up to a significant extent in WN as well. There are some obviously ironic moments. "The laudable motive" of a series of mercantile regulations, Smith says, "is to extend our own manufactures, not by their own improvement, but by the depression of those of all our neighbours, and by putting an end, as much as possible, to the troublesome competition of such odious and disagreeable rivals" (WN 660; see also 555). Sometimes, as in this example, the irony is tinged with anger; at other times, it shades toward simple humor: "After all that has been said of the levity and inconstancy of human nature, it appears evidently from experience that a man is of all sorts of luggage the most difficult to be transported" (WN 92). There are also moments that partake of the ambiguity between irony and plain description entailed by Smith's general outlook on the world. To mention three examples that will be important to us later on: First, to what degree should we hear an acid note in the word "wisest," given what else Smith has to say about the foolishness of commercial regulations, when he tells us that the act of navigation "is, perhaps, the wisest of all the commercial regulations of England" (WN 465)? Second, given that TMS regards "tranquillity" as essential to happiness, what is Smith telling us about the restless desire to better our condition when he says that it "comes with us from the womb, and never leaves us till we go into the grave" (WN 341)? And third, is the entire "invisible hand" account of social phenomena just a literal description of how things work, or is it also an ironic commentary on the corruption and foolishness involved in attempts to control society with a visible hand?

By Smith's prolixity I mean first the fact that Smith is given to long, complexly structured sentences. Here is a delightful example, which also exhibits the dry wit that Smith shared with Swift. Smith has just announced that "small vexations excite no sympathy":

The man who is made uneasy by every little disagreeable incident, who is hurt if either the cook or the butler have failed in the least article of their duty, who feels every defect in the highest ceremonial of politeness, whether it be shewn to himself or to any other person, who takes it amiss that his intimate friend did not bid him good-morrow when they met in the forenoon, and that his brother hummed a tune all the time he himself was telling a story; who is put out of humour by the badness of the weather when in the country, by the badness of the roads when upon a journey, and by the want of company, and dulness of all the public diversions when in town; such a person, I say, though he should have some reason, will seldom meet with much sympathy. (TMS 42)

It is helpful to read this passage aloud. One then realizes just how much Smith is fond not merely of detailed visual images but of elaborate rhythmic patterns, with parallel clauses ("who is . . . ," "who feels . . . ," "who takes . . .") interspersed with an occasional clause that has another clause nested within it, and with longish clauses at first yielding to shorter ones at the end, the whole being drawn together, and relieved of the tension built up by the long wait for the main verb, by the brief summary after the semicolon. Anglophone writing in the eighteenth century prized this kind of complex composition as the height of elegance. Today, clipped, ascetic prose is favored instead, and scholars tend to cut many of the subsidiary clauses and phrases when quoting Smith. I do this myself; I worry about my editors growling if I leave the original quotations intact. But the many clauses in Smith's sentences are sometimes all needed for his philosophical purposes, and we may do him an injustice when we make these cuts. Take another example:

As ignorant and groundless praise can give no solid joy, no satisfaction that will bear any serious examination, so, on the contrary, it often gives real comfort to reflect, that though no praise should actually be bestowed upon us, our conduct, however, has been such as to deserve it, and has been in every respect suitable to those measures and rules by which praise and approbation are naturally and commonly bestowed. (TMS 115)

The length of this sentence can be explained in part by considerations of elegance. The second clause-"no satisfaction that will bear any serious examination"-is there mostly to balance "no solid joy," or to emphasize it, to allow us to dwell longer upon it, and "on the contrary" and "however" are there simply to give the sentence a relaxed tempo. Yet "no satisfaction that will bear any serious examination" does not merely add a rhythmic element; it also does something to clarify the word "solid" in "solid joy." Even the apparent redundancy in the pairs that conclude the sentence-"measures and rules," "praise and approbation," "naturally and commonly"-is not there solely for rhythmic effect. By giving us two words, Smith encourages us to think about the difference between "measures" and "rules" and the similarity between what is "natural" and what is done "commonly." Especially in TMS, we must always bear in mind the musical function of Smith's mode of expression-most of the book is drawn from a lecture course, and Smith needed rhetorical virtuosity to keep his fourteen- to sixteen-year old students alert-but these concerns do not exhaust his reasons for writing as he does. If nothing else, the qualifying phrases in a sentence like the one above teach us to regard moral thought as something highly nuanced, something not easily reduced to simple categories or rules. It is clear, from many passages, that Smith did think of good moral judgment in precisely that way.

In addition, the length and complexity of Smith's sentences teach patience to the reader, and patience, the self-command by which one withholds quick, passionate judgment, is again a high virtue for Smith. The point of many of Smith's longer sentences does not come out at all until one has read through every clause carefully and then gone back to bring the whole thing together. Smith tends to help his readers through this process by introducing the more complex sentences with one or two short ones that give the long one's gist. Here are two examples from WN:

The trade of Holland, it has been pretended by some people, is decaying, and it may perhaps be true that some particular branches of it are so. But . . . there is no general decay The great property which [the Dutch] possess both in the French and English funds, about forty millions, it is said, in the latter (in which I suspect, however, there is a considerable exaggeration); the great sums which they lend to private people in countries where the rate of interest is higher than in their own, are circumstances which no doubt demonstrate the redundancy of their own stock, or that it has increased beyond what they can employ with tolerable profit in the proper business of their own country: but they do not demonstrate that that business has decreased. (WN 108-9)
 
Entails are the natural consequences of the law of primogeniture. They were introduced to preserve a certain lineal succession, of which the law of primogeniture first gave the idea, and to hinder any part of the original estate from being carried out of the proposed line either by gift, or devise, or alienation; either by the folly, or by the misfortune of any of its successive owners. (WN 384)

In the first case, Smith incorporates a number of qualifications to his main point within the evidence he is giving for that point.

Continues...


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What People are saying about this

Griswold
Until now, nobody has published a truly philosophical, let alone comprehensive and philosophical, commentary on Smith's great work of political economy. This beautifully written book fills this important niche. Samuel Fleischacker is a gifted writer; he often finds just the right turn of phrase, and the right combination of technical prose and informal tone, to communicate his point with maximum effectiveness.
Charles L. Griswold, Jr., Professor of Philosophy at Boston University and author of "Adam Smith and the Virtues of the Enlightenment"
Muller
On Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations reflects its author's long and reflective engagement with Smith's thought. There is much in the book that readers of Smith will find useful and indeed indispensable. Many of Smith's perspectives are reformulated with exemplary clarity; key puzzles in his oeuvre are puzzled out more successfully than by past commentators; and many a scholarly misinterpretation is set aright. Moreover, Fleischacker's emphasis on Smith's egalitarianism will prove controversial, and should stimulate discussion about what Smith meant in his own day and what he might mean to us.
Jerry Z. Muller, Catholic University of America

Meet the Author

Samuel Fleischacker is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. His books include "A Short History of Distributive"

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