Thursday, December 13, 2018

David Hume’s Response to Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Portrait of Smith by John Kay, 1790
Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments is heavily influenced by the moral theory of his friend, David Hume. When the book was published in 1759, Smith naturally sent a copy to Hume who responded with an affectionate and charming letter, dated 12th April, 1759. Hume begins the letter by thanking Smith for “the agreeable present of your Theory.” But after that he concocts distraction after distraction to delay his opinion of the book.

Finally he comes to Smith’s book and says:
But what is all this to my book? say you.—My dear Mr. Smith have patience: Compose yourself to tranquillity: Show yourself a philosopher in practice as well as profession: Think on the emptiness, and rashness, and futility of the common judgments of men: How little they are regulated by reason in any subject, much more in philosophical subjects, which so far exceed the comprehension of the vulgar.
After one more distraction, he delivers his verdict on the book:
Supposing, therefore, that you have duly prepared yourself for the worst by all these reflections, I proceed to tell you the melancholy news, that your book has been very unfortunate; for the public seem disposed to applaud it extremely. It was looked for by the foolish people with some impatience; and the mob of literati are beginning already to be very loud in its praises. 
Hume gave copies of The Theory of Moral Sentiments to highly placed politicians and intellectuals, including Edmund Burke. He also wrote an anonymous review for the Critical Review in May 1759 and brought further attention to Smith’s work. He praises Smith throughout the review, even though he does not pronounce a judgement on the ultimate soundness of Smith’s ideas, insisting that “time alone is the great test of truth.” When the time came for a new edition of Smith’s book to be published, Hume suggested some additions and alterations.

Dennis C. Rasmussen, in his book The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought, opines that Hume’s congratulatory letter to Smith must rate as one of the most charming letters in the entire history of philosophy. Here’s an excerpt from Rasmussen’s book (page 111 - 112):
Altogether, Hume’s response to The Theory of Moral Sentiments—the mixture of praise, critical engagement, and unconditional support—was entirely characteristic of Hume’s interactions with his friends. Smith had paid Hume the ultimate compliment by making him the key (even if unnamed) interlocutor in his first book, and Hume returned the favor by boosting Smith’s spirits on its release, helping to publicize his book, and pushing him to refine his ideas. What more could one want from a philosophical friendship?

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