Rummaging around in Adam Smith’s brain

Here’s an interview with Jack Weinstein whose Adam Smith’s Pluralism: Rationality, Education, and the Moral Sentiments will be the subject of an upcoming symposium for Cosmos + Taxis. Also, Jack is contributing to my Propriety and Prosperity: New Studies on the Philosophy of Adam Smith scheduled to appear this year.



Adam Smith’s Pluralism: Rationality, Education, and the Moral Sentiments

My chum Jack Weinstein’s book that I trailed some six months ago is garnering some amazing press coverage — amazing not only because it’s an academic philosophy book — but because it’s on Adam Smith and in the LA Times — and certainly not the Adam Smith of the ideologues or their “anti-liberty” vulgarian counterparts. Anyway, I’m so pleased that Jack has agreed to be a part of a symposium on his book for Cosmos + Taxis. (Oh yes, and another plug for the fact that he’s a part of this project – my co-authored contribution (not with Jack) is not out of tune with the sentiment expressed by the LA Times reviewer):

There are worse fates. Consider Adam Smith. His philosophy — indeed, the fact he was a philosopher — has been obscured by the “invisible hand.” That phrase occurs just three times in his entire corpus and only once in his most famous work, The Wealth of Nations. Nevertheless, it has become a symbol for the “caricaturish libertarian” whose philosophy (if we may call it that) has supplanted the “holistic picture of human agency” Smith spent his adult life describing.


The Avuncular David Hume

Hume is on my mind especially in regard to my current work on Adam Smith. To this end, I’ve been re-watching Bryan Magee’s series The Great Philosophers from ’87. I’ve especially enjoyed the Hume discussion with John Passmore. Magee is an expositor second to none despite the fact that his expert guests are more intimate with- and have produced more distinguished work on- any of the target thinkers. In this Passmore interview (see below) one has the distinct sense that Magee is getting a great deal of pleasure by letting Passmore rattle on and then with utmost clarity and brevity restating the issue. This is not to put Passmore down – it is more to highlight Magee’s very special talent. I think Tony Quinton had that expository talent in writing but even he got flustered in his chat with Magee on Spinoza and Leibniz. Hume has a special place amongst my intellectual furniture. He speaks to me as the first modern: his discussion of personal identity, political philosophy, epistemology and ethics seem so germane to me as a so-called situated theorist. In any event, anyone who considers themselves a well-read person and who has not read Hume, is really quite impoverished, stylistically and substantively.

Moreover, what I particularly like about Hume is his even temperament and good nature along with his cutting wit. I’d have him by my side at my imaginary dinner party which wouldn’t be comprised by self-ascribed “intellectuals”: only people who love food, wine, conversation and laughter would be there.

He built a house in Edinburgh’s New Town, and spent his autumnal years quietly and comfortably, dining and conversing with friends, not all of whom were “studious and literary,” for Hume also found that his “company was not unacceptable to the young and careless.” One young person who found his company particularly “acceptable” was an attractive, vivacious, and highly intelligent woman in her twenties — Nancy Orde, the daughter of Chief Baron Orde of the Scottish Exchequer. One of Hume’s friends described her as “one of the most agreeable and accomplished women I ever knew.” Also noted for her impish sense of humor, she chalked “St. David’s Street” on the side of Hume’s house one night; the street still bears that name today. The two were close enough that she advised Hume in choosing wallpaper for his new home, and rumors that they were engaged even reached the ears of the salonnières in Paris. Just before his death, Hume added a codicil to his will, which included a gift to her of “ten Guineas to buy a Ring, as a Memorial of my Friendship and Attachment to so amiable and accomplished a Person.”

He also become the rage of the Parisian salons, enjoying the conversation and company of Diderot, D’Alembert, and d’Holbach, as well as the attentions and affections of the salonnières, especially the Comtesse de Boufflers. (“As I took a particular pleasure in the company of modest women, I had no reason to be displeased with the reception I met with from them.”)

From The Hume Society

Hume himself:

With regard to politics and the character of princes and great men, I think I am very moderate. My views of things are more conformable to Whig principles; my representation of persons to Tory prejudices. Nothing can so much prove that men commonly regard more persons than things, as to find that I am commonly numbered among the Tories.

Cited in Ernest Mossner classic biography The Life of David Hume (Clarendon Press, 2001), p. 311.

Let’s give the final word to his dear friend:

Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.

Adam Smith


Erasing the Invisible Hand

I’m just about finished reading this unrelenting and fine-grained assault on the concept of the invisible hand. This is one of the most remarkable pieces of scholarship I’ve read in many years whatever its flaws. Samuel is terrier-like with a rag doll! No doubt this book is going to upset many ideologues – and so it should. But being ideologues, they will no doubt carry on business as usual. Of course, such a critical take does not diminish the achievement of Adam Smith, it is aimed primarily at the vast secondary literature. Here is a review of the book by Gavin Kennedy. Here is the book’s CUP page.



Philanthropic Institutional Design and the Welfare State

Here is the abstract to David’s and my paper just published in Conversations on Philanthropy, Vol. IX: Law and Philanthropy


The topic of philanthropy has a great deal of philosophical interest because it exists at the nexus of issues surrounding distributive, remedial, and commutative justice, perennial issues in political philosophy (Ealy 2010, vi). It is perhaps because of this that, conceptually speaking, philanthropy seems to have a twilight existence, typically laboring under one of the most prevalent confusions—the synonymous usage of the terms “nonprofit” and “philanthropy” (McCully 2010). Yet, discussion of the philosophy of philanthropy is surprisingly neglected. The present discussion examines the relationship between private philanthropy and the welfare-oriented state: Is it possible for the philanthropic sphere and/or indeed the philanthropic impulse to coexist in an expansive governmental environment that sees health care as a natural part of its administrative monopoly? We answer with a qualified “yes.” Our paper, however, is not concerned with an appraisal of welfarism in its many guises nor with recommendations for reform, but with the pragmatics of operating within such an environment. As such we: (a) assess the philosophical presuppositions that animate recent discussion of the “Big Society” and the role philanthropy is accorded within it; and (b) offer practical guidance about protecting and encouraging the philanthropic impulse when a climate of welfarism prevails.


Taleb on Skin in the Game

Nassim Taleb talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his recent paper (with Constantine Sandis) on the morality and effectiveness of “skin in the game.” When decision makers have skin in the game–when they share in the costs and benefits of their decisions that might affect others–they are more likely to make prudent decisions than in cases where decision-makers can impose costs on others. Taleb sees skin in the game as not just a useful policy concept but a moral imperative. The conversation closes with some observations on the power of expected value for evaluating predictions along with Taleb’s thoughts on economists who rarely have skin in the game when they make forecasts or take policy positions.