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November 2, 2013

Clinician or moralist?

A common censure of Adam Smith may be summed up hastily as follows. He, first and above all thinkers, effected a kind of narrowing of the lens of philosophy, to the exclusion of all those metaphysical and moral speculations by which the nature and destiny of man was once, under the tutelage of the ancients, apprehended and refined. Smith undertook, in a word, to resolve philosophy into economics, to replace what ought to be with what is, and fix the minds of thinking men upon an empirical rather than a teleological principle.

More sophisticated students of the great Scotsman (who, I was astonished on a recent occasion to learn, was kidnapped by gypsies as a young child) are familiar with what is called the Adam Smith Problem: briefly, the problem of reconciling the cool empiricism that dominates his Wealth of Nations with the subtle and ingenious system of moralism that emerges in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

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