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  • The Impartial Spectator: Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy
  • James R. Otteson
D. D. Raphael. The Impartial Spectator: Adam Smith’s Moral Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007. Pp. v + 143. Cloth, $35.00.

This is a puzzling and ultimately frustrating book. It is puzzling because, while its author suggests he has made an extensive review of secondary literature (2–5, 43–7, 119), there are in fact many curious omissions, including recent important work that bears directly on the book’s topic. Perhaps Raphael’s low opinion of some economists’ commentary on Smith (1) disinclines him to look at the work of more recent economic historians, some of which is excellent, and of philosophers whose commentary is influenced by that of good economic historians. The book is moreover frustrating because it is not clear what exactly it is supposed to do. Its brevity, its largely jargon-free writing style, and its relatively basic and introductory discussions all suggest that it is meant for lay audiences. Yet in several places it dwells at length on historical minutiae and textual exegeses that could interest only the scholar. For whom, then, is it written?

The thesis of the book is that the central contribution of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) (TMS) is its presentation of a distinctive and still useful notion of an Impartial Spectator standard of moral judgment. A second theme is that TMS underwent substantial, not merely cosmetic, changes between its first publication when Smith was thirty-six and the final, sixth, revision during Smith’s life which appeared shortly before Smith’s death in 1790, when he was sixty-seven years old. Raphael argues that subsequent editions of TMS showed crucial development in particular of the Smithian Impartial Spectator—which, because it is, as Raphael claims, the most important philosophical contribution the book makes, means that this development in Smith’s thought is itself important (11). None of this is particularly new or controversial, although Raphael has a point that some scholars—including, perhaps, myself (though he does not cite me as an example)—have insufficiently appreciated the fact that Smith developed the idea over time. This is a claim that will matter more to scholars than to philosophers, however. Philosophers usually wish to reconstruct the most powerful or charitable version of a historical figure’s argument, and then assess [End Page 326] that for soundness, plausibility, and so on, content to leave it to scholars to worry over the exegetical matters. Raphael seems to want to be both a scholar and a philosopher in this book, but the two are uncomfortable partners here.

For example, in chapter 2 Raphael argues that imagination plays at least as important a role in TMS as sympathy does. He writes that “on most occasions imagination is a prerequisite for sympathy” (13) and that “Smith thinks of imagination as more pervasive than feelings of sympathy” (15). This is an intriguing thesis. The ensuing discussion, however, leaves philosophers wondering why imagination is on some occasions but not others a prerequisite for sympathy, and whether a sympathetic approval or disapproval without the use of imagination still counts as a moral judgment at all. Raphael’s discussion provides no help. Moreover, his discussion is not particularly enlightening for the scholar, since the handful of examples he mentions from Smith’s text does not come close to a representative, let alone exhaustive, sampling.

When Raphael discusses the Impartial Spectator proper, he says that having edited TMS, as he has, “gives one an eye for spotting earlier and later composition” (33). Much of his historical tracing of the development of Smith’s ideas displays this seasoned eye (esp. chs. 5–6). But Raphael’s treatment is blind to the interesting philosophical questions at stake. What, for example, is the mechanism by which the viewpoint of the Impartial Spectator is created? Raphael writes that “[e]ach of us judges others as a spectator. Each of us finds spectators judging him. We then come to judge our own conduct by imagining whether an impartial spectator would approve or disapprove of it” (35). But why do we do this? How? Is the creation of this perspective identical to adopting...


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