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History of Political Economy 33.1 (2001) 187-190
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Adam Smith and Economic Science:
A Methodological Interpretation
Adam Smith and Economic Science: A Methodological Interpretation. By Jan Peil. Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar, 1999. 224 pp. £49.95; $80.00.
After reading this book, I first thought that I had failed to understand so many of the author’s claims that maybe I should not review it. However, comforting myself with the thought that perhaps there may be other readers who share my failings and biases, I decided to write a review after all. Jan Peil’s book reflects a wider trend in eighteenth-century scholarship, and while my criticisms may have been induced by his book, they are really aimed at that trend. I am happy to say that there are several extremely positive aspects of the book, both in presentation and in subject matter, and my criticisms are of a method and not of the author, who is, I believe, a careful and admirable scholar.
Chapter 1 argues for a hermeneutical reading of Adam Smith, which requires the reader to recognize that he is an active participant in the process of interpreting the text. Chapter 2 shows, through a contextual reading, that the conventional general equilibrium reading of Smith is mistaken. Chapter 3 argues that a proper understanding of Smith’s use of sympathy refutes the notion that atomistic individuals were Smith’s primary concern. Chapter 4 takes the battle into the citadel and claims that the traditional understanding of natural and market prices, and hence of the invisible hand, is erroneous. Chapter 5 relates the new sympathy-based reading of Smith to [End Page 187] the dichotomies inherent in policy issues that confront economists, such as the state versus society, the individual versus the state, and so on.
A good deal of the book is taken up with criticisms of other scholars, such as Syed Ahmad, Samuel Hollander, and Bob Goudzwaard. Most of these critiques are effective and well done. So I will focus directly upon what Peil believes to be the new interpretation of Smith’s concept of sympathy. In a nutshell, Peil takes Smith’s notion of sympathy to mean the ability to feel with, and not necessarily to feel for, another person. This interpretation of sympathy, Peil would hope, forces us to reconsider not only our understanding of the Moral Sentiments but also of such “economistic” topics as natural and market prices. This new reading also removes the taint of atomism from the individuals who inhabit Smith’s universe. Since the individuals are not atoms, the pretended clash between the individual and society is irrelevant to a proper interpretation of Adam Smith’s social science.
Why am I unable to agree?
First, as to method. Peil quotes approvingly from Paul Ricoeur: “By virtue of being written the text becomes autonomous with regard to the intention of the author. What the text means is no longer identical to what the author meant” (19). Peil then elaborates that “the text has in its most literal sense been emancipated from the author” (emphasis in original). Does this not establish too much? Some parameters limiting our freedom to read meaning into the original must be indicated. If readers are really free to read texts with such liberty, why not base a study of, say, pottery upon the Wealth of Nations? This would require real participation from the reader! Fortunately, Peil does not avail himself of such liberties.
Peil wishes to read the author’s words in context. This is most admirable, and it reminds us that even the most literal reading implicitly introduces a context. This must be recognized. But which context? And why? Should it be the tradition of civic republicanism? Should it be the commercialism of the Scottish ports? the intellectual links between the Scots and the French Enlightenment? the moderate Calvinism of the Scottish church? If it is to be all of them, how much weight should each context receive? For example, in writing about analytical rigor, Peil has neglected completely Francis...