Nicholas Philipson on Adam Smith

For the enlightenment, advancement, and inspiration of its members


Proudly presents

With the kind permission of the CATO Institute & C-Span

A filmed talk by Dr Nicholas Philipson given in January 2011 on:

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Adam Smith:
An Enlightened Life
(With some comments by Professor James R Otteson, Yeshiva University)

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Nicholas Philipson and James R Otteson on Adam Smith 03

Date: Monday July 16 2012

Venue: Home of Prodos & Barboo, 153 Lennox Street, Richmond. Phone: 9428 1234.

6.30 PM: Doors Open.

Meals (all at cost price) served between 6.30 PM and 7.15 PM

  • Lemon Pepper Atlantic Salmon: $12
  • Crumbed Lamb Cutlets: $12
  • Steak & Vegetable pies: $5 each

7.30 PM (sharp): Commencement of Film + Chaired discussion.

Who: Only registered PRODOS Film Study Group members and guests of members allowed. You can apply to join on the night. To join you need to agree with our purpose and pay the $2 annual fee.

Policy: Leaving straight after a film and therefore skipping the discussion goes against one of the conditions upon which our permission to screen these films is based.

9.30 PM: End of meeting.

Cost: No charge. But if you’d like to make a personal donation to Prodos that’s greatly appreciated. Thanks.

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Nicholas Philipson on Adam Smith

 About …

Nicholas Philipson talks about his book Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (Yale University Press, 2010), an intellectual biography of Scottish philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790).

The author examines Smith’s philosophical and economic thinking and explores not only his best known work, The Wealth of Nations, which popularized the notion of the “invisible hand” of the market and shaped modern economics, but also Smith’s other great work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Nicholas Philipson is joined in conversation by James Otteson, author of Adam Smith’s Marketplace of Life.

Excerpts from a review of Dr Philipson’s book (on which this talk is based) by the man I consider to be the world’s foremost Adam Smith scholar, Dr Gavin Kennedy:

PRODOS with Adam Smith scholar, Dr Gavin Kennedy, in Melbourne Australia 2010

PRODOS & Colleagues had the honour of meeting Dr Gavin Kennedy in Melbourne in 2010. Below is an excerpt of Dr Kennedy's review of Nicholas Philipson's book.

Phillipson’s is an intellectual biography – the history of Smith’s startling ideas – carefully developed over his lifetime and their germination from Smith’s solid grasp of the work of those who preceded him, particularly David Hume, whose ideas he applied and developed, but also the never to be forgotten, Francis Hutcheson …

It is not just a talented account of Smith’s ideas. Phillipson delves into their development, taking just enough space to keep his theme of their evolution rolling along at a non-exhausting page-turning pace.

And in the background, all the time, is the ever-present brave mood of (The) Enlightenment in struggle with the cloying embrace of theological superstition, under the watchful eyes, and lurid imaginations, of the Presbyterian zealots, and to be fair, of the timid and intimidated Presbyterian Moderates who, privately, knew better but remained silent in public …

From the beginning at the local Kirkcaldy school, Smith’s aptitude for the Latin and Greek classics prepared him for the more arduous work he undertook at the Universities of Glasgow (tutored by talented teachers such as Professors Hutcheson on moral philosophy, Simson on mathematics, and Dick on Newtonian physics) …

Nicholas Philipson on Adam Smith

It was at Oxford from around 1744 (when 21 years-old) that he started his ‘intended juvenile essay’ on the History of Astronomy that displayed his budding genius for philosophy, both moral and natural.

In the clearest terms, Phillipson places the ideas in this early work on the ‘origins of philosophical thought’ in the ‘psychological need to explain the unexpected, to soothe the imagination and to restore the mind to a state of order and tranquillity’ …

Smith explained that only when men had some ‘security and leisure to reflect on the world’ could they ‘attend to the train of events which passes around them’. Meanwhile, they would cower in frightful superstition and fear at everything they could not understand, until they could seek ‘the invisible chains which bind together all these disjoined objects’ so as to ‘… render the theatre of nature a more coherent and therefore a more magnificent spectacle’. Knowledge grew slowly and the remnants of ignorance, accompanied by imaginary and invisible polytheistic gods and ‘pusillanimous superstition’ …

Nicholas Philipson and James R Otteson on Adam Smith

However, Smith’s moral philosophy is a deeper analysis of real morality – and potential for humanisation – through the device of an ‘imaginary man within the breast’ – the impartial spectator – and more convincing to contemporary readers in and beyond 1759. It made Smith’s reputation in Scotland and England, and to some extent in France.

It was the latter country that entered Smith’s life and exposed him to company of the French Physiocrats around Quesnay and others. Before he met them (1764-6) Smith had developed and finalised many of his early ideas in political economy …

His contact with the Physiocrats and others did not teach him his economics. He listened, admired their ideas (but not those of ‘laissez-faire’), and severely criticised their major error, as he saw it, of the primacy of agriculture as the sole productive driver of the economy and their outright dismissal of commercial industry as ‘sterile’ …

Nicholas Philipson on Adam Smith

Nicholas Philipson and James R Otteson on Adam Smith

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