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Eric Schliesser, Adam Smith: Systematic Philosopher and Public Thinker

Jeffrey T. Young
p. 397-401
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Eric Schliesser, Adam Smith: Systematic Philosopher and Public Thinker, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017, xxiv + 407 pages, ISBN 978-019069012-0

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1“This whole book has been one long argument for the idea that return to and study of such exemplars is a necessary, prefatory step in the renewal and re-articulation of the ‘old truths’ of liberalism” (375). For a book as long and complex as this one, this is the most apt summary statement of the central purpose of the work. Eric Schliesser’s book is certainly long; it is composed of numerous overlapping arguments, and the treatment is topical rather than expository. However, it all comes together in its portrait of Adam Smith as a humane, liberal philosopher whose works are aimed at raising the life prospects of the least well-off members of society. It infuses his political, and economic ideas with moral purpose as well as philosophical underpinning. Consequently, “It is a core commitment of the present book that Smith’s approach to political economy is, despite the considerable insights developed in more recent economics, in many respects wiser and more humane” (198). This commitment guides analysis of Smith’s public persona as he refrains from spinning utopian paradises that have no chance of seeing the light of day, or, worse if men of system insist on bringing them into existence. Thus, according to the author, Smith was notably cautious about instantiating the simple system of natural liberty, and, of course, his famous friendship with David Hume is presented as the culmination of such a humane, philosophical life—an exemplar of how to think, how to do economics as a moral science, and how to live.

2These are the themes developed under the subtitle of the book. Smith’s philosophical project is presented as a scientific effort at constructing systems of thought that explain systems of nature—human and physical. In the Introduction, Schliesser notes, “In this book, I focus on writings available to a learned audience in, say, 1800 (Smith died in 1790)” (18). Hence, the focus is on Smith, the public philosopher. Only the parts of his total system that Smith himself published or permitted to be published are given extensive treatment. The result is that the posthumous Essays on Philosophical Subjects features prominently in the book, while the Lectures on Jurisprudence and those on Rhetoric are only mentioned occasionally, in passing.

3I found this to be an understandable, but not a wholly convincing, interpretive move on Schliesser’s part in that he wishes to present Smith as the sort of liberal exemplar mentioned above. As such, we see Smith much as his late eighteenth century reading public saw him, and we also see him as a philosopher who wants in some sense to communicate with ordinary people, or at least ordinary literate people. This does, however, create a bit of an inconsistency in the “systematic” side of the project. Schliesser, at any rate, has more than enough material for his purpose in the public Smith, and it is how this publicness informs Smith’s philosophical and practical judgments that is one of the main points of the book.

4It is impossible to really do Schliesser’s achievement full justice in such a short review. The book is complicated with copious cross-referencing, and it is full of fresh insights and novel interpretations. However, it is not hard to follow. It is written in a friendly conversational tone, and when necessary it gently reminds the reader of previous arguments as they become relevant at a later point in the book. It is topical in nature, which perhaps reflects the fact that it is based on previously published journal articles. Schliesser has done a masterful job putting his work together into a logical progression, and tying together loose ends. Readers expecting an expository account of Smith’s published works, however, will be disappointed. The book is really aimed at the specialist. Although Schliesser quotes extensively, and reproduces key passages at length, the reader really must be quite familiar with Smith’s two books and with the posthumous essays. Consequently, I believe, it will garner an enthusiastic, but small audience.

5Following a short introduction, the book is divided into four parts. We begin with an account of human nature in part I, “Propensities and Passions,” which consists of four chapters. Here, starting from: “This division of labour from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion” (WN I.ii.1, 25), we are introduced to topics such as what Schliesser calls “Smithian Social Explanation” and “Environmental Rationality,” as well as a rich, thorough, discussion of passions, propensities, and dispositions. Here also Schliesser argues for distancing Smith from Humean empiricism. The part ends with the impartial spectator. This intentional interweaving of Theory of Moral Sentiments with Wealth of Nations reflects the point that Smith is systematic and that the two works combine to form a seamless whole.

6Part II, “Society,” is the longest and most substantial in the book. It contains eight chapters, and it is here that we meet up with Smith’s analytical economics, the invisible hand, methodological issues, and virtue. In Part III, “Philosophers”, we have two chapters dealing primarily with Smith’s relation to Hume. The first of these, “Religion”, uses Smith’s reluctance to get involved in the publication of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion to discuss Smith’s relation to religious belief and practice. The second chapter is an account of Smith’s eulogy for Hume at the time of his death. An account of a “public philosopher” would be incomplete without an account of how a humane philosophical observer of commercial society faces such critical issues as religious faith, death, and friendship. The work is completed with a short Conclusion, from which I have already quoted above.

