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The intellectual world of Adam Smith

Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life - Nicholas Phillipson

Though his name looms large as the founder of modern economic theory, Adam Smith himself is in many ways a mysterious and unknowable figure. For all of his impact upon Western thought, Smith left little beyond the two books that were his great intellectual legacy.  Not even the date of his birth is known with certainty, while his correspondence consists mainly of letters from friends plaintively wondering why he never wrote back. Nicholas Phillipson doesn’t shirk from the challenge of writing a biography of the man from such a scarcity of information, but in filling the blanks he provides something more by giving his readers a broader portrait of Adam Smith's intellectual world, one that sites Smith firmly within the context of the Scottish Enlightenment.

 

Phillipson begins by charting the formative influences that shaped Smith’s intellectual development in his early years.  Foremost among them was his schoolmaster in Kirkcaldy and two professors at the University of Glasgow, Robert Simson and Francis Hutcheson.  Yet it was the writings of Smith’s close friend David Hume which proved the most fertile inspiration for Smith’s masterpieces.  Phillipson shows how Smith drew upon Hume’s ideas as inspiration for a comprehensive “Science of Man”, which be began to articulate with his first book.  Its publication in 1759 was greeted with acclaim, elevating Smith to the first rank of intellectual figures.  A period as tutor of the young Duke of Buccleuch gave him both the opportunity to meet some of the leading figures of the Enlightenment in Europe as well as an income that freed him from his onerous academic duties. This allowed Smith upon his return to concentrate on writing his most famous book, , a revolutionary text that was nonetheless intended to be only one part of his much larger project – a project that was left incomplete by the time of his death in 1790.

 

With his persuasive reinterpretation and readable style, Phillipson has produced what is likely to be the best study of Smith's life and times for decades to come.  His account challenges the traditional image of Smith as an absent‑minded academic and turns him instead into a dynamic teacher who was a part of the vibrant intellectual world of the 18th century.  The book’s main flaw – an absence of any real examination of Smith’s personality and daily life – is understandable given the limits of his material, but it does limit his achievement by failing to give a fully rounded portrait of the philosopher as a person.  Nevertheless, this book is an essential read for anyone seeking to understand Smith ideas and their development within the context of the era, ideas that still are used to inform the world in which we live today.