Friday, December 7, 2018

On the Friendship Between David Hume and Adam Smith

The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought, by Dennis C. Rasmussen, provides an interesting portrait of the intellectual environment in which David Hume and Adam Smith did their work, and the deep friendship that developed between them after their first meeting, which, according to Rasmussen, happened in 1749. Hume has exercised an amazing amount of influence on several important thinkers. Immanuel Kant, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Adam Smith were influenced by him.

Rasmussen compares the friendship between Hume and Smith with the relationship between Socrates and Plato. Here’s an excerpt:
Whereas these leading philosophers of friendship tend to analyze the concept in the abstract—the different forms that friendship takes, its roots in human nature, its relationship to self-interest, to romantic love, and to justice—a consideration of Hume and Smith allows us to see that rare thing, a philosophical friendship of the very highest level in action: a case study, as it were… Indeed, there is arguably no higher example of a philosophical friendship in the entire Western tradition. It takes some effort, in fact, to think of who the closest rivals would be. Socrates and Plato? Given the four-decade age disparity between them, their relationship was probably more one of teacher and student, or perhaps mentor and protégé, than one of equals, and in any case the record of their personal interactions is scant.
Hume is generally seen as a philosopher who is interested in abstract metaphysical and epistemological questions, while Smith is seen as a philosopher of practical matters, like economic theory. Also, Hume was a conservative Tory in his politics, while Smith was a liberal Whig; and Hume was a skeptic with regard to religion or perhaps even an atheist, while Smith had cultivated for himself the image of a confirmed believer. But going beyond these caricatures, Rasmussen shows that the intellectual interests of Hume and Smith overlapped a great deal as both were interested in almost everything. Hume has argued for free trade decades before Smith, while Smith has written extensively on moral theory which is inspired by Hume’s thoughts.

Rasmussen traces the evolution of their friendship through not only the contents of their letters but also from the salutations that they use. “The earliest of the letters open with a formal “Dear Sir,” but it was not long before they transitioned to the more affectionate “Dear Smith” or “My Dear Hume,” then “My Dear Friend,” and finally “My Dearest Friend”— an epithet that neither of them used with any other correspondent during the course of their friendship.”

I am currently on the page 70 of the book. I will have more to say on it in my future posts.

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