7This overview itself has been topical. I have only given a selection of some of the topics covered and chapters that make up the two parts at the heart of the book. And I have only hinted at the novel ways Schliesser uses Essays on Philosophical Subjects to develop and underpin his arguments. It is a brilliant accomplishment. All serious Smith scholars will want to give it a careful read. Other than the grotesque cover, and some critical observations (explained below), I only have praise for the book.

8To me one of the most illuminating features of the book was Schliesser’s exercise to compare and contrast with what he calls “Smithian Social Explanation” and the invisible hand. The fact that both entail unintended consequences of human actions leads us to suppose that they are the same thing, i.e. the invisible hand is just short for “Smithian social explanation”. I remember Andrew Skinner once suggesting to me that they were not the same thing, although he seems to treat them as such in his published writings on Smith. In my teaching, I have been guilty of conflating the two, while realizing that Smith does not use the same language when he is engaged in social explanation as in the origin of division of labor passage. Why not mention this as another of the many cases where agents are led by an invisible hand to promote an end that was not part of their intentions?

9Schliesser has provided what is, to my knowledge, the only close reading of these two concepts that succeeds in plausibly distinguishing the two ideas. First, on social explanation he says:

Now I am in the position to start offering an analysis of Smithian social explanation: social phenomena (e.g., the division of labor), which have social utility, can be explained by the effects of the unforeseen (and unintended) workings of human propensities over time. … But here I emphasize three related aspects of Smith’s explanatory account:

  1. It is causal (“necessary consequence”) …

  2. Smith’s account is a historical explanation. … (a) that the stable consequence would not have been in view (or predictable) to human observers of human nature at an early time and, so, also not capable of being intended; (b) that to be a cause does not require temporal contiguity between the cause and the effect. …

  3. Smith’s account does require that after certain consequences become visible to observer-participants they become self-reinforcing and generate a form of lock-in. (33-34)

10To this I would add the following critical observation. The fact that we have something to explain as the unintended, but utility-enhancing consequences, of some natural propensity implies that the entity we are modelling is itself a system that is functioning independently of human intention. In other words, if the aggregate result was the result of human intentions, then our task would be to explain those intentions. If market prices, for example, were the result of human intentions, then there would be some set of humans that are consciously determining what those prices are, and this is indeed the case with regulated and monopoly prices. It is this insight of Smith’s and the Scottish Enlightenment’s more broadly that, to me, signals the origin of a truly scientific theory of society. Succinctly: social order has to be an unintended consequence of human propensities if it is to be brought under the methods of scientific explanation. Thus, in my view Schliesser has missed an important aspect of Smith’s explanatory model.

11But, the invisible hand stories are not origin or social order stories. Schliesser summarizes the difference as follows:

I offer detailed textual analysis of them in order to argue that what I call “Smithian invisible hand processes” are not identical to what I have called “Smithian social explanations.” I show that any given iteration of a Smithian invisible hand process is a relatively short-term process in which an agent produces unintended and, to him or her, unknown consequences. Crucially, I argue that in invisible hand processes the consequences are, in principle, knowable to the right kind of observer (either theoretically informed or by accumulated common sense) at the time. By contrast, Smithian social explanations involve cases where the consequences are visible or knowable only after the fact. Generally they take place over much longer amounts of time than any given invisible hand process. (235)

12Given the premises of the invisible hand arguments in Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations (the narrow capacity of the stomach, and the definition of national revenue as the modern GDP), the conclusions are essentially trivial. By definition, landlords feed the poor and profit maximizers produce goods that contribute to the national income. Thus, while the two types of explanation resemble each other, they are not identical. The invisible hand passages are not spontaneous order explanations of social phenomena. The self-adjusting properties of free markets are, then, examples of “Smithian social explanation”.

13 This is just one example among dozens of fine-grained insights into Smith’s thought. For the most part I found Schliesser’s arguments convincing. However, I thought there was a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the project: hence, the critical observation given next. Smith refused to allow significant parts of the total system to be made public. Thus, his projected works on law and government and on rhetoric were not only incomplete at Smith’s death; what there was of them was burned. Hence, the public Smith is an incomplete systematic thinker. Moreover, while the book is brilliant in its detailed reasoning from Smith’s published work, it suffers from an incomplete attention to the system as a whole: too many, admittedly beautiful, trees, not enough forest. The portrait of Smith, the exemplary liberal, of course, still stands.

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Smith, Adam. [1776] 1976. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Edited by Andrew S. Skinner and R. H. Campbell. Oxford: Clarendon Press, reprinted Indianapolis: Liberty Classics. (WN)

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Jeffrey T. Young, « Eric Schliesser, Adam Smith: Systematic Philosopher and Public Thinker »Œconomia, 10-2 | 2020, 397-401.

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Jeffrey T. Young, « Eric Schliesser, Adam Smith: Systematic Philosopher and Public Thinker »Œconomia [En ligne], 10-2 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2020, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Jeffrey T. Young

St. Lawrence University emeritus and Gordon College.

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