Adam Smith: Philosophy and Political Economy: Seminar

Adam Smith: Philosophy and Political Economy: Seminar

Adam Smith was a Scottish moral philosopher and a pioneer of political economy. One of the key figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith is best known for two classic works: The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations(1776). The latter, usually abbreviated as The Wealth of Nations, is considered his magnum opus and the first modern work of economics. Smith is cited as the "father of modern economics" and is still among the most influential thinkers in the field of economics today. Adam Smith developed a comprehensive and somewhat unusual version of moral sentimentalism in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759, TMS). He did not expressly lay out a political philosophy in similar detail, but a distinctive set of views on politics can be extrapolated from elements of both TMS and his Wealth of Nations (1776, WN); student notes from his lectures on jurisprudence (1762–1763, LJ) have also helped flesh out his thoughts on governance. A central thread running through his work is an unusually strong commitment to the soundness of the ordinary human being's judgments and a concern to fend off attempts, by philosophers and policy-makers, to replace those judgments with the supposedly better “systems” invented by intellectuals.

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In his “History of Astronomy”, he characterizes philosophy as a discipline that attempts to connect and regularize the data of everyday experience (Smith 1795: 44–7); in TMS, he tries to develop moral theory out of ordinary moral judgments, rather than beginning from a philosophical vantage point above those judgments; and a central polemic of WN is directed against the notion that government officials need to guide the economic decisions of ordinary people. Perhaps taking a cue from David Hume's skepticism about the capacity of philosophy to replace the judgments of common life, Smith is suspicious of philosophy as conducted from a foundationalist standpoint, outside the modes of thought and practice it examines. Instead, he maps common life from within, correcting it where necessary with its own tools rather than trying either to justify or to criticize it from an external standpoint. He aims indeed to break down the distinction between theoretical and ordinary thought. This intellectual project is not unconnected with his political interest in guaranteeing to ordinary individuals the “natural liberty” to act in accordance with their own judgments.

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