One of the basic tactics with any objectionable argument is to see whether any of the inference steps are faulty. In this case, we can see that there is nothing wrong with the logic. So we’re left with rejecting premises, or accepting the conclusion.
Society doesn’t care?
Now, #1 seems unobjectionable. To reject that premise is to argue either that society ought to discourage economic efficiency, or be neutral about efficiency.
The former is false. There are governmental programs and policies acknowledged to be economically inefficient, but everyone agrees that their inefficiency is a flaw, and the programs are justifiable not because of, but despite the inefficiency - they supposedly deliver some other benefit which compensates for the cost. If there were some alternative which was efficient, it would be better.
Neutrality may not be wrong. But voters consistently elect candidates who promise to grow the economy & make things better; and governments have a long history of supporting projects - like bridges & highways - whose justifications are that government ought to help make the economy more efficient. So it seems wrong as well.
What’s efficiency anyway?
Premise #2 is weaker. To me, this premise about substitutability seems so fundamental that I’m not sure how to defend it. If you need a glove, and you have a perfectly good one already, isn’t spending $20 on a new glove the same thing as throwing your money away? Isn’t #2 a generalization of this principle?
If you reject #2, I’m not really sure what economics you’re working under. But there are a few objections we could classify under this heading, generally postulating externalities, such as Keynesian thinking about stimulus spending.
They Snatched Society’s Brain!
When one reads the verse of people who cannot write poems - people who sometimes have more intelligence, sensibility, and moral discrimination than most of the poets - it is hard not to regard the Muse as a sort of fairy godmother who says to the poet, after her colleagues have showered on him the most disconcerting and ambiguous gifts, 39
An interlocutor might suggest that perhaps the creation & consumption of new fiction or novels serves some laudable purpose beyond swelling libraries.
Now, what good deeds could only new works produce? Certainly it’s not edifying & educating our youth; it is not as if the pedagogy of Euclidean geometry has changed much over the last millennia, nor is 20th century fiction known for teaching moral lessons.
But new fiction could be an important societal mechanism for discussing new developments and for pondering the future. SF would be an excellent example of this; the name preferred by connoisseurs - - points straight to this benefit, and creators often cite this as the non-entertainment value of their works40. Who but knows that the constant undercurrent of computers & cloning & space travel in SF has not helped society prepare for the future? Hasn’t SF directly inspired any number of young men & women to enter the hard sciences (as opposed to dedicating their talents to, say, finance), with benefits redounding to all humanity? What’s a dead-weight loss of billions a year compared with landing on the Moon?
I find this argument uncomfortable. It’s arguing that fiction is justified inasmuch as it makes superior propaganda41; , an age-old use of art and one particularly prominent in the 20th century. It may be propaganda in the service of a noble & good cause, and swaying someone to choose a career in science is not as evil as propagandizing children into clearing Iraqi minefields with their bodies - but the morality of it is difficult.
And a utilitarian might cavil about the benefits.
The reading of stories and delighting in them made Don Quixote a gentleman: the believing them literally made him a madman who slew lambs instead of feeding them.42
If someone does not believe in fairies, he does not need to teach his children ; he can omit to teach them the word .43
Fiction can be unfairly persuasive, bypassing our rational faculties44; it may be that we default to believing what we’re told and disbelief is only a latecomer. Information from fiction can substitute for nonfiction (time consumption is zero-sum between fiction & nonfiction) and in sufficient volume, discredit it, which can lead to direct harm - TvTropes’s , which is about self-reinforcing unrealistic fictional depictions of reality, claims that (SF, in particular, is often good inversely proportional to how much scientific truth it contains.) The author’s motive may be malign as easily as benign; readers can read a blatant allegory of Naziism like Spinrad’s The Iron Dream without cottoning on, and the generic fantasy/medieval and science fiction settings/plots are intrinsically hostile to almost all modern values (see for example , or Brin on Lord of the Rings & Star Wars). The author’s intent may not even matter; one’s default reaction to being told something is tobelieve it45, and psychology has found thatunrelated input still affect substantially our beliefs (these effects are known as priming, anchoring, availability heuristic etc). This effects are not trivial; instances like hypotheticals change what purchases you make or whether you dislike someone, prime foreign goals, affect mood, and they can lead to the formation of vicious stereotypes. Priming & contamination is very bad news for anyone who wants to think that they are not affected by the fiction they read. People seem to believe what they dream, the more engrossing a fiction the more you blindly favor the protagonist and believe the story realistic, people who watch TV believe46 poetic justice actually happens outside stories and the world is more dangerous than it is and looks likeTV (which may explain why it’s easier to brainwash people with TV into supporting the death penalty rather than gay marriage), perhaps because viewers can emotionally treat characters on screen asreal47 and replacementsfor real relationships with negativeconsequences like reductions in family size or pregnancy rates
When we read thorough research on narratives that lead to changes in behavior and reduction in stereotyping, we should not forget that this makes fiction a double-edged sword.
