Journaltalk - Dissing "The Theory of Moral Sentiments": Twenty-Six Critics, from 1765 to 1949

Dissing "The Theory of Moral Sentiments": Twenty-Six Critics, from 1765 to 1949

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  • Daniel B. Klein
Volume Number 15
Issue Number 2
Pages 201–254
File URL Dissing "The Theory of Moral Sentiments": Twenty-Six Critics, from 1765 to 1949
Publication year 2018

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  1. Surely, many more “dissing” comments could have been included. It now occurs to me that I should have included the following from Jacob Viner’s “Adam Smith and Laissez-Faire,” JPE 1927:

    “I will endeavor to show that the Wealth of Nations was a better book because of its partial breach with the Theory of Moral Sentiments, and that it could not have remained, as it has, a living book were it not that in its methods of analysis, its basic assumptions, and its conclusions it abandoned the absolutism, the rigidity, the romanticism which characterize the earlier book.”

    The drift of Viner’s critical remarks are rather different than the dissing themes in the EJW piece. See notably Viner p. 216 (upper part of the page), and then p. 217 on TMS Ed. 6.

    posted 11 Jun 2018 by Daniel Klein

  2. I neglected to give page cite for the Viner quotation (“I will endeavor…”); it is p. 201.

    posted 11 Jun 2018 by Daniel Klein

  3. In the paper, after the ‘dissing’ quotations, I have a section ‘Circa 1800.’ I quote Popock and Melzer.

    I’ve lately read Wayne C. Booth, A Rhetoric of Irony (Chicago, 1974), fabulous. The book contains some passages apropos ‘Circa 1800’:

    “This is mainly a book about how we manage to share ironies and why we often do not; it is only secondarily a book of critical theory. I hope that it does, however, move toward some elementary theoretical clarity about a subject which has been—especially since the Romantic period—the mother of confusions. There is no agreement among critics about what irony is, and many would hold to the romantic claim…that its very spirit and value are violated by the effort to be clear about it.” (Booth 1974, ix)

    “The way irony works in uniting (or dividing) authors and readers has been relatively neglected since the latter part of the eighteenth century…” (ix)

    “It was not until well along into the eighteenth century that theorists were forced, by explosive developments in the use of irony itself, to begin thinking about ironic effects as somehow self-sufficient literary ends. And then of course irony burst its bonds so effectively that men finally dismissed merely functional ironies as not even ironic, or as self-evidently less artistic.” (139-140)

    “Even in the works I have selected to illustrate a functional, stable irony, I have often felt as if I were holding back a very frisky pony, that in fact the heady, threatening pleasures of irony were already trying to drag me ahead of my story—just as they ran away with literary history from the Romantic period on.” (175)

    “Traditionally, the capacity to make original metaphors was generally given much higher status than the ability to use irony; in Aristotle, for example, it is the most important single gift of the poet. But like irony, the device was not content until it had become a concept, an Idea. And with romanticism, it began to expand its domain, until it finally became for some the whole of the poetic art.” (177)

    posted 22 Jul 2018 by Daniel Klein

  4. I discover another passage from Dugald Stewart (1829) that should be included:

    “…Mr. Smith…has been led to resolve our sense of duty into a regard to the good opinion, and a desire to obtain the <i>sympathy</i> of our fellow creatures. I shall afterwards have occasion to examine the principal arguments he alleges in support of his conclusions. At present I shall only remark, that, although his theory may account for the desire which all men, both good and bad, have to <i>assume the appearance of virture</i>, it never can explain the origin of our notions of duty and moral obligation.” (pp. 37-38)

    posted 29 Jul 2018 by Daniel Klein

  5. I discovered something that is a maybe:
    Hugh Murray, Enquiries Historical and Moral, Respecting the Character of Nations, and the Progress of Society (Edinburgh, 1808).

    Of “the science which analyses the faculties of the human mind,” he writes:

    “The progress of this science accordingly, has been still slower than that of physics. It is only recently indeed that it has reached its <i>acme</i> of corruption, and has with difficulty found any sure ground on which to rest its foot.”

    For a couple of reasons, I think he might have Ed. 6 of TMS in mind as the acme of corruption.

    In the next paragraph he looks forward to the sciene’s “establishment on a firm and permanent foundation.”

    In the book he mentions (just once each, I believe) Kames, Hume, Ferguson, and Millar, but never Smith.

    He makes some remarks against conjectural history (167), the drift being that we should seek facts, not make things up.

