Two cheers for Adam Smith

Alternative Title: “That’s all folks!”

Thus far, I have devoted several blog posts (seven separate posts in all!) to the substance of Ryan Patrick Hanley’s new book on Adam Smith: Our Great Purpose: Adam Smith on Living a Better Life (Princeton U Press, 2019). I now want to conclude my review of his book by saying a few words about its beautiful style. Instead of a dense or dry scholarly tome, Hanley’s chapters are crisp and short, and he has kept his citation notes to a minimum. [Memo to the editors at Princeton U Press: what is preventing you from replacing the end notes with footnotes?] In addition, Hanley begins each chapter with a direct quotation from the works of Adam Smith. (Note: Although most of the chapter quotations are from the sixth edition of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, some are from The Wealth of Nations, showing us the essential unity of Smith’s world view.)

For my part, although I found Hanley’s approach to be appealing (starting off each chapter with a direct quotation from Smith), as it invites us to focus on the immortal words of Adam Smith, I want to respectfully point out a danger with this strategy, the danger of selection bias, of taking Smith’s words out of their proper context. To his credit, Hanley does an excellent job of presenting Smith’s main philosophical ideas. Nevertheless, although Hanley resolves the apparent contradiction in Smith’s works between self-regarding and other-regarding behavior, many other tensions and problems are left unanswered or unresolved. (See some of my previous posts, for example.) Hanley himself concedes (pp. 61-62, internal quotation marks omitted), when reading Smith “it often feels like Smith giveth on one page, and taketh away on another,” and that one of the challenges of reading Adam Smith’s works today “consists in figuring out how all of his claims go together, even (and maybe especially) when they don’t seem to match perfectly on their face.” What if we took a different approach, then? Specifically, what if were to point out the many apparent contradictions and inconsistencies in Smith’s works instead of trying harmonize Smith’s ideas into a coherent whole? That, of course, would be the subject of another book; perhaps the next generation of Smith scholars will write that book soon …

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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