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  • Dialogism, the Gaze, and the Emergence of Economic Discourse*
  • Vivienne Brown (bio)


In the symposium on “Living Alone Together” in a recent issue of this journal, 1 a fascinating discussion of the constitutive sociality of human nature explored the radical incompleteness of the individual human being as evidenced by the need for the complementary “gaze” of others. Rejecting that kind of intellectual history which has presented the writers of the Enlightenment as producers of the solitary and deeply nonsocial individualism of much contemporary liberal philosophy, this discussion was committed to dissolving the purported antinomies of liberalism and communitarianism. This included thinking through both the autonomous and the interdependent aspects of human individuality and tracing these concerns in the works of Enlightenment writers such as Adam Smith and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 2

Tzvetan Todorov counterposes the sociality of human nature, which he represents in terms of “relations of contiguity and complementarity, an exemplary incarnation of which is the gaze we turn toward one another,” to what he calls “relations of resemblance, which also means of rivalry and combat.” 3 In this paper, I would like to explore some of the ways in which the notions of the gaze and others may be seen as functioning analogously with a Bakhtinian notion of dialogism, and indeed Bakhtin and dialogism were not far from the discussion in the symposium. Three of the contributors to the symposium are Bakhtin scholars (Caryl Emerson, Gary Saul Morson, and Tzvetan Todorov) and, in addition to Emerson’s article on Bakhtin (“Keeping the Self Intact During the Culture Wars: A Centennial Essay for Mikhail Bakhtin”), there are a number of direct references to Bakhtin which enlist him for the project on living alone together. 4 I wish to elaborate on this link between spectatorial notions of human interdependence and Bakhtinian dialogism by proposing that Adam Smith’s account of moral judgment [End Page 697] and the impartial spectator in The Theory of Moral Sentiments 5 may be interpreted as an instance of Bakhtinian dialogism, both stylistically and in terms of Bakhtin’s conception of ethical soliloquy as inner dialogism. This reading of The Theory of Moral Sentiments results in problematizing the notion of the gaze by posing the question of the moral standing of those who gaze, and by identifying a crucial demarcation between a social gaze and a moral gaze which is played out in various stylistic and philosophical tensions through which the dependence upon yet ultimate rejection of the Stoic moral philosophy is registered. This paper also examines the relation of Smith’s economic analysis to his moral philosophy and the reasons for the absence of “relations of contiguity and complementarity” in economic discourse.


The “sociality” of humankind in Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments is not in doubt but this sociality is a complex matter. As evidence of the constitutive human need to be gazed upon, Todorov in the symposium’s lead article (LA 1–14) quotes from the passage in The Theory of Moral Sentiments in which an answer is provided as to why the “great purpose of human life” is that of “bettering our condition”: “To be observed, to be attended to, to be taken notice of with sympathy, complacency and approbation, are all the advantages which we can propose to derive from it” (TMS 50). Todorov argues that this constitutive need for the gaze of others does not necessarily receive a negative judgment from Adam Smith in that all values arise from society which provides the only looking glass through which any person can view himself. 6 In this spirit, Todorov argues, Smith develops the mental construct of the impartial spectator who functions as a “purified ideal” of all the others; conscience thus embodies “a generalized other, the internalized gaze of others” and it is this that ultimately guides moral behavior (LA 6–8).

Stewart Justman nuances this reading by noting that in the sentence following the one quoted by Todorov, Smith says it is vanity that motivates the need for the gaze of others. 7 Justman suggests that the passage is not simply condoning the desire for attention as an innocent manifestation of mankind’s sociality, and that here and...

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pp. 697-710
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