Adam Smith by Richard Gunn

My interest in Adam Smith was sparked by George Davie, who taught me philosophy at Edinburgh University and who later became a valued friend. One passage in particular from Smith’s writings inspired Davie. It is a passage which, he considered, ought to be famous. It runs as follows:

Adam Smith
Adam Smith


Were it possible that a human creature could grow up to manhood in some solitary place, without any communication with his own species, he could no more think of his own character, of the propriety or demerit of his own sentiments and conduct, of the beauty or deformity of his own mind, than of the beauty or deformity of his own face. All these are objects which he cannot easily see, which naturally he does not look at, and with regard to which he is provided with no mirror which can present them to his view. Bring him into society, and he is immediately provided with the mirror which he wanted before. It is placed in the countenance and behaviour of those he lives with, which always mark when they enter into, and when they disapprove of his sentiments; and it is here that he first views the propriety and impropriety of his own passions, the beauty and deformity of his own mind.[1]


1. A. Smith The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Oxford Clarendon Press 1976) [henceforth TMS] p. 110. The edition that I cite was reprinted by Liberty Fund of Indianapolis in 1984. See G. Davie The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect (Edinburgh Polygon Books 1986) p. 259.


The present paper returns to this and kindred passages below. Here, I wish only to indicate its importance to Davie and his circle of Edinburgh friends. As a result of Davie’s influence, I found it natural to think of Theory of Moral Sentiment (TMS) as the work by Smith that supplies the ethical foundations on which the later Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations rests. It is conventional among commentators to refer to the problem of how TMS and the Wealth of Nations are related as the ‘Adam Smith problem’.[2] In the course of my paper, I offer some thoughts on how the Adam Smith problem may be viewed.

The present paper suggests a reading of Smith. In fairness to a reader, I point out that that I have already touched on parts of what I have to say in print. A conference held in October 2009 at Kocaeli in Turkey allowed me to draw together the reading here mentioned. The conference reader – H. Kapucu, M. Aydin, I. Şirner, F. Morady and Ű. Çetin (eds.) Politik Iktisat ve Adam Smith (Istanbul Yōn Yayinlari 2009) contains (in English) a version of my presentation. I have drawn upon this publication in the present paper. I have likewise drawn upon my contribution to Norbert Waszek’s Festschrift (my paper being headed ‘Smith, Habermas, Hegel’ (forthcoming). For completeness’ sake, I note a piece headed ‘A Defence of Adam Smith’ that I published in the Bella Caledonia website on 22 June 2017. It too has been cannibalised in the present paper.

I should mention that, although I find Smith’s writings inspiring, mainstream secondary literature on Smith can be dull. Not infrequently, I have had to ask myself: “Are the books here under under discussion and the volumes on my table the same works?” Not all of the secondary discussion on Smith is thus disappointing. Dogan Gocmen’s The Adam Smith Problem, referred to above, is a glorious exception and Vivienne Brown’s Adam Smith’s Discourse (London Routledge 1994) has, for me, been a longstanding favourite. Neil Davidson’s comments on Smith in N. Davidson, P. McCafferty and D. Miller, eds., Neoliberal Scotland (Newcastle upon Tyne Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2010) pp. 4-5, although brief, present Smith in a believable light. Noam Chomsky’s comments on Smith in his On Anarchism [3] is a justifiable polemic against how, among conservatives, Smith tends to be seen.

The occasion of the present paper is a reading group on Smith that was convened at 16 Keir Street, Edinburgh, in the summer of 2023. So far, the group has confined its attention to TMS. Perhaps a reading of the Wealth of Nations is a task ahead?


1. Smith’s TMS as a study of interaction.

A first-time reader of TMS may feel puzzled by the suggestion that interaction is the work’s chief theme. The problem lies in the book’s order of discussion and the casual and informal style that TMS adopts. TMS is, indeed, a study of interaction. My task here is to make this clear.

The account of interaction that, I consider, underlies the arguments of TMS is presented by Smith in two sections. For Smith’s conception of interaction to become clear, the sections – which are separated by some 100 pages of text – must be brought together. A reader interested in the theme of interaction must, first of all, dwell on the opening pages of TMS Part I. Next, the reader must turn to the opening pages of Part III.

