Adam Smith: Eighteenth-Century Polymath

Adam Smith (1723-1790) was a polymath with several of his key concepts and theories either having modern counterparts and/or “enjoying” empirical support. Smith wrote about the origin and proper use of language, grammar, the history of astronomy and ancient physics, moral philosophy, music, dance, and poetry, and; economics. Despite the very wide variety of topics there was, in my estimation, common themes. One such theme is connections or inter-personal relations between and among people. Smith’s most famous book, at least to economists, is the Wealth of Nations (WN). In it, Smith discusses many things including the workings of a private market. A market is the exchange of things in which various motives influence market activity. In WN the motivation to engage in market activity is to improve your own economic conditions. What is exchanged is money for goods and services. In the Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) the motivation is the pleasure received from mutual sympathy. Smith says that: nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast; nor are we ever so much shocked as by the appearance (Smith, 1969, p. 13). What is “exchanged” is personal sentiments and moral judgments.  One common theme in Smith’s writings is the connections and interpersonal relations among people. Four questions related to the common theme in Smith’s writings are explored in this paper. First, why is language developed? Second, what is the purpose of good communication? Third, why are Newton’s writings considered of extraordinary importance? Fourth, what is the role of sympathy in human affairs?