- Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life
Nicholas Phillipson’s biography of Adam Smith was published just forty-five days before the second edition of Ian Simpson Ross’s definitive biography The Life of Adam Smith (Oxford, 2010).The contrast is telling. Ross’s is a book for scholars with ubiquitous in-text references [End Page 499] to recent scholarship. Phillipson’s is a narrative intellectual biography for a wider audience that relegates recent work to the bibliography. Ross is reticent to make claims about Smith’s motivations, but Phillipson thrives on it. Ross is usually explicit when he takes positions on controversial issues, but Phillipson’s interpretations dominate the text. In short, it is easier to see how Ross’s work fits into contemporary debate, but it is easier to see Phillipson’s Smith as a person rather than a project. This last fact makes the latter book quite compelling.
Phillipson does the work of a biographer. He revisits original sources, provides new evidence and insights, and scoops Ross with his publication of a newly discovered portrait of Smith’s mother. The last is fitting, since Phillipson’s book spends significantly more time on their relationship than Ross’s does, suggesting that Smith’s mother’s death, more than his health and work schedule, was the likely reason that he did not continue publishing new work in the last years of his life. This is not anachronistic. Phillipson is heavily concerned with the relationships that sustained Smith and the cultural pressures that prodded him toward success. We therefore get a detailed look into Smith’s relationship with the Duke of Buccleuch and a personal focus on his friendship with Hume, but we pass quickly over social obstacles like his hostile relationship with Samuel Johnson and his notorious temper. His long-standing feud with Adam Ferguson, his accusing Ferguson of plagiarism, and their reconciliation on his deathbed are completely ignored, but Smith’s success as a university administrator and mentor is not. In other words, Smith’s edges are smoother in Phillipson’s more popular, more readable work: the Scottish philosopher is destined for success and he deserves it all.
Phillipson presents Smith as a systematic philosopher par excellence without any hint that some reject this approach. Thankfully, there is not a single mention of the Adam Smith Problem that plagues Smith studies today. Instead, we watch Smith develop a theory of language that forms the foundation of the rest of his work (71), and both his student lectures and books are presented as fully integrated into an overarching political, moral, and aesthetic theory (6, 101, 106). Phillipson also controversially describes Smith as Hume’s successor and equal. Smith was a “perfect Humean” to whom the elder philosopher was “ready to hand over the problem” of the science of man because it was “now as complete as it would ever be” (71, 141; see also 89, 206). Hume “provided the philosophical resources Smith needed to develop a theory” (237), but, Phillipson is clear, Smith was not derivative or unoriginal. Smith’s work was at a “distance” from Hume’s and their disagreements are discussed (116). In fact, Phillipson refers to The Wealth of Nations as “the greatest and most enduring monument of the Scottish Enlightenment” (237), a claim some Hume scholars would take issue with.
Phillipson navigates well the tension between the Stoic and natural law interpretations of Smith (20–21, 43–47), highlights the tension between Kirk and university that commentators like Alasdair MacIntyre and Arthur Herman polemically ignore (29, 31, 33, 83–84), and emphasizes that Kirkaldy and Glasgow served as laboratories for Smith’s economics. Phillipson adroitly moderates Rousseau’s influence on Smith while still recognizing its importance, and even contrasts his own biographical approach to Stewarts’s first comments on Smith’s life (276). Overall, the book is nicely done.
It does have some shortcomings. Phillipson makes Smith to be more of a skeptic than is generally recognized and presents little evidence for this opinion. He treats Smith’s alleged atheism as a...