In suggesting that the opening pages of Part I and the opening pages of Part III complement one another, I do not mean to imply that they say the same thing. On the contrary, they pose and attempt to answer different questions. In Part I, Smith asks: how may I have knowledge of other people? His answer is that my claims about others are based on what I know about myself. In Part III, Smith asks: how may I have knowledge of myself. His reply: in order to obtain self-knowledge, I must look into other people’s eyes. Each line of argument – or, as I prefer to term it, each arc of argument – proceeds in a different direction. My suggestion is that the arcs complement one another. Taken together, they form a picture of what interaction may involve.

With these general points in mind, let us look more closely at the start of Part I. Smith’s starting point is that ‘we have no immediate experience of what other people feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected’.[4] I cannot experience your toothache or your ecstasy. This being so, are claims regarding other people worthless? Should we be philosophical sceptics where claims regarding other people are concerned? Smith refuses to draw this conclusion. It is true that I can have no immediate awareness of other people’s pain or happiness. But ‘imagination'[5] is a resource to which we may turn. ‘By the imagination we [may] place ourselves in his [another person’s] situation’.[6] I may not be able to experience another person’s toothache but (having experienced toothache in the past) I can appreciate a fellow-sufferer’s pain. I can sympathise (to employ Smith’s expression) or empathise (to employ a term that is current today). To be sure, I cannot experience another’s pain directly. Our knowledge of others may be mediated (through imagination). But it is an aspect of life nonetheless.

There is, here, a point worth emphasising which brings to light a difference between Smith and his friend David Hume. In writing about sympathy, Hume employs an analogy: ‘As in strings equally wound up, the motion of one communicates itself to the rest; so all the affections readily pass from one person to another, and beget correspondent movements in every human creature’.[7] In employing this analogy, and seeing here a key to the notion of sympathy, Hume comes close to endorsing what might be termed a contagion-of-the-passions view. For Smith, the picture is different. Very quickly, when we consider sympathy, the notion of situation comes into play. Smith goes as far as to say that sympathy ‘does not arise so much from the view of the passion. As from that of the situation which excites it’.[8] What I have referred to as a contagion-of-the-passions view is not part of Smith’s meaning. Instead, Smith’s conception of sympathy is compatible with critical thinking. We can ask: is such-and-such a passion appropriate, given the situation concerned?

Smith closes arc 1 of his argument with a resounding declaration: ‘Every faculty in one man is the measure by which he judges of the like faculty in another. I judge of your sight by my sight, of your ear by my ear, of your reason by my reason, of your resentment by my resentment, of your love by my love. I neither have, nor can have, any other way of judging about them’.[9] There is, in short, nothing above or beyond the human realm. Smith does not, in his writings, launch polemical barbs against Christian religion. However, as the just-quoted passage makes evident, there can be no appeal to a transcendentally-given level of discourse. Philosophically, we must get by with a little help from our friends.


From Part I of TMS, and the first arc of Smith’s argument, I turn to Part III. In the paragraph before the passage quoted by Davie, Smith writes:


We can never survey our own sentiments and motives, we can never form any judgment concerning them: unless we remove ourselves, as it were, from our own natural station, and endeavour to view them as at a certain distance from us. But we can do this in no  other way than by endeavouring to view them with the eyes of other people, or as other people are likely to view them.[10]


Above, I have suggested that knowledge of myself (as in memories of toothache) allows us to make judgements about what other people feel. At this point in TMS, the direction of Smith’s argument changes. To the question “How can I obtain knowledge of myself?”, TMS replies: in order to obtain such knowledge, I must turn to others. I must look into the eyes of other people. In conversation, Davie emphasised that TMS launched an important philosophical tradition. The tradition was employed in twentieth-century French writers such as Merleau-Ponty and Sartre. Initially, I was doubtful that Sartre’s notion of ‘the look [le regard]’ could be traced back to TMS. At the very least, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and TMS differed drastically in “affect”. Davie was quick to point out that Smith’s ideas influenced the French educational system. There was nothing far-fetched in the suggestion that aspects of Sartre echoed Adam Smith.

No doubt, a good deal more could be said about the notion of attempting to see oneself through other people’s eyes. Each of the arcs of argument that I have indicated throw a galaxy of more detailed discussions into relief. Here, however, I stand back from my comments. What can be said when the arcs are viewed together? What, in other words, have I achieved?

