The Other Adam Smith

The Other Adam Smith

by Mike Hill, Warren Montag


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The Other Adam Smith represents the next wave of critical thinking about the still under-examined work of this paradigmatic Enlightenment thinker. Not simply another book about Adam Smith, it allows and even necessitates his inclusion in the realm of theory in the broadest sense. Moving beyond his usual economic and moral philosophical texts, Mike Hill and Warren Montag take seriously Smith's entire corpus, his writing on knowledge, affect, sociability and government, and political economy, as constituting a comprehensive—though highly contestable—system of thought. We meet not just Smith the economist, but Smith the philosopher, Smith the literary critic, Smith the historian, and Smith the anthropologist. Placed in relation to key thinkers such as Hume, Lord Kames, Fielding, Hayek, Von Mises, and Agamben, this other Adam Smith, far from being localized in the history of eighteenth-century economic thought or ideas, stands at the center of the most vibrant and contentious debates of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804791946
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 10/29/2014
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Mike Hill is Associate Professor of English at the University at Albany, SUNY.

Warren Montag is Professor of English at Occidental College.

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The Other Adam Smith

By Mike Hill, Warren Montag


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9300-1



Adam Smith's Divisions of Knowledge

The pleasing wonder of ignorance is accompanied with the still more pleasing satisfaction of science. We wonder and are amazed at the effect; and we are pleased ourselves, and happy to find that we can comprehend, in some measure, how that wonderful effect is produced. Adam Smith, "Of the Imitative Arts"

THE WORD "IGNORANCE" designates a two-part sequence in the epigram above, which we have lifted from an incomplete, posthumously published, and—to scholars of Adam Smith the political economist—a somewhat minor text. The collection, Essays on Philosophical Subjects (EPS), within which this piece on the imitative arts appears, was first published in 1795 but connects back several decades to Smith's earliest scholarly preoccupations. The imitative arts essay is important for us because it establishes Smith as what might be called—with 200-plus years of specialization between his time and ours—an interdisciplinary scholar, before disciplines as such. The full volume of the EPS ranges in scope from astronomy and physics, to music and dance, to metaphysics and vision, and to the comparative study of verse, at times mixing one topic into the other.

The EPS thus takes its place among so much other would-be ephemera—in particular, the Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (LRBL) from 1748. In the imitative arts essay (hereafter "IA") and in the earlier lectures, Smith examines what his 1790s biographer Dugald Stewart loosely called the "fine arts" in his biography ("AL"). As we've noted in the Introduction, it is curious that the material regarded by most scholars of Smith as his minor writings—work that is marginal to his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations (Wealth), or the earlier Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS)—in fact comprises the majority of what is now available as Smith's corpus at large (student notes, lectures, fragments, letters, as well as the different versions of the major books). This curiosity contains within it a historical puzzle about the distinctions of value that we now want to trace between this or that genus of eighteenth-century knowledge and, implicitly, about how such distinctions of value emerge within and between Smith's so-called minor and major texts. Stewart remarked about Smith's breadth of interest that he "tended to generalize a little too much" ("AL" 306). Whether this is true or not, insofar as Smith the generalist may be claimed as a key figure—perhaps the key figure—of the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment, then we might also say that the problem of generalizing itself—the problem of particularity and universality, of division and wholeness, of specialization and comprehensiveness—is precisely what continues to comprise modernity's core philosophical problem. This at least is the point of our beginning with the epigram from Smith on the fine arts.

In this epigram on the pleasures of knowledge, the first part of the surprise-wonder-admiration sequence is related to the affective connotation of ignorance, a sort of angst-producing epistemic tripwire that eventuates if processed correctly in the initial pleasure-producing effect Smith registers as wonder. Secondarily, and with that much more satisfaction, ignorance is supposed to be recollected by a different knowledge mode. The pleasing wonder of ignorance is provisionally circumscribed, we could say, reworked within what Stewart—not altogether positively—called Smith's "love of system" ("AL" 306). In this way, the distress of interruption called surprise is contained or properly canalized, slowed down by contemplative wonder, and rendered pleasingly objectified in a temporary moment of stasis called admiration.

This three-part movement between ignorance and understanding gives the "various powers of the human mind" ("AL" 274) a greater pleasure-producing capacity than static contemplation can provide; or better, in keeping with the paradoxical nature of disciplinary division, we see here a certain regularity that is achieved while change is simultaneously encouraged. Moreover, Smith makes a distinctly Enlightenment move by positing a notional "we" at the beginning and end of the epistemic production line. In this way, his apparent displacement of individual by socialized forms of pleasure would seem to occur by a more rationally oriented commitment to what he would call, in the broadest possible sense, the achievement of "science." But what is enigmatic is that the move from ignorance to science, from wonder to pleasure, and finally, from still more pleasure to that sociable state that Smith calls "ourselves," is that a fully realized overcoming of ignorance is neither desirable nor really ever possible ("IA" 185).