    Several pages of his description of savages reminds one strongly of Smith, “death song”, etc. pp. 276ff.

    posted 21 Aug 2018 by Daniel Klein

  6. Addition to previous on Hugh Murray (1808): The four-stage theory appears 157ff.

    posted 22 Aug 2018 by Daniel Klein

  7. On “Circa 1800,” another two thoughts:

    1. Deirdre McCloskey. 2008. Adam Smith, the Last of the Former Virtue Ethicists. History of Political Economy 40(1): 43-71, maintains that Smith was more or less the last to treat ethics in terms of virtues.

    2. In the decade or so after Smith’s death, natural jurisprudence was no longer taught in the Scottish universities. See pp. 314-316, implicating Dugald Stewart, of James Moore. 2006. Natural Rights in the Scottish Enlightenment. In Cambridge History of Eighteenth-Century Political Thought, eds M. Goldie and R. Wokler. CUP: 291-316.

    posted 24 Nov 2018 by Daniel Klein

  8. I cited Emma Rothschild 2004 for support on Smith as non-foundationalist. I would have done well to cite also her Economic Sentiments (HUP, 2001), 231, 238.

    posted 04 Dec 2018 by Daniel Klein

  9. Glory Liu kindly brought to my attention a review of TMS, on the occasion of an 1817 Boston edition, by Levi Frisbie (1783-1822) in the North-American Review 8(23), 1819: 371-396. The piece is republished in an 1823 volume of Frisbie’s miscellaneous writings, edited by Andrew Norton. The piece too should be quoted in the compilation. For example, Frisbie writes: “And that can never be an ultimate standard, which is itself to be judged by one more so” (382).

    posted 23 Jan 2019 by Daniel Klein

  10. Another TMS disser is J.M. Robertson, A Short History of Morals (London: Watts & Co., 1920): 326-338. Robertson says repeatedly that Smith strings together ideas and claims that do not cohere:

    “Smith, to whom Dugald Stewart ascribed a ‘singular consistency’ in his philosophical principles, fails to sustain that panegyric even in the WEALTH OF NATIONS; and in the THEORY he is still further from earning it” (326).

    “he merely puts his own doctrine in a series of statements which it is hardly possible to co-ordinate..What he really does is to put a series of disparate propositions” (327).

    “The trouble with Smith is that he suffers from the defect (so incident to book-makers) of intellectual myopia. He sees one facet of a problem at a tiime, concentrates on that, and then passes on to another, never reaching a comprehensive view of the whole” (334).

    “Smith’s system remained incomplete and inconsistent” (337).

    Meanwhile, Robertson suggests that underneath the farrago is a system “founded in self-regard” (332):

    After quoting Smith, Robertson remarks: “It would be difficult to reduce sympathy more plainly to a self-regarding foundation, after a parade of a priori altruism” (332).

    “The fact is that, though Smith gives to his ‘system’ the air of being contrary to the so-called ‘selfish theory’ mainly by the use of the word ‘sympathy,’ which carries the general connotation of altruism while really containing for his argument only the idea of <i>consent</i>, he is constantly explaining human actioin in terms of <i>antipathy</i>, to which, in his argument, sympathy is secondary and ancillary. And antiipathy, obviously, is founded in self-regard” (332).

    Robertson writes:

    “Again and again he shows how contracted, how conventional, how often merely customary, is the ethic of sympathy which he is formulating” (333). He suggests that Smith might have simplified his teaching by treating sympathy as “the <i>purification</i> of the current nationalized and racialized moral codes” (335).

    Robertson concludes the discussion of Smith with the following:

    “Decidedly the fabling bee, Mandeville, had left his sting in the optimist. The total result is bizarre. Whereas the professed pessimist puts a quasi-optimistic formula in which private vices work public good, the optimist puts one in which the temper necessary to conserve society is the great source of moral corruption. And it would be hard to show that the second is not the more pessimistic of the two—if there be any fundamental difference” (338).

    Robertson has no appreciation of Smith’s non-foundationalism. Figuring that the charitable way to read Smith is to try to ascribe some kind of ethical foundation to his work, he ascribes a “self-regarding” foundation.

    posted 08 Aug 2019 by Daniel Klein

  11. Eugene F. Miller, Editor’s Note, Hume’s Essays (LF), p. xxvii:

    “Many years ago, while a doctoral student under the Committee [on Social Thought, at the U of Chicago], I first studied Hume’s writings in research that was guided by Friedrich A. Hayek, Leo Strauss, and Joseph Cropsey. The Committee on Social Thought, more than any academic program that I know of, has sought to recover the unity and comprehensiveness of human knowledge that was lost after Hume’s time, with the division of learning into departments or disciplines.”

    posted 31 Jan 2023 by Daniel Klein

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