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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

Adam Smith was a philosopher before he was a social scientist, yet it remains unclear to this day what relationship his philosophical writings bear to his treatise on economics. There is little indication in the Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (WN) that the book was written by a person who had rich views on subjects ranging from scientific method to the foundation of moral judgment, and there is no explicit mention at all of Smith's earlier published work, the much-acclaimed Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). The apparent absence of moral concerns, in particular, from WN has puzzled many commentators. Perhaps we should view the writing of WN as a triumph of selfcommand, Smith's favorite virtue: Smith contributes to the founding of social science precisely by refraining from direct moral commentary most of the time in WN, by laying out the facts of political economy mostly in an impartial tone, free of his own attitudes toward those facts. But, if so, he seems to have achieved this impartial voice too well, leading people, wrongly, to suppose that he left his moral beliefs behind when he came to write WN. It is part of my purpose to help correct this supposition, to help bring us back to the virtues that lie within and just beyond the frame of WN. Social science today often requires that one refrain from talking about virtues, but Smith does not fully carry out this suspension of moral discourse, and where he does I think we can give moral reasons for the suspension. In any case, one thing that will concern us throughout this book is the tension between moral philosophy and social science.

There are several other running themes. Among them: that Smith is best regarded as a “common sense” philosopher, anticipating elements in the thought of his academic successor, Thomas Reid, and certain trends in twentieth-century philosophy; that Smith has an unusually strong belief in human equality, which has important implications for both his moral philosophy and his political economy; and that Smith played a role very different from the one usually assigned to him in the history of distributive justice. But my goal in this book is not to explicate or defend any overarching thesis about Smith; it is, rather, to provide a guide to the many philosophical questions that inform WN or are raised by its conclusions. (The book is indeed meant to be readable in separate sections, such that someone interested in Smith's views of justice, for instance, could read that section without the rest.) I hope that such a guide will be useful not just to experts, but to people coming to WN for the first time, or who have studied its political economy but never considered it from a philosophical angle.

Although Smith was a philosopher, no book of this sort has appeared before. Charles Griswold has given us a beautiful study of Smith's entire corpus from a . . .

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