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Adam Smith, the Scottish Enlightenment, and ‘realistic’ Philosophy

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Adam Smith’s modern fame as the founding father of economics has, until relatively recently, obscured the fact that he saw himself as a moral philosopher.

The disciplinary boundaries that exist in the modern Academy were only beginning to form during Smith’s lifetime, and his Chair in Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow would cover subjects we now recognise as philosophy, economics, political science, sociology, jurisprudence, and literature. In what follows I want to make the case that the chief lesson that Smith can provide for modern economics lies in the realisation that his general method can be applied across intellectual inquiry. What I mean by this is that Smith did not conceive the moral philosophy of The Theory of Moral Sentiments as being detached from the political economy of the Wealth of Nations. Both of them are examples of Smith deploying the same ‘scientific’ mode of inquiry. Contrary to those German critics who saw the Adam Smith Problem in a supposed contradiction between the selfish actor of the Wealth of Nations and the sympathetic actor of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith’s approach remains consistent as he tries to understand distinct aspects of human social life. To illustrate this I want to suggest that one can only really understand what he says about prudence by taking on board both TMS and WN.

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