In day two of our Adam Smith commemoration, Dr Craig Smith offers an insight into how the works and wisdom of the Kirkcaldy native and University of Glasgow alumnus still inform modern thinking 300 years after his birth. By Dominic Ryan


FOR Dr Craig Smith, who is Adam Smith Senior Lecturer in the Scottish Enlightenment at the University of Glasgow, it’s important the tercentenary commemoration of one of Scotland’s leading thinkers becomes an opportunity for all of us, not only academics, to engage more closely with Smith’s work and explore his writing not just as historical artefacts but as ideas that speak to the relevant events of today.

“There’s a reason people remember Adam Smith’s name and that’s because he has had a significant impact on shaping not only the way we think about economics but also the way that we think about what we now call the social sciences,” says Dr Smith.

“Adam Smith is an incredibly important figure in intellectual history, in Scottish intellectual history, and he was interested in and wrote about a whole range of things beyond economics.”

Dr Smith notes that many in the disparate and constantly changing worlds of economics, politics and philosophy often quote Smith’s writing for their own specific reasons but adds: 

“Many quote correctly but somebody else can then quote something else from him correctly, meaning Smith can be used to support different contemporary positions. Obviously, for Smith, there was no contradiction between the two things quoted, but the two people who are quoting him nowadays are never going to agree on that.

“After all, you can find passages where he supports the free market then you’ve passages where he says the government should act and do things…so both of them are part of his view.”
However, for Dr Smith, the man namechecked for such a vast variety of reasons around the world is not in any way a contradictory thinker.

“Actually, he’s a very careful thinker. He’s a complex thinker. He’s a nuanced thinker. What he isn’t is somebody who declares this is always the right answer: the market always works or the government is always better than the market. Sometimes the government is better than the market. Sometimes the market is better than the government. It depends on the evidence. 

“If you want to think about it in terms of his own upbringing, he saw that he could look at the world around about him and he could see attempts by the government to do things in the economy that failed. 

“He could try to understand why they failed, but he could also see that, left to themselves, people could trade quite successfully, invest quite successfully and develop the economy quite successfully.

“He could examine this and say there isn’t a systematic answer that will give you everything you want in all times in all places. 

“However, you can look and you can say, well, if we want to do this, then we really shouldn’t do that, or we really shouldn’t try to achieve it by doing this other thing. I think that comes from his education, his background and from simply looking at the world pragmatically.”

The Herald:

Adam Smith enjoyed philosophical debates with his friend David Hume, above

Dr Smith acknowledges that, in terms of understanding Smith, we know more now about what he was taught when he was a student, what he read and what he taught his own students before he wrote his books, and notes: “We can see in there the beginnings of him thinking about these ideas about morality and politics and the economy and adapting the ideas and responding to people like his friend David Hume and, of course, his own professor Francis Hutcheson, as well as other thinkers in the traditions of economics and moral philosophy. 

“He’s adapting ideas, absorbing ideas, working out what he thinks is convincing, what he’s not convinced by, then adapting that into his own system. There is not a kind of eureka moment; it’s something he works at throughout his career. 

“He spends a huge amount of time writing and rewriting things and gathering data for inclusion in the Wealth of Nations as well. 
“There is a lot of empirical information that he went out and sought for himself, at a time when information was very hard to come by. For example, he was working out historical prices for certain goods without computer or even a calculator.”



DR Smith is also keen to highlight the positive effect of Adam Smith’s joy of sharing knowledge and new ideas in order to forward peer thinking.

“A lot of people who talk about the Scottish Enlightenment say the characteristic of it was the fact it was quite a small group of people who all knew each other and who read each other’s work,” he says.

“Everybody read each other’s work and commented on it before it was published then after it was published. So you have this group of thinkers who are a bit overshadowed by people like Hume and Smith – if they had lived any other time, they probably would’ve been even bigger names. People such as Adam Ferguson and William Robertson were reading what Smith said and that helped their thinking. 

“You can see traces of that in their own work; they did not always accept everything he said. 

“Sometimes they took bits and changed it around in a way they thought was more helpful to their own thinking. But there’s definite evidence that the conversation in that group worked together as a kind of intellectual hot house: ‘a hot bed of genius’ it was called at one time.”

There was a catalytical moment in the Eighteenth Century when many universities, and public education in general, moved away from only reading Latin and Greek – both in literal translation and thinking – to reading the works of modern philosophers. 

These philosophers’ ideas began to be taught to students and then passed on to the people who would ultimately become teachers and themselves. However, Adam Smith until recently was, quite surprisingly, overlooked as a philosopher.

“The Theory of Moral Sentiments went out of fashion and even people who studied philosophy stopped reading it for a long time,” says Dr Smith. “It’s only very recently that it’s come back in. It’s not really a work of philosophy that says you must think this. It’s not an argument that says this is the good or this is beautiful or whatever. 

“It’s what we would call moral psychology. It explains to you how you think about morality and when people read it – my contemporary students, for example – they see what Smith is talking about. 

“They understand the examples that he’s using and it helps them understand about the way they think and about how they should live their lives.”

Dr Smith believes this is a wonderful testament to the book as a legacy that still chimes with modern concerns. 

“It’s a book that is, in many respects, as accurate today as it was then in telling us how we feel when we see somebody being injured, or how we feel when we see somebody stealing something from someone else.

“So there’s a focus on the emotions, on the psychology of sympathy and empathy and impartiality – not putting yourself in favour of or above somebody else. 

“All these are things that are still part how we think or feel about morality today. 

“Smith’s genius was his ability to connect them all together and to do that using everyday examples: examples of how do you feel when you see somebody who’s grieving? How do you feel when you see somebody who is experiencing great joy?

“Those little examples still create the same emotions in us today as they would have done in Smith’s readers. So, I think the Theory of Moral Sentiments certainly deserves more of a public airing nowadays.” 

Look out for part three of our Adam Smith tercentenary series in tomorrow’s Herald


Book remains a relevant lesson in morality and empathy

MANY will know Adam Smith for his seminal work, The Wealth of Nations, however The Theory Of Moral Sentiments is regarded as a breakthrough examination of how we view our personal interactions as social creatures.

The Herald:

Adam Smith’s 1759 work remains a pivotal moment in the Scottish Enlightenment


At the heart of the book is the idea that through our innate and learned empathy with other human beings, we can experience and understand that our own emotions can impact upon and distress others. 

Smith goes on to discuss how the way we control our emotions impacts social behaviour and everyday conduct, particularly in terms of the notions of crime and punishment. 

One of his primary jurisprudence tenets is: “The most sacred laws of justice are the laws which guard the life and person of our neighbour.”
Smith’s 1759 work is not only a pivotal moment in The Scottish Enlightenment but remains a lasting landmark in the history of moral and political thought to this day.