Adam Smith as Systematic Philosopher and Public Thinker
In this interview, the first of a recurring series, I speak with Professor Eric Schliesser about his latest book, Adam Smith: Systematic Philosopher and Public Thinker. Along the way, we discuss the role of public intellectuals, the perils of fanaticism, the rise of populism, and the joys, challenges, and responsibilities of professional philosophy. Professor Schliesser teaches Political Science at the University of Amsterdam and has held positions at Syracuse, Leiden, and Ghent Universities. Aside from his work on Smith, Schliesser has an incredibly wide-ranging and dynamic bibliography, including works on Newton, Huygens, Spinoza, Berkeley, Hume, and Sophie De Grouchy. You can read more about Professor Schliesser on his popular philosophy blog, Digressions & Impressions.
This interview was conducted by Daniel Rhodes.
Daniel Rhodes: Prof. Schliesser, for the past decade, your work has focused on Adam Smith; not only, as the subtitle to your latest book informs us, as a systematic theorist, but also as a public intellectual whose ultimate concern was to responsibly guide his society. At the same time, Smith writes that the obituary he penned after Hume’s passing “brought [him] ten times more abuse than the very violent attack” he waged against “the whole commercial system of Great Britain.” In Smith’s (and your own) view, what is the role of the public intellectual in the face of the “madness of fanaticism”?
Eric Schliesser: Thank you for your interest in my book! Smith thinks stubborn adherence to partisan (political) faction, various forms of religion, and intellectual ideology can all lead to politically salient forms of fanaticism which he thinks dangerous and undermines the flourishing of society. The danger lies in the (propensity to increased) use of violence.
It’s clear he thinks that it is the duty of a philosopher to promote ideas and social institutions that (perhaps indirectly) undermine the support for fanaticism and avoid the risk of promoting it. For example, Smith’s robust defense of freedom of religion and his advocacy of commercial society are both conceived, in part, as ways of undermining the social conditions and practices that lead to support for various kinds of faction and fanaticism. His concern with what I call ‘responsible speech’ (or what is known as ‘inductive risk’ a topic revived by Heather Douglas) is also related to this. That is, for Smith, a theory should not be evaluated only with regard to the truth, but also to the consequences of taking it as true (or using it in policy, etc.).
Having said that, I doubt Smith thinks it is the job of the public intellectual to take on fanatics as such. He tends to leave such direct action to politicians who, if they are courageous and wise, can thereby become statesmen. So, while Smith admired Hume’s willingness to question the dogmas of society, for Smith, the public intellectual is not, as some of the French Enlightenment thinkers thought, a heroic figure arrayed against the fanatics.
DR: So, for Smith, “stubborn adherence” to some political, religious, or ideological faction is a form of fanaticism which inhibits societal “flourishing”, and must be countered with tolerance and commercialism. This latter claim in particular brings to mind a number of intriguing possibilities. Could you please elaborate on that a bit more? Doesn’t an economics-based society also retain and maintain radicalism (as clearly demonstrated by the current hyper-partisan climate across Western capitals)?
ES: I should emphasize that Smith understands fanaticism as generating a propensity to violence. Smith embraces a strong version of the harm principle. He dislikes and rejects the use of violence, including lawful violence. He is not a pacifist; but his form of liberalism is very attentive, first, to the ways in which law both reduces uncertainty and generates reliable expectations (these are good things); but, second, he also acknowledges that the exercise of law is itself a way to commit violence and, often, encourages the use of more violence to achieve political or economic aims (that’s something he worries about). In particular, he is very attentive to the fact that the powerful will turn the law into an instrument of personal gain or oppression. It’s not that he denies that some legislation can be a force of good; this is why he writes (in Wealth of Nations) that when “regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable.” (Book I, Chapter X, Part II) But he also thinks this is not the norm (given the limited franchise in his time, that was pretty obvious). Mill echoes this exact point a century later in Considerations on Representative Government.