Let us be blunt. At first sight, the result is disappointing. In Part I, Smith has shown us that knowledge of others depends on knowledge of oneself. In Part III, Smith has contended that self-knowledge requires knowledge of other people. It appears that each question raised by Smith has been answered. If the arcs of Smith’s argumentation are as I have suggested, does TMS not move in a circle? It matters little whether the detail of Smith’s discussion is found convincing. What has been revealed is circularity – and vicious circularity at that. Such a revelation is, in a sense, an achievement. Neither I myself nor the sadly-deceased George Davie would be happy to leave the discussion at that.

At this point, I return to the notion of interaction. If TMS is read in, so to say, a linear fashion, then a reader of the book will find him or herself treading and re-treading the same conceptual ground. If, on the other hand, we think of TMS as a study of interaction, the two arcs of Smith’s argumentation mirror the to-and-fro dynamic that interaction typically involves. To be sure, each arc presupposes the other. In an interaction, both are present. If the interaction is sustained, each arc goes forward in and through the other. (In the same way, each step taken by a walker presupposes the steps taken afterwards and before.) My suggestion is that we give up reading TMS in a “linear” fashion. Instead, we should assemble or re-assemble Parts I and III (that is, arcs 1 and 2). This complementarity comes to light when – and, I think, only when – interaction is seen as Smith’s theme.

Let me digress – however briefly. From time to time, in their Revolutionary Recognition,[11] Richard Gunn and Adrian Wilding refer to the term ‘mutually recognitive’ conversation. My suggestion here is that TMS is the pioneering work that helps us to understand the dynamic that such conversation involves. My aim in this digression is to indicate the close relation between a reading of TMS with issues that Gunn and Wilding have debated. (Right-wing invocations of Smith and, even, mainstream scholarship belong in different worlds.)


The Adam Smith problem.

How, in the light of the above, are the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and the Wealth of Nations (1776) related​​? Given the difference in time between the works, it is concievable that no intellectually interesting relation exists. My suggestion is that the relation between the works is, indeed, of interest. In fact, TMS and the Wealth of Nations expound a shared position. But everything depends on how Smith as a theorist is seen. Right-wing invocations of Smith and careful scholarship belong in different worlds.

If Smith turns out to be a prophet enthusing about a free market, as right-wing commentators believe, all is lost. If, however, Smith’s works can be brought into an intelligible relation, the following position suggests itself.

Perhaps Smith did, indeed, see The Theory of Moral Sentiments as establishing the foundations of an ethical position. And, once established, his views on this did not change. If so, the question that confronted him was: did interaction in the ‘commercial'[12] society of the eighteenth century – the society that he himself inhabited – display the features that TMS described? The question was the more urgent if, as Smith believed, the interaction described in TMS was a condition of social life per se. If commercial society did, indeed, threaten to erode or undermine such interaction, perhaps it was advantageous in alternative ways? Such was the question – or set of questions – that the Wealth of Nations set out to answer.

Before turning to the Wealth of Nations as a text, I offer a general observation. A reader of my discussion will note that, in my view, the Wealth of Nations is an exploratory and tentative piece of writing. Whatever might be Smith’s answer to the questions raised, it is not the straightforward hymn of praise to market values that right-wing commentators want it to be.

We may agree that the Wealth of Nations starts with what, for commercial society, appears to be a success story. Such society produces an unimaginable level of wealth. It does so, suggests Smith, because of the division of labour that it involves. The division of labour that Smith has in mind is one where ‘every man’s business’ is reduced to ‘some one simple operation’, the operation being ‘the sole employment of his life’.13 Each operative becomes more and more proficient in performing the task that is required of him or her. So far, so good. But is there not a dark side to the arrangement that commercial society favours? As tasks become increasingly simple, does not work become spiritless and boring? In this connection, an anecdote that Smith presents is of interest. In Smith’s view, improvements in the division of labour ‘were originally the inventions of common workmen’.[14] Smith might, of course, be right or wrong about this but, be this as it may, he introduces an anecdote that is designed to illustrate his meaning. There once was a ‘boy’, he tells his reader, who ‘loved to play with his companions’ and who connected a cord to a valve that made the valve open and close automatically – thereby improving the division of labour. The boy’s motivation was that he ‘wanted to save his own labour’.[15] But why did the boy want this? Rather than clarifying Smith’s meaning, does not his anecdote leave a loose end? If the boy was happy in his work, why did he wish to escape it? Why did he prefer to play with his friends? It may seem that we are exaggerating the problem but, if we persist with Smith’s massive book, we find that his treatment of the division of labour builds up to a crescendo of denunciation. It is true that Smith, unlike Karl Marx, never envisaged a post-commercial or post-capitalist society wherein emancipation might flourish. Commerce exists and, considers Smith, it is here to stay.

