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327 12 Virtue without Agency Sentiment, Behavior, and Habituation in A. Smith Throughout the Theory of Moral Sentiments, there is a marked reversal of emphasis, away from the drama of volatile and non-cognitive passions and toward reaffirming the continuity of a different type of affect. The course correction here takes the form of retranslating the passions—not back into a metaphysics of the will, to be sure—but into a firmly empirical, at times seemingly actuarial understanding of reason as it manifests itself in established customs, prevailing manners, average forms of behavior, and a mimetic conception of virtue. Viewing his arguments as post-metaphysical, yet also wishing to move beyond the rationalist, emotivist, and skeptical critiques of metaphysics that had dominated since the Restoration, Adam Smith seeks to overcome the antagonism of will and intellect—a dilemma that, unbeknownst to him, modernity had not so much discovered as created. To David Marshall, Smith “seems less concerned about the constitution of the self” and indeed “presupposes a certain instability of the self; it depends upon an eclipsing of identity, a transfer of persons.”1 Marshall’s compact formula risks obscuring, however , that such a transferential model of sociality achieved by continued imaginative 1. Figure of Theater, 177. For another account of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, see Griswold , Adam Smith; for a brief and wide ranging genealogy of sentimentalism, see Chandler, “Politics of Sentiment.” 328 progressive amnesia­ substitution constitutes something of a logical paradox. For “how can one become another person without suffering the dramatic change that is self-liquidation?” Furthermore , “if my identity is caught up with yours, and yours with another’s, and so in a perpetually spawning web of affiliations, how can I ever know that your approving glance is your glance, rather than the effect of an unreadable palimpsest of selves?” After all, any such knowledge hinges on “entering into another experience while retaining enough rational capacity of one’s own to assess what one finds there. The cognitive distance which such judgements require cuts against the grain of an imaginary ethics.”2 Arguably, none of these logical paradoxes can be resolved in the terms in which they are here being stated—that is, in a vocabulary still committed to knowledge as propositional and tethered to a solitary and self-aware epistemological agent. Though far from meaning to present an apologia for Smith’s transferential conception of moral agency, the reading here undertaken suggests that it is precisely this mentalist idea of knowledge—viz., as a type of intentionality issuing in a distinct­ representation—which Smith means to leave behind. In fact, his solution to Hume’s epistemological dilemma rests on distilling how the inherently non-cognitive conduct of individuals will yield rational, systemic effects that could never be secured if social meaning were to depend on subjective intention. To this end, Smith comprehensively re-describes passion as “sentiment” and, in turn, sentiment as a social transaction or “behavior.” The result of Smith’s sweeping account of sociality as the circulation and mimetic appraisal of sentiments is a moral theory that bears more than a passing affinity to modern behaviorism. As is evident from Hobbes’s and Locke’s strictly epistemological approach to the self, the modern conception of truth as an objective to be realized by specific epistemological method is the most significant legacy of late Scholastic nominalism. In­ repudiating the idea of knowledge as a result of active contemplation (theoria) for which the cosmos had once furnished the ontological source and ethical telos, modern inquiry after Bacon and Descartes instead proceeds by isolating singular entities as the only viable locus of meaning. The resulting paradigm of knowledge as “information ” thus gives rise to a fact/value divide that Hume eventually sets forth as an axiom of modern rational inquiry, the result being that knowledge as an intellectual commodity has become terminally estranged from the broader ideal of wisdom and human flourishing. After 1750, epistemology and ethics are fundamentally conceived as distinct and, increasingly, as unrelated pursuits, and it is in Adam Smith 2. Eagleton, Trouble, 71, 75. Eagleton’s central objection that “sympathy cannot be entirely spontaneous, since it needs to weigh the merits of its object” is the premise for Lori Branch’s recent work on the paradox of spontaneous self-other relations in Shaftesbury and Wordsworth; see Rituals , esp. 91–134 and 175–209. Virtue without Agency 329 that this bifurcation is completed as the project of moral philosophy migrates from...


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