Everyone tells kids that what they see on TV isn’t real - of course! But what makes you so sure that you don’t believe what fictions you read?
As a society, is it good to have our discussions and views about incredibly important matters like space exploration hijacked by fiction? It’s hard to see why fiction would yield discussion of equal or superior quality to discussions based on non-fiction. Fictional evidence is particularly fallacious. Consider discussions of Artificial Intelligence; if one sees any mention of fictional entities like HAL 9000 or Skynet, one can stop reading immediately, for the exchange is surely worthless. A discussion about the nonfictional entities SHRDLU or Eurisko, though, might be worthwhile.
So either fiction is effective as propaganda and setting societal agendas, or it isn’t. If the latter, then the loss is nil; if the former, then fiction is dangerous!
Won’t someone think of the chemists?
One could worry that the failure of fiction markets to find a sustainable model might mean the end for nonfiction material, which includes texts & research on things precious to us all such as vaccines.
After all, many of the same arguments seem to apply to the flood of nonfiction material. ProQuest theses runs to over 2 million, and is increasing at more than 70,000 works a year. Much of this material would seem to be sterile and unproductive, as can be scientific papers in general.545556
But this worry is unnecessary. There are several possibilities.
The nonfiction market could be subsidized. This is quite justifiable. Science, after all, is heavily subsidized already. Why? Because it has enormous value 57 and new research can’t be replaced by old, almost by definition. There’s intrinsic value to populating new chapters and books with new results, value that isn’t there with fiction.
The nonfiction market could survive as the fiction market withers away. Fields might lose the subsidy of students forced to buy the latest trivially-changed edition, but that’s a predatory subsidy and more valuable to the publishers than the academic authors, so the loss would be minimal.
Accept no substitutes, or, I can’t believe it’s not Octavia Butler
The claim of #3 is that we can, without loss, switch everyone over from reading contemporary fiction to not-so-contemporary fiction. I daresay this is the premise everyone will question immediately. The classics are an essential part of an intellectually balanced breakfast, but can they be all of it? That is, would creating new works move us to a optimal selection of works, a move large enough that it pays for all the costs involved?
This immediately seems true, but is it? Why can’t new works just rearrange rankings, and merely displace equally good works?
In many respects, much of fiction is worthless. For example, the medieval Japanese believed that The Tale of Genji was missing several chapters. Suppose this were true? How exactly has the world been harmed? People seem to enjoy Genji monogatari quite well enough. Would the discovery of 3 or 4 concluding chapters improve the work? Clearly it would lead to a great deal of work being done, since textbooks and papers would have to be updated, but how likely is it that the extra chapters will make Genji a greater work? Genji isn’t the most tightly plotted work. If an act were cut out of Macbeth, it would be a poorer play for it, and many poems would suffer for losing a stanza; but plays and poems are usually written with an eye to performance - there’s a premium on length that isn’t there with novels. Consider Charles Dickens; it is the entire work that is valuable.
People might say that they would derive much less enjoyment from an incomplete, edited, or abridged version, but I don’t know how much we can trust such utterances. They might just be making a ritual genuflection to the eminent author, or upholding a social image as a person who cares about accuracy, completeness, and authenticity. If we can’t, if there is some ceiling of n utilons of enjoyment which is reached by many books, then premise #3 is saved.
Further, there is a great deal of historical evidence that we have lost awe-inspiring works, yet no one but scholars particularly lament them. There is the Library of Alexandria and Qin Shi Huang’s Burning of books and burying of scholars, to cite two famous mass losses, but in general the great classics survive in surprisingly few numbers; Beowulf survived only in one (fire-damaged) copy, and the Eddas (almost the sole sources for Norse mythology) likewise. The Greek plays suffered similar losses (7 of Sophocles’s >123, 7 of Aeschylus’s 90, 19 of Euripedes’s 92), and what survived were not always the best works58. And literature is favored as words can be reproduced; the Greek music Plato & Aristotle considered so important, or the Chinese music Confucius considered equally vital? Gone. Greek art is little better - who even knows that Greek statues were not austere marble but painted?
But can we assume that there’s a common valuation for how enjoyable all books are? Moby Dick is quite different from The Importance of Being Earnest. Alice may value the former much less than the latter, while Bob wants a nautical drama & not a comedy of manners. In this case, because both works exist, both Alice & Bob can be satisfied and we reach an optimum.