Now, Smith’s ideal vision of a flourishing society involves the rejection of servility and anger/violence (which he associates with feudalism and mercantile imperialism) and the embrace of what he takes to be the middle class values of friendship, sincerity, and happiness. He thinks these are promoted through economic growth (which reduces famine/starvation and dependence) and when people can make decisions on their own behalf. For Smith, the defense of commerce is really about the possibility of people exchanging gifts and needs, not the least the exchange of mutual love. This last point may be a bit cryptic; but Smith thought that to be beloved is a central human need and that most existing societies make it really hard to focus on mutual love. He thought that only in a society where everybody could be independent would freely given mutual love be likely.
A key claim I defend in my book is that Smith’s views on liberty have been really misunderstood. While he defends the individual right to make contracts, and is adamant that poor people should be allowed the freedom to do so, this is not the main point of his conception for liberty (as both critics and followers assume). So, I show that often Smith uses liberty as a contrast to (rightful) employment. For Smith, liberty involves a combination of self-ownership, the ability to exercise one’s judgment, and the possibility to make meaningful life choices; it presupposes a sense of security that is only possible under the rule of law.
DR: Returning to our discussion of public intellectualism, it seems clear that Smith (as in the case of his support for Hume) was often forced to conceal his more controversial opinions so as to maintain a certain reputation. In fact, the final sentence of your book goes so far as to pit Smith’s conciliatory stance against a loyalty to the truth; truth being, at least since Socrates, the traditional goal of philosophy. In your view, does the role of public intellectual always require some degree of deceit? And, if so, can it still rightfully be called philosophy?
[The text I’m referring to reads as follows: “Before we reject Smith in the name of truth, it is worth reminding ourselves that it remains an open, empirical question whether a humane, stable, and flourishing political order without prejudice and superstition is really possible for beings like us.”]
ES: Before I answer your question, let me just note that in the death-bed scene with Crito, Socrates appears to reconcile loyalty to the truth with loyalty to the city. But it requires his supreme sacrifice. It’s not obvious that this really is a true reconciliation. So, if you take the example of the life of Socrates seriously — as Smith seems to have done — loyalty to the truth may well involve too high a price. That is to say, you seem to assume what is really the nub of the matter: that an Enlightened polity is really possible. The circumstances of David Hume’s life did not inspire much confidence in Smith.
Now, let me address your question more directly. It is important to distinguish Smith’s practices from other ones that are familiar. He does not engage either in Platonic noble lies or a kind of government house utilitarianism. These are forms of deceit. Rather, these passages you quote are a consequence of two strains in Smith’s thought that I identify: first, there is no general obligation to always share the whole truth. A certain amount of self-policing is prudent and responsible in lots of situations: lovers, business partners, department colleagues, hospital visitors (etc.) do not speak their whole mind to each other all the time. That is, one takes responsibility for the likely and foreseeable effects of one’s words in lots of circumstances. This is also the case for the public thinker. Perhaps, but this is pure speculation on my part, he agrees with Spinoza that one should not peddle knowingly false views to the public; but that leaves quite some space for ideas that would not count as truth or knowledge.
Second, on my interpretation, Smith thinks that when we engage with the public or promote public policy we should not assume that people will be more reasonable and rational than they are likely to be given existing institutions and mores; so we may well encourage reforms that will make society more truth-apt and can do so frankly if we think such frankness warranted. Having said that, it’s also the case that I detect in Smith a further strain in which he very much doubts the possibility of a fully rational public reason; that the various social glues that hold society together will always involve elements of superstition or silliness. In this he is very much influenced by Hume.
DR: You’ve argued that Smith’s “invisible hand” is not simply an economic concept, but extends across all fields of production including, of course, philosophy itself. For example, in your introduction to Adam Smith, you point out that “for Smith, public ‘happiness’ and ‘welfare’ can be unintended side consequences of an aesthetic desire for ‘order’ and ‘harmony’ … by an elite political actor who pursues a kind of private, contemplative pleasure.” Does this position not imply a certain intellectual laissez-faire, and thus a repudiation of the mission of the public intellectual?