In tracing Newtonian (and, contrastingly, Humean) influences on Smith's epistemology, Eric Schliesser does well to insist on the essentially "open-ended enterprise of [Smith's] successive approximations." For Schliesser, Smith's reliance on approximation is consistent with his distinction between natural price and localized price, which would be achieved if the obstructions (luxury, monopoly, and what today we would call unions) that prevent the free movement of capital, labor, and goods were removed. But commensurate with the market realities of Smith's day (and our own), freedom of movement—call it, in the epistemological sense, open-endedness—is less an issue of debate than the specific directions, channels, and boundaries that delimit the circulation, commonly, of ideas, people, and things. The opening through which surprise eventuates in admiration is directed, as we will show in this chapter, by an emerging sense of disciplinary division. And this disciplinary order, to extend Schliesser, is what replaces simple obstructionism once the majority of mankind (as Smith would put it) is sufficiently conditioned to work.

Smith's epistemology is no less idealized—a term Schliesser uses in a different essay—than is his desire for an obstruction-free capitalist market. This in part is what distinguishes Smith's relative optimism from Hume's mitigation of Pyrrhonian doubts. For Hume in Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (hereafter ECH), the philosopher's ability to be "be sensible of our ignorance" burdened the progress of knowledge perhaps more than it augmented it. Smith is somewhat less burdened. Still, Smith's epistemology is saturated with anxiety and discomfort when "new or singular" events occur. Smith is generically weary of "tumult," and this is where imagination can offer a palliative effect.

Thus, at closer look, let's begin with two points: First, pace those who would argue that Smith is a radical egalitarian, his collective "we" is achieved in the form of a particular, rather than the imagined and idealized general sense of collective-cum-intellectual becoming. Comprehension occurs only "in some measure," just as obstructions within an idealized capitalist market—and "tumult" is precisely the right term here—are liable to pop up without warning. And, as we shall see, those tumultuous obstructions do arise, especially when the paradox of seeking generality through division is applied.

Second, the anxieties and dis-pleasure attendant on surprise must be kept in mind. Smith's interest in knowledge production places science within a certain volatile zone (the surprise experience) that is subsequently stopped by wonder, then reasoned through according to the norms of admiration: Again, we can only ever comprehend wonder "in some measure"; pleasure overcomes anxiety in the encounter with wonder and the partial (read "select," "normative," "socially or epistemologically appropriate") recollection of it. The logic then, if we follow the move from wonder to achieving a "we," is that whatever human collectivity exists under the provisional heading of "ourselves" must also be based on a certain tension where the aleatory charges of ignorance continue to disrupt science rather than being rebuffed by it.

The question, which must remain a question—a moment of ignorance, an unknown, absence, all variously manifest in Smith's work, as the threat of a "tumult"—is how effectively that disruption is managed. Through what openings, in the face of what obstructions that must either be ignored or eliminated, are the orders of knowledge and the organization of commercial society ideally supposed to emerge?

We should emphasize again that in Smith's historical moment aesthetic pleasure was not yet cordoned off from social life. Smith holds no truck with the Romantic-individualist discourse that came after him, where the enjoyment of wonder needs vast empty spaces dotted here and there by the Highland lass, the hermit, or the leech gatherer, and where pleasure accrues—Wordsworth's pitch for common language aside—in inverse proportion to its public accountability. Smith denounces "the gloomy horror of the cavern"—and mentions the hermit, specifically—as leading to "prophetical inspirations and revelations" (LRBL 71). By contrast, for Smith aesthetic pleasure is processed across what only later appear to be more discrete disciplines, and it does so in a collectively oriented and successive (that is, nonprophetical) way; but note too, that it is in this movement toward collectivity that ignorance retains an ambivalent location within science. Ignorance remains, or can remain, a crucial counterpoint to the so-called open-endedness of simply pushing knowledge through the doors and windows of our disciplinary homes in a smooth, or as Smith would have it, contra Hume, a more or less successive way. The caveat about science being possible only "in some measure" gestures toward a theory of understanding that is a decidedly collective achievement but also—and this is essential—an achievement that remains unsettled, because while potentially massive, it is irritatingly incomplete.

This lacuna in Smith, which troubles the manifestation of surprise on its way toward the more settled achievement of admiration, would escape the appreciation of William Wordsworth for reasons beyond having too much to do with the world. This time, the problem is disciplinary. In his 1815 "Essay Supplementary to Preface," Wordsworth refers to Smith as "the worse critic ... that Scotland, a soil to which this sort of weed seems natural, has produced." It is relevant to our discussion of what Wordsworth called the "obliquities of admiration" that he is here taking issue with Smith on the belated high reputation of Paradise Lost. Wordsworth valued Milton's epic precisely because its lasting significance, while missed in its day, became a canonical text of English literature given "the slow process of time." Wordsworth impugns Smith in note 3 of the "Essay" for presuming that literary value is rather a more mutable affair than good poetry ought to be and that pleasurable thought is available even when the nonliterary specialist (never mind, the Scotsman) is at work. By the early nineteenth century, the notion that an economist could have literary sensibility, or that anyone should care, would have been a displeasing breach of the newly codified laws of disciplinary specialization. However, in Smith's interpretive system, the frisson by which knowledge is produced can be read as having a certain historically specific permissiveness, evidenced through the problem of disciplinary change. Criticism, contra Wordsworth, was not yet fully subdivided from science when Smith was lecturing and writing, nor science from philosophy, nor, for that matter, philosophy from knowledge production in general.

