The Adam Smith-David Hume Incident: Strang’s fable

Alternative Title: The Anecdote (Part 3 of 3)

Nineteenth century Scottish author, historian, and statistician John Strang surveys the founding and subsequent history of two of Glasgow’s most illustrious private societies in chapter 1 of his most important work Glasgow and It Clubs, which is available here and the cover of the 3rd edition of which is pictured below. One is the legendary Literary Society, which met on Friday evenings at the University of Glasgow when classes were in session; the other is the storied Anderston Club, which met on Saturday afternoons in the friendly confines of John Sharpe’s tavern on the north bank of the River Clyde.

As it happens, Adam Smith was a member of both clubs, and by all accounts he attended their meetings on a regular basis during the 1750s and early 1760s, when he was the Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University. For his part, Dr Strang drops this bombshell about the Anderston Club toward the end of the chapter:

“And then, to crown all, the author of the “Wealth of Nations” might be there heard telling, as he was often wont, of his experiences at Oxford, where he was deterred from adopting the clerical profession, in consequence of the unceremonious manner in which he was treated by the superiors of Baliol [sic], when they discovered him studying one of the early lucubrations of Hume.”

Strang 1855, pp. 27-28

Is this testimony the proverbial “smoking gun” that both Ross (1995) and Rae (1895) believe it to be? No, it is not. For the three reasons I provide below, Strang’s version of “The Anecdote” is built on a shaky foundation, the equivalent of evidentiary quicksand.

For starters, Strang’s purported smoking gun story was published over 100 years after the fact! Strang was not even alive during Adam Smith’s lifetime — he was born in 1795; five years after economist-philosopher’s death — so he himself has no personal knowledge of The Anecdote. Secondly, what is the actual source of Strang’s hearsay testimony? Alas, Strang fails to produce a single witness, someone with first-hand knowledge of this story. Not only does Strang fail to identify even one actual witness; he also fails to cite any secondary sources in support of his story, a glaring omission in what is an otherwise well-researched book.

But most importantly, why is there no contemporaneous corroboration of Strang’s story? Assume Strang’s story is true. If so — if it was really Adam Smith himself who used to tell this fable during his Glasgow professor years — then why does no other first-hand account or even second-hand report of The Anecdote appear anywhere in the historical record until 1797, more than 50 years after this storied incident was supposed to have actually occurred? As we Bayesians like to say, “the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.” Strang’s story, like Sir John Leslie’s and John Ramsay McCulloch’s, falls apart like a house of cards as soon as it is subjected to closer scrutiny.

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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1 Response to The Adam Smith-David Hume Incident: Strang’s fable

  1. Pingback: A postscript to the Adam Smith-David Hume incident | prior probability

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