Journaltalk - Adam Smith’s Theory of Inquiry

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Author
  • J. Ralph Lindgren
Volume Number 77
Issue Number 6
Pages 897-915
Publication year 1969

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About JOURNAL OF POLITICAL ECONOMY

Publisher UNIV CHICAGO PRESS
Grouping social sciences
Categories economics

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  1. Undoubtedly Adam Smith is one of the most influential thinkers of the modern Western Tradition. As a result many philosophers engage in critical reflection of Smith’s numerous contributions. A tension, however, arises when examining Smith’s entire corpus. The divide for many philosophers becomes apparent when comparing The Wealth of Nations to The Theory of Moral Sentiments. What did Smith see as the connection, if any, between these works? Lindgren’s piece provides an important first-step in connecting Wealth of Nations with The Theory of Moral Sentiments by investigating how Adam Smith understood the role of inquiry. While Lindgren does not attempt to unite his conclusions on inquiry with Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments, it provides sufficient ground for further reflection on the matter.

    Non-specialists might wonder why starting how the notion of inquiry can serve as a suitable place for beginning philosophical reflection. Starting with inquiry provides a framework to see how Smith literally sees the world. Is Smith an adherent to a philosophically realistic view of the world or does he follow the nominalism and skepticism of others like Hume? For Lindgren the answer is clear. Smith’s epistemology does not fit into the metaphysical realist position and is more in line with the skeptical views of Hume. Breaking from the earlier tradition of metaphysical realism Smith’s model of inquiry will not focus on determining some type of abstract form of a thing, instead he will understand the world as somewhat incomprehensible to the individual. For Smith the individual is not capable of aligning his knowledge of the world with things that actually exist in the world as would be the case for metaphysicians. A consequence of this is that Lindgren sees Smith’s philosophy of language as the basis for his model of inquiry. While Lindgren provides a sound argument that language served as Smith’s model of inquiry he does not challenge and further test Smith’s notion.

    Fundamentally the question that Lindgren avoids asking is what is the relationship between convention and nature in a grammar and its application to human inquiry. Lindgren seems to disregard many of the contributions of modern linguistics by simply affirming Smith’s view that grammatical rules “are dependent upon the aesthetic temperament of the community.” Certainly there is some truth to that, but modern linguistics and cognitive science would make the claim that grammar has a part that exists by convention—especially prescriptive grammars dictating forms of written communication—but it would also point out that the actual wiring of the human brains creates limits on the types of grammar possible. Limiting the type of grammars possible in the hardware of the brain in turn creates limits on the type of socially possible grammars. So does knowing that grammars have inherent and theoretically universal limits sufficient to undermine parts of Smith’s model of language? Starting here and saying there are some types of universal constraints that emerge in the human brain seems to seriously impact the analysis of Lindgren and in turn the applicability of Smith’s application of language to inquiry. If constraints naturally emerge on the structure of language then there could be a tendency for languages to form in a particular way. If languages form in a particular way then is Smith’s understanding of the experience of learning a language correct? Lindgren needs to provide a tougher critique of Smith’s model and see if it is still applicable. This author believes that Smith’s view of language could best be described as quaint, but not able to sustain rigorous scrutiny.

    posted 22 Apr 2011 by Steve Kunath

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