Here, my aim is not to maintain that the Smith of the Wealth of Nations upheld a coherent social philosophy. It is to alert an intending reader of the Wealth of Nations to strands of thought that fit uneasily with the right-wing view of the book as a text that championed the emergence of a capitalist market. There are, quite simply, too many discords in such a reading. Not least, there is the well-known circumstance that Smith, in 1776, took a dim view of merchants and manufacturers or – in a word – entrepreneurs. In a free market, entrepreneurs vied for position. Each sought to secure advantages of a monopolistic kind. One way of stating this is to say that, for Smith, a free market exists only en route to monopoly. The Wealth of Nations points out that ‘merchants and master-manufacturers complain much of the bad effects of high wages’ in raising prices.[16] This amounts, he points out, to an informal but constant monopolistic pressure against which working men have to struggle. In the course of the Wealth of Nations, ‘discords’ – as I have termed them – accumulate. Ultimately, when Smith turns once again to the division of labour, not a relatively minor ‘discord’ but a crescendo of denunciation takes over. The worker, whose task has been radically simplified and whose work has become spiritless, ‘generally becomes as stupid as it is possible for a human creature to become’.[17] To be sure, Smith’s terminology differs from Karl Marx’s in his 1844 Manuscripts and Capital but what Smith calls stupidity is “alienation” in Marx’s sense. The subtitle of Marx’s Capital is ‘A Critique of Political Economy’ and, in the light of the passage on stupidity, a reader may ask him or herself whether the subtitle might not be borrowed by the Wealth of Nations.

Let me end the present section with a metaphor designed to draw the threads of my argument together. Let us agree to think of the boring and spiritless tasks that are frequent when a division of labour obtains as separated-out compartments to which the operative is confined. In effect, Smith is contending that the compartments are too strong and too limiting for a worker to break free. What this means is that the worker cannot make the effort of ‘imagination’ that, as we have learned, is intrinsic to interaction – and to society per se. Workers confined in this or that compartment strike persons in other compartments as too dissimilar for empathy to emerge.[18] Here I do not tackle the host of political problems that call for attention if themes concerning compartmentalisation and alienation are acknowledged.


I suspect that Smith’s writings are designed to leave their reader in a socially troubled space.

Richard Gunn. August 2023.


[Acknowledgement. I should like to thank by name the individuals who took part in our reading group at Keir Street, Edinburgh: Lynne Barty-Taylor, Rachel Frith, Michele Gunn and Annie Miller. I have benefitted from our discussions. Deficiencies are my own work.]


You can download a copy of the above essay by clicking the link below

Adam Smith by Richard Gunn




1A. Smith The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Oxford Clarendon Press 1976) [henceforth TMS] p. 110. The edition that I cite was reprinted by Liberty Fund of Indianapolis in 1984. See G. Davie The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect (Edinburgh Polygon Books 1986) p. 259.

2 For penetrating discussion, see D. Gocmen The Adam Smith Problem (London: Taurus Books 2007.)

3 N. Chomsky On Anarchism (London Penguin Books 2013) pp. 36-8.

4 TMS p. 9.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 D. Hume A Treatise on Human Nature (Oxford Clarendon Press 1978) p. 576.

8 TMS p. 12.

9 Ibid. p. 19.

10 Ibid. p. 110.

11 R. Gunn and A.Wilding Revolutionary Recognition (London: Bloomsbury Academic 2021).

12 A. Smith An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Indianapolis Liberty Classics 1981) [henceforth: Wealth of Nations] p. 37.

13 Wealth of Nations p. 18. A reader may protest that jobs for life are difficult to find. Today, the situation is complicated, and made more problematic, by the emergence of a ‘precariat’. See G. Standing The Precariat:The New Dangerous Class (London Bloomsbury 2014). I do not discuss this complication here.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid. p. 21.

16 Ibid p. 115.

17 Ibid. p. 782.

18 To be sure, the picture is rarely as open-and-closed or black-and-white as my prose, for reasons of simplicity, makes it seem. We are, each of us, more than what the role-definitions or identities that are foisted upon us as capitalism develops. Our characteristic experience is that of ‘misfitting’: J. Holloway Crack Capitalism (London Pluto Press 2010) p. 75.


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