ES: This is a clever question! In order to answer it, I need to draw on a distinction between what I call a “Smithian social explanation” and “invisible hand” explanations. The former covers long-run historical processes (e.g., the division of labor), and which have social utility, and that can be explained by the effects of the unforeseen (and unintended) workings of (relatively stable) human propensities or dispositions over time (although such processes can also change these dispositions). In brief, a Smithian social explanation has four elements:
i. It is causal (“necessary consequence”). Thus, it generates consequences such that the outcome could not be otherwise — presumably as necessary as the fact that all humans are mortal. But, like human mortality, the exact timing of a particular outcome is ordinarily unknown in advance to mortals.
ii. Smith’s account is a historical explanation. By “historical” I mean to capture two features: (a) that the stable consequence would not have been predictable to observers at an early time and, so, are also not capable of being intended; (b) that to be a cause does not require temporal contiguity between the cause and the effect. The same cause(s) can do their work over enormous expanses of time.
iii. 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. Presumably, this self-reinforcement is due to the fact that those who benefit from the cumulative consequences will help prevent backsliding from new social arrangements.
iv. It supports counterfactuals. That is, it is a form of historical explanation that can help you specify what would have happened given certain features about human nature and social causation.
So, (i–iv) are jointly characteristic of what I call “Smithian social explanation.” Smithian social explanation takes the epistemic limitation of agents and theorists for granted. By calling it “Smithian,” I do not mean to suggest he pioneered this kind of explanation or that (i–iv) are unique to his approach. As others have noted, the explanatory template that I call “Smithian social explanation” has clear roots in the writings of Mandeville, Hume, and even Rousseau.
By contrast, on my account, 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. But the consequences are, in principle, knowable to the right kind of observer (either theoretically informed or by accumulated common sense) at the time. And this entails that when it comes to these short term invisible hand processes, an agent could also act for the right reason and produce the right kind of consequence according to Smith (if background institutions are functioning properly — Smith does not believe good outcomes are guaranteed).
Okay, now, let me return to your question; it’s true that intellectual escapism is a permanent temptation according to Smith. And he also thinks that sometimes such escapism indirectly ends up producing fine (social) consequences in the long run. But he does not advocate quietism or intellectual laissez-faire. He clearly thinks (and behaves accordingly) that lots of consequences in social life are knowable in advance. This matters (as Sam Fleischacker has emphasized) to his treatment of our moral judgments of personal character and institutional functioning as much as it does to his conception of public intellectual life. I do not mean to deny that Smith thinks we are often deluded in our expectations about the effect of our interventions, but it is a central plank of his social science that lots of our expectations about the social world are reliable and knowable in advance. So, on my reading, Smith’s writings are a confident, even optimistic, inventive intervention to change the course of history. So, rather than being quietist, Smith promotes an idea — anticipating Nietzsche and Keynes — of intellectual legislators of mankind.
DR: In your conclusion to Adam Smith, you recognize Smith as an “exemplary philosopher, not in terms of the doctrines defended, but rather as a model, who shows how philosophers of each generation need to develop normative and political ideals.” If Adam Smith were alive today, what advice might he extend to young philosophers who hope to make a moral or political impact?
ES: First, it’s important to be clear that professional circumstances have changed dramatically since Smith’s time; both on the professional and the public side. Let me note three main areas: First, teaching loads have been reduced, the publication expectations have gone up, and there are lots more universities and professional philosophers — including women and children of the working poor — than there were in his day. Moreover, the intellectual division of labor and discipline driven specialization within the academy — a process he is aware of and calls attention to — are far more advanced now. Thanks to the technological revolution and government sponsorship of data collection, it’s also become much easier to do research. Second, universities have changed dramatically: philosophers are not the handmaidens of the theological faculty and they are mostly not funded by the church or local city government anymore. They have become sites of knowledge production that are more insulated from the public than they used to be. These days you wouldn’t need to have an aristocratic patron to become relatively independent from financial and social pressures. Third, the public has changed dramatically: literacy is very widespread now (although somewhat exceptionally that was also true of Scotland — otherwise a rather poor place — in Smith’s age), the franchise is much broader, the aristocracy and church have lost their overwhelming central roles in public life; there are incredibly many sources of economic power in a modern society, and public opinion is shaped in ways (by twitter, social media, multi-national news corporations, etc.) that were unimagined in his time.
