- The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought by Dennis C. Rasmussen
In reading biographies or accounts of figures with which one agrees and sympathizes, there is a tendency that needs to be avoided, that is, of over -identifying with the figures in question and of too closely mapping one's own life and aspirations onto them.
As such, there is some risk involved for a person like me in reading about the friendship between David Hume and Adam Smith. Dennis C. Rasmussen's excellent new volume, The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought, chronicles that friendship in an engaging and compelling narrative. The work is thoroughly researched and entertainingly written. Rasmussen uses the extant correspondence between Smith and Hume—as well as their extensive correspondence with others—as the frame, over which he lays chapters devoted to important periods and works during the time of their friendship. (The first chapters cover the time before their meeting and an epilogue covers the time between Hume's passing and Smith's.)
As might be expected for a book that works its way linearly through the history, the chapters can be somewhat uneven. Chapter 8, "Mortally Sick at Sea," for instance, is a transitional chapter. It comes after the engaging story of Rousseau's quarrel with Hume, which is related well through the lens of Smith's advice to Hume on it and without ignoring the fact that Rousseau's behavior was probably due to untreated mental illness. And it comes before Rasmussen's thorough treatment of The Wealth of Nations, which works through not just the genesis and reception of the book, but primarily—as with Rasmussen's earlier treatment of Smith's Theory of the Moral Sentiments—its disputes and agreements with Hume. Chapter 8, though, is dealt a rough hand: letters from the period it covers primarily consist of Hume imploring Smith to visit him in Edinburgh and Smith being too busy writing and getting lost in the countryside thinking about his book to do so. Still, though, there is engaging color here, such as the fact that Hume gets too seasick—hence the chapter's title—to make the trip to visit Smith in nearby Kirckaldy. None of the chapters overstay their welcome, either, and the book is a quick read, overall.
Rasmussen has given himself a diffcult task. As he says in the book's preface, "Although I am a professor and hope that this book will contribute to the scholarly study of Hume and Smith, it was written not just for academics but for [End Page 146] anyone interested in learning more about the lives and ideas of these two giants of the Enlightenment, and about what is arguably the greatest of all philosophical friendships." The book thus tries to serve two masters: the academic and the popular. The book does an admirable job of the latter: its engaging style and broad, clear glosses on the positions and arguments offered by the two figures will serve to enlighten and entertain a popular audience. (I have already sent a copy to my father, an intellectual history hobbyist.) And I have no doubt that the historical and intellectual contributions of the thorough research job that Rasmussen has done will immediately start to inform scholarship on these figures and how they are situated in the Scottish Enlightenment. Further, Rasmussen's early biographical chapter on Hume would serve as a good introduction for students to the period of Hume's life when he wrote most of his major philosophical works.
How much Rasmussen's working-through of the philosophical positions will be of value to professional philosophers is unclear. If one is unfamiliar with the basic arguments, for instance, of Smith's Theory of the Moral Sentiments or Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, then these glosses appear to me to be clear...