Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Adam Smith's "Letter to the Authors of the Edinburgh Review"

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Adam Smith's "Letter to the Authors of the Edinburgh Review"

Article excerpt

One of Adam Smith's first publications was a letter addressed to the editors of the Edinburgh Review, printed anonymously in the second issue of the semiannual periodical in 1756.[1] The compact text entitled "A LETTER to the Authors of the Edinburgh Review," which has received surprisingly little scholarly attention, offers valuable insight into Smith's work and career, and not merely because it confirms that Smith was an unusually widely-read man of letters long before he was the retrospectively anointed founder of the discipline of economics, though it does that. Indeed, the thirty-two-year-old writer presumes to pass judgment on the writing and learning of Europe as a whole and specifically assesses the only recently published work of Rousseau, the Encyclopedia project still in progress, and the work of Reaumur, Buffon and Daubenton, Descartes, Newton, and others. In this text (whose authorship was known well before Dugald Stewart noted it in his biographical account in the early 1790s) Smith delineates a space of learning that is at once Scottish, British, and European, mapping out a set of relations of complex rivalry between France, England, and Scotland in order to articulate and advocate a cosmopolitan patriotism.2 He suggests that while England occupied the preeminent position in learning in the past, France does so in the present, and Scotland is in a position to do so in the near future, if it is properly incited. Smith's careful rhetorical incitement of his Scottish contemporaries to fulfill this promise of future primacy in learning also reveals his own ambitions and how he proposed to realize them.

My reading of the text will throw into relief Smith's strategy and show how, although Smith does not name his good friend David Hume, he subtly expresses his own allegiances to the Humean science of man as the way for Scotland to achieve primacy in the world of learning, and he indicates that the most important task facing the world of knowledge-the task he takes as his own-concerns the proper systematic organization and presentation of moral knowledge. That Smith's is a subtle writerly performance which calls for attention to the grain of the text is itself part of the point of my interpretation, especially since the rhetorical care Smith took in composition is generally underestimated, or at least not adequately attended to in detail.3

Judging Rivals

The Edinburgh Review was a project begun by a number of members of the Select Society, one of those social vehicles of improvement and enlightenment that flourished throughout Europe in the eighteenth century.4 Smith was a founding member of the Select Society in 1754 and may have been one of the initiators of the periodical, to the inaugural 1755 issue of which he contributed a review of Johnson's Dictionary.[5] The preface of the opening issue of the Review, probably written by the editor Alexander Wedderburn, a close friend of Smith's, positioned the Review as Scotland's somewhat belated contribution to the widespread European print enterprise of bringing advances in knowledge to the attention of the public.6 The purpose of the periodical, Wedderburn's preface declared, was to demonstrate "the progressive state of learning in this country" and thereby to incite Scots "to a more eager pursuit of learning, to distinguish themselves, and to do honour to their country. …

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