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Essay On Philosophical Subjects

Adam Smith was one of the foremost philosophers and personalities of the eighteenth century. As a moral philosopher, Smith was concerned with the observation and rationalization of behavior. His encyclopedic description and insightful analysis of life and commerce in English society established him as an economist at a time when economics was not a recognized discipline. Today he is recognized as the father of the classical school of economics that included Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill. Smith's major work, The Wealth of Nations (1776), was the single most important economics treatise to appear up to that time. Although significant works on economics preceded it, it was truly the first of its kind. Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, on the east coast of Scotland. He enrolled at Glasgow University a the age of 14. After graduating from Glasgow in 1740, he traveled 400 miles on horseback to study at Oxford University. Oxford at that time was not the citadel of learning that it became in later years. As a result, Smith provided much of his own instruction while enjoying the vast resources of Oxford's library. Such independent work was not without peril; he was almost expelled when school officials found a copy of David Hume's Treatise of Human Nature in his possession. Aside from the lack of instruction, Smith was unhappy on a personal level. He was unpopular with the English students, as were all Scots at the time, and he suffered varying degrees of harassment. He also developed a nervous tic, a shaking of the head, that remained with him for the rest of his life. Oxford did little for Smith while he was there, and it ignored him long after he became famous. When Smith received an honorary doctorate in 1762, it was from Glasgow University. In 1746 Smith returned to Scotland and proceeded to give a series of public lectures in Edinburgh. These were followed by an appointment at Glasgow University. Smith was a popular teacher at Glasgow, despite his notorious absentmindedness and idiosyncratic behavior. He never could remember to wear a hat or a coat or carry an umbrella, and he was often observed walking about waving his cane while talking animatedly with himself. His first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), a treatise on the formation of moral judgments by men who acted primarily in their own self-interest, became an immediate success. Five years after it was published, he left Glasgow to take a well-paid position as tutor to a young English duke who was about to take the customary grand tour of Europe. During his travels, he met and shared ideas with the philosopher Voltaire, the French economist Francois Quesnay, and the American scientist and statesman Benjamin Franklin. While on tour, Smith began work on a manuscript on political economy. This work appeared some years later as The Wealth of Nations. A tour de force, the book argued that the wealth of a country was the sum of the goods produced and consumed by its people, not the monetary wealth, gold, and treasures owned by the nobility. It also argued that society was guided as if an "invisible hand" directed the selfish interests of individuals toward actions that were in the collective interest of everyone. This process tended to be self-regulating. Competition and the profit motive combined to force producers to offer better products at lower prices and to allocate the factors of production to those activities favored by consumers. The Wealth of Nations addressed numerous other issues as well, including the division of labor, the determinants of price, the origins of value, the benefits of international trade, and even economic growth. Oddly enough, The Wealth of Nations was not well received at first. In time, however, it found an audience, especially among the merchant and manufacturing classes who found in it a moral justification for the enormous energies that society was devoting to commerce and trade.

Recommended edition: Edited by W. P. D. Wightman and J. C. Bryce, vol. III of the Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982).

Excerpt:

“Plato, however, seems to have regarded the first of those as equally distinct with the second from what we would now call the Ideas or Thoughts of the Divine Mind , and even to have supposed, that they had a particular place of existence, beyond the sphere of the visible corporeal world; though this has been much controverted, both by the later Platonists, and by some very judicious modern critics, who have followed the interpretation of the later Platonists, as what did most honour to the judgment of that renowned philosopher. All the objects in this world, continued he, are particular and individual. Here, therefore, the human mind has no opportunity of seeing any Species, or Universal Nature. Whatever ideas it has, therefore, of such beings, for it plainly has them, it must derive from the memory of what it has seen, in some former period of its existence, when it had an opportunity of visiting the place or Sphere of Universals. For some time after it is immersed in the body, during its infancy, its childhood, and a great part of its youth, the violence of those passions which it derives from the body, and which are all directed to the particular and individual objects of this world, hinder it from turning its attention to those Universal Natures, with which it had been conversant in the world from whence it came. The Ideas, of these, therefore, seem, in this first period of its existence here, to be overwhelmed in the confusion of those turbulent emotions, and to be almost entirely wiped out of its remembrance. During the continuance of this state, it is incapable of Reasoning, Science and Philosophy, which are conversant about Universals. Its whole attention is turned towards particular objects, concerning which, being directed by no general notions, it forms many vain and false opinions, and is filled with error, perplexity, and confusion. But, when age has abated the violence of its passions, and composed the confusion of its thoughts, it then becomes more capable of reflection, and of turning its attention to those almost forgotten ideas of things with which it had been conversant in the former state of its existence. All the particular objects in this sensible world, being formed after the eternal exemplars in that intellectual world, awaken, upon account of their resemblance, insensibly, and by slow degrees, the almost obliterated ideas of these last. The beauty, which is shared in different degrees among terrestrial objects, revives the same idea of that Universal Nature of beauty which exists in the intellectual world: particular acts of justice, of the universal nature of justice; particular reasonings, and particular sciences, of the universal nature of science, and reasoning; particular roundnesses, of the universal nature of roundness; particular squares, of the universal nature of squareness. Thus science, which is conversant about Universals, is derived from memory; and to instruct any person concerning the general nature of any subject, is no more than to awaken in him the remembrance of what he formerly knew about it. This both Plato and Socrates imagined they could still further confirm, by the fallacious experiment, which shewed, that a person might be led to discover himself, without any information, any general truth, of which he was before ignorant, merely by being asked a number of properly arranged and connected questions concerning it.”

Online:
Library of Economics and Liberty

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