Second, Smith thought one could make a moral and political impact in lots of ways: tutoring or teaching students (Smith did both), private charity (Smith did so quietly, but massively), writing for a larger public, personally advising politicians and/or civil servants (writing, as Smith did, policy briefs or directly communicating one’s expertise), and turning to direct public service (Smith became a bureaucrat for the last decade of his life). So, one would have to adjust means to context. This is not especially profound, but it is striking that often when professional philosophers engage ‘the public’ they are unable to adjust their mode of presentation. (This is not surprising because we are not trained to do so.)
Third, Smith’s interventions in broader public life are marked by restraint: he published two big books (in which he offered dozens of large scale policy reforms — so it’s not that he was modest), and he was consulted in areas of his expertise (finance, especially). But he avoided the role of pundit or pamphleteer who commented on or intervened in raging political controversies. (In his own day, Voltaire was a master at this.) Given how the news media works today, it’s very difficult not to a become pundit since the media will rarely publish or pay attention to work that does not address a pressing policy or news issue. Smith would urge one to resist the temptation and to look at other ways to shape public and political life. While I do sometimes publish editorials, in reflecting on his example, I have become more creative about how one can contribute to public policy. For example, I co-taught with a number of civil servants, and try to do joint research with them. I know of other philosophers who team up with NGOs or issue driven think-tanks.
Fourth, in my book I emphasized Smith’s systematicity as a model. I did so, in part, because most of our practices (both in the academy and in politics) tend toward narrow understanding of expertise (focused on particular problems, specialist policy areas, etc.) But while this expertise is often accompanied by astounding technical skill, the lack of a wider perspective is also a source of epistemic and moral fragility. I think contemporary philosophers have the skillset to take on the wider perspective, and that our role can be, in part, the folks that draw different elements of a political problems together. It is striking that such synthetic philosophy is quite evident in recent work in the philosophy of mind and biology by Dan Dennett and Peter Godfrey Smith, and we need to encourage it in other policy relevant areas, too. Thanks to the influence of Nancy Cartwright and her students (Julian Reiss and Anna Alexandrova) or folks like Erik Angner or Heather Douglas, important work in this synthetic vein is becoming quite common in policy-relevant philosophy of social science.
DR: Much like the fate of Machiavelli’s Prince, Smith’s Wealth of Nations continues to suffer from its reputation as a cold, calculated, and non-moral analysis. What (and who) do you think is responsible for this misconception?
ES: Unlike the Prince, Wealth of Nations is a very long book and so people are not going to read it very often anymore. (It’s also hard to assign in a class without serious excerpting.) It’s also the kind of book that is very quotable, and so if people want to use it to illustrate some pet theory about Smith or capitalism it will be a tempting target. However, recently Paul Sagar wrote a nice popular piece dispelling a lot of myths; a few years ago Deborah Boucoyannis did so, too, and her piece was very widely read, so I am not alone in trying to reform the book’s image.
DR: The concept of sympathy — which was, of course, so crucial to Smith — as both a critical and descriptive model, has had a troubled history. As you point out in your book, Sympathy: a history, sympathy has been utilized — and then discarded — by a half-dozen disciplines, including philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, economics, and history. Why do you think sympathy keeps re-emerging, and what are your predictions for its future as a useful category?
ES: Sympathy is a concept that returns whenever people try to explain some rapid, (joint) action at distance when a mechanism or cause that could explain such action is hard to detect. It is a useful container concept or place-holder concept (and may help guide further research). Because nature and social life turn out to be full of such phenomena at all scales it gets rediscovered regularly.
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DR: As we near the end of our discussion, I’d like to touch on a public conversation you had with Amy Olberding regarding the eurocentrism of western philosophy departments. In your response to her criticism, you point out the “servility as a structural feature within contemporary professional philosophy.” What do you mean by “servility”? And how can professional philosophers respond to it?
ES: Professional philosophy contains a rather steep status and attention hierarchies which are connected to (but not always identical to) rather steep economic and working conditions hierarchies (and geographic issues, too). Professionally entrenched hierarchies tend to breed certain behaviors familiar from courts and feudal societies (forms of obsequiousness, sycophancy, excessive deference, etc.) One way (among many) that this plays out is that some areas of philosophy have to justify their practices to and in terms familiar from other (more ‘central’ or ‘’core’) areas of philosophy that thereby entrench this very hierarchy.
I tried to characterize an example of this once in a blog post.