The issue of disciplinary change is largely missed by the more recent wave of scholarship on Smith, even though this work has taken us in the productive direction of recognizing the value of Smith's so-called minor texts. Such work has at least admitted the appropriateness of reading the work on the history of language, rhetoric and belles lettres, epistemology, and so on. For example, Neil De Marchi traces a consistency across Smith's work regarding the function of imitation, which is described by Smith in an essay dedicated to the imitative arts. De Marchi sees in Smith that "pleasure stems from ingenuity," which overcomes "a disparity in kinds by linking them in appearance." What is useful here is that De Marchi is attempting, as we are, to address the problem (still a problem when his essay appeared in The Cambridge Companion to Adam Smith in 2006) that "Smith's essay on the arts has attracted insufficient modern commentary, and that small amount [of such work comes] mostly from scholars who view the essay as a contribution to aesthetics."

De Marchi's attention to discipline is useful, even if it occurs mostly in passing. But what is missed in his reference to Smith's supposed transcendence of the problem of epistemological division is the serious difficulty that attended the way different kinds of knowledge emerged in the eighteenth century, how theyproceeded over time to divide. Of paramount concern to Smith and his circle was the question of how to properly demarcate one kind of knowledge from another, if one must proceed in dividing knowledge at all. What remains insufficiently unexplored, not only by De Marchi but also by most scholars who are beginning to engage what we will highlight as a conflicted exchange between aesthetics and philosophy—especially in eighteenth-century Scotland—is the historicity of disciplinary change. What we are offering below is an account of the very Smithian—and, to repeat, paradoxical—commitment to seeking unity through division: specifically, the modern orders of institutionalized imaginative work. This history is especially intriguing regarding the imagination, which became, at least ideally—with the stark exception of that anxiety-inducing pop-cultural genre called the novel, which we'll explore in Chapter 3—cordoned off from social life by the end of the eighteenth century within the more proper, perhaps ultimately less "tumultuous," category of literary study.

In Smith's early work on the fine arts, as we have stated, the disorienting capacity of wonder was not securely segregated from the public applications of knowledge, where sociability and thinking are both defined according to their resistance to completion in any full measure. There is thus an occulted, one is tempted to say after Wordsworth, an "oblique" restlessness in Smith's epistemology, which in some ways defies his alleged love of system and which cannot be fully articulated within the disciplinary orders of thought he helped initiate and that determined his later institutional fate. For Smith, the unreconstructed generalist, ignorance retains a paradoxical vitality in that "we" attempt to overcome it but also accept that we cannot. This obstacle marks a historically specific set of social and epistemic relations, which as we will see in what follows, underwrites Smith's aesthetic-qua moral-philosophical project.

In Smith's early preoccupation with the fine arts, at a time when the strict division between this and other forms of intellectual focus was only beginning to become institutionalized, pleasure continues to reach across an experience versus reason divide. Only later, after Adam Smith and the process of confining Smith to his economic disciplinary home, does pleasure become codified as a specific kind of knowledge called literary. Let us simply settle on this point then, by way of introduction, that ignorance remains a crucial feature, and pleasure a highly complicated aspect, of how Smith constructed his interpretive system.

But in what follows we do not simply want to say that Adam Smith the critic should achieve a literary apotheosis and finally rise above the dismal sciences of politics and economic study. We do not want to construct a mid-eighteenth century literary Adam Smith against a more sober-minded nineteenth-century political-economic figure. The point of this chapter, commensurate with the larger goals of The Other Adam Smith, is to provide a historical argument and a new reading of Smith's more neglected texts that together interrogate the divisions between different forms of eighteenth-century knowledge. Ultimately—that is, beyond accounting for these epistemic divisions—we want to challenge a more general division that Smith, often ambivalently, initiated in order for Wordsworth to complete: a supra-division between the physical hardships of the working majority and those few literary men who had the privileges of abstract (read here, in Smith's technical parlance, "imaginative") thought. Not yet a time when new knowledge could be separated within the confines of intellectual genius, all ranges of the scriptural professions up until Smith were simultaneously active: advocates, lawyers, all the petite noblesse; and all would have been simply designated "writers." But Smith is on the cusp of a dramatic historical change.


Excerpted from The Other Adam Smith by Mike Hill, Warren Montag. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Short Forms ix

Introduction: "A Tendency to Absence": Which Other Adam Smith? 1

1 "The Pleasing Wonder of Ignorance": Adam Smith's Divisions of Knowledge 27

2 "Tumultuous Combinations": The Transindividual from Adam Smith to Spinoza 105

3 "Numbers, Noise, and Power": Insurrection as a Problem of Historical Method 147

4 "Immunity, the Necessary Complement of Liberty": The Birth of Necro-Economics 235

Notes 343

Index 385

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