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Review: Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life

11 July 2011

The Molinist takes a short break from the series “Molinism and Varieties of Freedom” to bring you this book review. Luis de Molina and his intellectual counterparts will return in the next post.

Nicholas Phillipson is one of the leading scholars of the Scottish Enlightenment and he definitely brings to bear many of the skills that got him there with Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life. Though short (less endnotes and index it weighs in at a modest 284 pages), it is detailed and remarkably exhaustive. Phillipson’s focus is the history and development of Smith’s two great works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, and the biography is structured as much around them as around the events of Smith’s life. In so doing he makes these often esoteric works more accessible by explaining their context and Smith’s intent in writing them (such as the fact that they were but the first two quarters of a much larger plan to write an exhaustive system of philosophical anthropology, or, to use the nomenclature of Smith’s day, a science of man).

Phillipson is greatly concerned with placing Smith in his historical, cultural, and intellectual context and much of the book concerns the state of Scotland, Britain, and Western Europe during the Enlightenment as well as concise introductions to the philosophies with which Smith was engaged, such as those of Hume, Rousseau, and the Physiocrats. Rather than throwing the background material out in chunks Phillipson endeavours to fold it into the narrative of Smith’s life. Often this works extremely well, such as when Phillipson introduces the philosophy of Quesnay by interweaving it with the story of Smith accompanying the young Duke of Buccleuch, to whom Smith was tutor, on the Grand Tour when Smith met and conversed with the father of the Physiocrats himself, other times the exposition is too long and the narrative’s abrupt recommencement is somewhat jarring, as was the case when describing the seminal influence of David Hume’s thought on Smith’s earliest philosophical works and lectures. But despite the occasional overload of background exposition Phillipson succeeds in fleshing out the interesting and engaging world surrounding and informing Smith’s two great works, making those works that much easier to grasp.

Certainly there are details that go undiscussed in the book. For the most part these are ephemeral matters without much bearing on Smith’s philosophy, which may explain why they were overlooked, but anyone with a particular interest in Smith may wish that they had been covered in more depth. Smith’s relationship with his mother, for instance, is only hinted at. Given his life-long devotion to her and reputed powerful social presence more details and her and her influence would have been welcome. The ending also wraps up rather quickly and anticlimactically, with Smith publishing the final edits to his Theory of Moral Sentiments on the page before he dies, though a section devoted to the reception of the news of his death amongst his peers was interesting and very telling of the early reception of his ideas.

Phillipson’s writing style does occasionally leave something to be desired. Prepositions are misplaced, ‘and’ is often not present before the last item in a series, and the writing is often overly expository. These small issues combine to give the feeling that the book is being written as though it were being spoken, almost as if it were dictated or compiled from extraordinarily detailed lecture notes (after the style of Smith himself). The fact that Phillipson often writes the way one lectures does not greatly detract from the read, though.

I would definitely recommend Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life, whether to the interested layperson with no background in the period or the student looking for a good introduction to Smith’s great works. Certainly the specialist will likely find nothing much new here, but the non-specialist will find it a readable and accessible introduction to the thought of one of the Enlightenment’s greatest thinkers and the father of modern economics. Look for it at your local brick and mortar (if they don’t have, ask at the cash).

Edition reviewed: Nicholas Phillipson, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (London: Allen Lane, 2010). 345 pp

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