I think these practices happen all the time on an individual and disciplinary level. It’s true that a pure focus on arguments can help ameliorate some of these problems, but then often the pattern replays itself here: not everybody’s arguments receive the same attention, not everybody’s interventions are treated as arguments, and (most perversely to me) some people voluntarily take on the role of attack dog defending high status philosophers; you so rarely see folks trying to help others improve their arguments or gain visibility for the arguments by folk not high in the status economy.
DR: Speaking of blog posts, in a recent post, you noted that “it is not a virtue but a deformation of professional philosophy that it often accords so much respect to arguments and clarity that if one argues carefully one’s views are taken seriously regardless of the social consequences of these views or, for that matter, the moral truth of these views.” Could you please extend on this a bit more?
ES: Well, there are a lot of issues in the vicinity of your question. And I may be misunderstanding the intent behind it. But let me answer anyway; it strikes me that in the last few decades there has been a shift toward treating argument as intrinsic to philosophy and to treating a particular shape/form of argument as central. (Reading Stoljaer’s fascinating book on Philosophical Progress was eye-opening to me. I disagree with almost all of it; but in reading I felt ‘here is somebody who understands how important bits of the profession think these days.’)
To question the centrality of argument does not mean one has to reject arguments (or turn into a fan of Heidegger style prose). But what makes, say, the Quine/Carnap debate or the Kripke/Lewis debate (on modality and identity) so interesting, to me anyway, are not the arguments. (In the case of Quine there is even — somewhat unfairly — a general question about what the arguments are supposed to be.) What matters are the positions and the moves which produce often surprising entailments; what makes them fascinating is to see how these radiate out to other issues. That is to say, while there are arguments (sometimes very good ones), the debates are substantive. Their debates are also driven by meta-philosophical conceptions that are often not treated very argumentatively nor even transparently at all. I love discovering surprising conclusions or hidden paradoxes based on premises I take for granted, but for me, philosophy has always been position driven: what do certain views entail, how do they come together, what motivates them, etc. That’s how I read our contemporaries, too. Having said that: I have a fetish for distinctions, and I will happily allow a fine-grained distinction even if it ruins the development of a position.
What I worry about, when I rage against the festishization of arguments, is a kind of triviality. By this I mean that it increasingly seems, and as an ideal (to be ignored regularly, of course, in practice), that professional philosophers treat arguments as objects of study, and really don’t seem to care about to what degree the conclusions can be lived by or are even meant to be lived by (or, if one did so, how one can avoid being monstrous). So, I justify my position first and foremost, a bit like the Bayesians and their Dutch book; to any sophisticated, philosophical argument I pose a kind of reality check: ‘is this something worth living for or in extremis dying for?’ (I got the idea from teaching Mill’s On Liberty.) I happily concede that Individuals will answer that differently about their pet arguments.
Now, it’s true I also believe in so-called responsible speech (and maybe this is a partial change of subject and I am now answering a different question.) My thinking about that is really developed in reflecting on the ways in which experts engage with politicians and the public when speaking about their expertise or when proposing policy changes. (The best recent work on this is by Heather Douglas.) Some of my own work looks at how economists present themselves as policy experts or even social engineers; I am really interested in how science can be organized in such a way as to keep individual scientists focused primarily on epistemic issues, while off-loading society’s needs on the social structure of science and what I call ‘aggregators’ (to simplify, the experts who engage with influential segments of the public).
But I think the issue of responsible speech is not limited to policy experts and is central to the history of liberalism. Liberals believe that words and speech acts are constitutive of political life. Experience tells us how certain things often play out. If you argue for eugenics, say, because you want to see ‘where the arguments lead,’ you really should not be surprised that the racial stuff enters in when your views are promoted in society. Philosophers love to point to the social significance of their work, but hate it when you criticize them for the social uptake of their views or the ways their views reinforce social problems. Then suddenly, you are doing sociology or you hear how people should not be held responsible for the uptake of their ideas.
One final point on responsible speech. I think one of the points of liberalism is to promote conditions under which individuals can experiment with and exercise individual responsibility. As I think I say in that very same post you quote, just because there is a right to offend, it does not follow one must be offensive to others.
