- A System of Social Science: Papers relating to Adam Smith by Andrew Skinner
Oxford, 278 pp, £9.75, November 1979, ISBN 0 19 828422 5
Here are nine separate essays on different aspects of the whole construction of Adam Smith’s thought, written originally for separate publication during the past eight or nine years, but now reworked to link and hold together. Because of the reworking, the book shows Adam Smith as the creator of a whole system of knowledge including science, anthropology, moral philosophy, psychology and history, as well as the founder of economics. The book brings out both the common features of the different branches of this system and the well-known rift between the human nature of the moral system, with its deep ties of sympathy for others, and the calculating but beneficial selfishness of the human nature of the world of economic relationships. Since Smith held that the types of human society, of political and social structure, were all dictated by the ‘mode of subsistence’, this rift is a fundamental cleavage across the whole span of the system. Because of it, it is in the economic system rather than in the moral that the ‘hidden hand’ of God had an elaborate task to perform.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 2 No. 7 · 17 April 1980
SIR: ‘Simplicity Smith’ indeed! It seems to me that the cap would fit Mrs Mitchison herself better than Adam Smith. Near the beginning of her review of Andrew Skinner’s collection of papers (LRB, 6 March), she says that Professor Skinner’s book brings out ‘the well-known rift between the human nature of the moral system, with its deep ties of sympathy for others, and the calculating but beneficial selfishness of the human nature of the world of economic relationships’. In fact, Professor Skinner affirms more than once that Smith’s account of human nature remains consistent in his moral and economic theories. On pages 104-5 he says explicitly that ‘the contrast which was at one time drawn by commentators between sympathy on the one hand, and self-interest on the other, was often based on a misunderstanding of the two terms.’ Mrs Mitchison’s ‘well-known rift’is now well known to be a myth.
Then Mrs Mitchison writes of ‘the “hidden hand” of God’ in Smith’s economic system. There is, I think, good evidence that Smith’s use of the expression ‘invisible hand’ (so far as I am aware, he never wrote of a ‘hidden hand’) does not have a theological implication. Professor Skinner does not suggest that it has.
Next, Mrs Mitchison writes of ‘Smith’s extraordinary indifference to observation, quantification or experiment’, and thinks this is illustrated by his essay on the history of astronomy, in which, so she says, ‘simplicity was the test of rightness.’ I wonder if she has read that essay. Professor Skinner, who knows in what circumstances Smith thought simplicity relevant, also knows that Smith was very far indeed from ignoring ‘observation, quantification or experiment’ in this work. He writes on page 35 that ‘Smith’s knowledge of astronomy was almost as remarkable as the uses to which it was put.’
I hesitate to add anything about Smith’s economics, since I am far less competent than Mrs Mitchison to comment upon his work in that subject. Nevertheless I am surprised to find her saying ‘it is a pity that he did not apply himself – as an economic historian if not as an economic theorist – to collecting evidence on some of his assertions.’ As an editor of much of Smith’s work, I have been impressed by the extent to which he did apply himself to gathering evidence, especially on historical matters. In this respect, he seems to me to have been more assiduous than was common in his day. Mrs Mitchison writes as if Smith should have been capable in 1776 of discovering things that were perceived much later. Is not that an oversimplified view for an economic historian to take?
Imperial College of Science and Technology, London SW7
Vol. 2 No. 8 · 1 May 1980
SIR: D.D. Raphael, who has sent you a powerful criticism of my review of Professor Skinner’s papers (Letters, 17 April), certainly knows Adam Smith better than I do, and I bow to his main lines of attack. However, if he would accept that I am amazed whenever I use The Wealth of Nations at the subtlety and depth of its perceptions he might still accept that the points I made were not totally frivolous. I know that Smith saw the confrontations of business as a source of moral relationships, but it still seems to me that these are not identical with the morality derived from the deeper concept of sympathy. The phrase ‘hidden hand’ came from writing away from the text, but the concept of the ‘invisible hand’ had seemed to me to imply a desire to present an apparent assent to theism.
I am not an economist. I use Smith as a source of economic history, and here it is impossible not to notice that he has made factual statements without support, and that in some cases the statements are wrong. One matter for which material was readily available in 1776 but not used was the trend of corn prices. Smith also made an assertion about cattle prices. No one has as yet done the important work of checking on this, and it would have been much easier to check then than it is now.
Pencaitland, East Lothian