DR: I’ll leave this question open-ended, but I would really love to hear your thoughts regarding the recent wave of economic and political populism that’s swept across the US and Europe.
ES: Well I am surrounded by genuine experts in populism in my political science department. They have been studying it for a couple of decades. So I prefer you interview them! But one thing they taught me that I have been thinking about is this: populists often conceive of the polity or democracy in terms of a moral community (there are distinct shades of Rousseau) which is corrupted by existing (‘cosmopolitan’) elites and by outsiders (immigrants, Jews, refugees, etc.) or features of modernity (‘trade,’ ‘fake news,’ etc.). There is a lot to be said about the revival of populism (and its encouragement from irresponsible speech and the for-profit media, etc.), and the mismanagement of the financial crisis, but one thing I have been reflecting on, then, is that non-populists often can’t see the moral impetus behind populism at all. (I am not suggesting morality is the most important psychological pull factor!) I have been pondering if there is a way to address the populists’ moral impulse without having to be accommodating toward all the awful (say, racist and xenophobic) parts that come with populism.
DR: We certainly look forward to reading your thoughts on the subject in the future! As our discussion winds down, I’d like to end with a two part question: Why did you become a philosopher? And which thinkers had the greatest impact on you along the way?
ES: I have been so blessed by my philosophy teachers, starting in high school where my classics teacher, Rob Brouwer (himself an accomplished translator of philosophical works), introduced me to the social joys of philosophical reading groups. We read Kant’s first Critique in German, but I am pretty sure that the wine and company distracted me from understanding Kant. At Tufts, the whole department really cared for its BA majors. (The department is famous for the MA program, but the undergrads were really encouraged. The ‘stars’ happily taught introductory courses.) Somebody had the bright idea to put me on the committee for the New England Undergraduate Conference, and I just loved discussing the submitted papers with my fellow committee members, Karen Schlossberg and Michelle Frank. (They both went to law school.)
I took my first class (on the philosophy of Isaac Newton’s Principia) with George Smith because I wanted to understand the origin of science and how to do science; I wanted to understand this because I had been disillusioned by political science, which failed to grasp the likelihood of the fall of the Berlin Wall, even days before it was happening. George’s class changed my life. He was discovering Newton’s method, and he managed to share the excitement with all of us. (George was also the kind of teacher who would set up a telescope on a frigid night so you could imagine being Galileo.) But it did not change my life in isolation. I took it at the same time as a seminar on Hobbes (with the charismatic political theorist, Rob Devigne) and a seminar on Milton by the late Michael Fixler, who was philosophically very sophisticated.
That department (with Norm Daniels, Dan Dennett, Helen Cartwright, and Jody Azzouni) was really the product of Hugo Bedau’s vision. Hugo had a love of casuistry I never could embrace (and I was pleased to see in Adam Smith an argument for my prejudice — he thinks casuistry is developed in order to supply people who pay experts to produce the right conclusions for them), but I have long admired Hugo’s use of philosophy as a species of social activism (he was a major critic of capital punishment), while simultaneously being a world class Bentham scholar. Now, my own sensibilities are not Benthamite at all, but Hugo was just a wonderful and impressive example for everybody in that group. Jody and Dan have remained supportive for twenty five years now. Having said that, Jeff McConnell, who was an adjunct then, was, perhaps, the first person to suggest I should consider graduate school in philosophy. (I think most of my teachers assumed I was going to become a game theorist in political science. I had been very interested in using game theory to model EU integration.)
That’s to say, for most of my first decade or so in philosophy (BA & PhD), it was really teachers and, once at Chicago, fellow graduate students and, (sorry for the multiple ‘ands’) once I found jobs, colleagues, who influenced my philosophical development, for good and ill. I thought of philosophy as a social activity, and understood my own development as a product of that philosophical socializing. Of the books I read in that period, only works by Martha Nussbaum (who became one of my teachers), Isaiah Berlin, Catherine MacKinnon, and Mackie stuck with me. It’s only during the last decade or so that reading has really become a way in which I let myself be influenced. (One way this happens is by way of teaching; I always try to teach material that is fresh to me and because I have to teach it I really have to absorb it.) I think this is partly because of logistical reasons; I tend to live and work in places far apart, and so have become more isolated socially.
DR: Thank you for your time!