But what if the book Bob desires hasn’t been published, but would be soon if there were a market? He will be saddened to have to read of butlers and harpooners instead of the shadow war of Pirates versus Ninjas. In this binary case, Alice will still be fine, but Bob will be worse off.
The full example is not so bad for us, though. It’s plausible that Bob would enjoy Pirates vs. Ninja: The Stabbening more than Moby Dick if those were the only 2 choices. But there are over 32 million books in the Library of Congress; is Bob so extraordinarily picky that not a single existing book would be as or more enjoyable than Pirates vs Ninja?
This is not so implausible; American culture stagnated in many ways during the 20th century. The economist Tyler Cowenconsiders a reader’s thought experiment:
…what if the law said we couldn’t make any new art (movies, novels, music etc). And perhaps said we ought to rerelease each year the art that first appeared 50 or 30 years ago. How would people’s leisure activity and society’s cultural evolution change?
And replies 59:
After the adjustment process, I believe that matters would settle in an orderly fashion, although whether we pick the art from 30 or 50 years ago would make a big difference in terms of the required rejiggling of our aesthetic sensibilities. We would pick out bestsellers from 30 or 50 years ago and some of them would be in demand, if only because people wish to share common cultural experiences. Overall it is the more obscure books from that era that would likely rise to be the bestsellers today.
1979 is barely an aesthetic leap; could not The Clash be a hit today? How about Madonna? Is it so ridiculous to think that people still might go hear The Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney in concert?
In the same vein, John Taylor (bassist for Duran Duran), who is unhappy with the 60 of (and music in particular), admits that:
Most students I know have an extremely broad appreciation of music…My stepson is at New York University (NYU) and he was telling me how he’s currently into Cole Porter, music from the 1920s and swing music from the 40s. So the availability and accessibility of music on the internet today is truly incredible, and I applaud anything that can inspire interest or curiosity in anyone.
But this also means that those of us who before would have been looking towards the current culture for inspiration are now often to be found, like my stepson, in various backwaters of older music.
This relative lack of need for current, innovative culture can cause, has caused, is causing - maybe - the innovative culture to slow down, much as an assembly line in Detroit slows down and lay-offs have to be made when the demand for a new model recedes.61
Pejorative language aside (Cole Porter is a backwater?), does Taylor’s grandson sound unhappy with old music? Would he be unhappy if his choices were universalized and less new music were created as a result?
But, you say, Herbert & Wolfe are fine, but dammit you have a hunger for some Cory Doctorow, and can’t help but be curious as to how the deuce The Wheel of Time will end. OK, fine. There are ~300 million Americans who couldn’t care less if a market dissolution balked you. And of course, the problem of works-in-progress is a problem that solves itself: Doctorow must one day die, and if he shuffles off the mortal coil tomorrow, then your situation was the same as mine - except with a slightly higher upper bound.
And even if you were balked, or in-progress series permitted to finish, that’s a fixed one-time cost62. It may cost quite a bit to liquidate all the companies and shift their assets into more productive occupations; some people will never shift. But that’s creative destruction for you: the long-term benefits win in the long run.
New book smell
Maybe there’s something intrinsically better about new books. Not that they deal with new subjects - we addressed that earlier - but perhaps it’s about the style, or appearance, or apparent novelty. Maybe when one looks at Tom Jones, the antique language instantly subtracts 10 utilons even if it’s still comprehensible.
But the language can’t be the reason. Maybe Shakespeare and Chaucer aren’t as enjoyable and this explains why they aren’t as popular as they should be given their eminence, but for this to explain why books from the ’50s or ’60s are very unpopular or why books from the ’00s sell better than books from the ’90s - despite them all reading much the same63, we need to posit large penalties and attribute to readers remarkable powers of discrimination. (And we could argue that the existing relatively low level of support for new works compared to other forms of recreation like professional sports indicates that new book smell is even less valuable than one might expect just from sales.64)
Could it be due to ? Some spoilers, like King Kong dying or Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker’s father, are so universal as to pretty much anyone who would watch those movies. A new work, however, has a long lag before the escape into the general population, and so if spoilers destroyed the pleasure people take in works, one would naturally expect people to gravitate towards newer works.
While commonly voiced, this suggestion can only be part of the picture. Only the very most prominent works can be spoiled inadvertently; or were successful spoiler memes only because the book and video game (respectively) sold millions of copies and were major cultural events. By definition, there are only a small number of such works. Perhaps a handful of such books or movies or games would be involuntarily spoiled each year, leaving thousands of other new works being produced despite no anti-spoiler advantage. Further, if this were the sole reason for new works, we would have the odd situation that people apparently are willing to spend many billions to encourage production of as-yet-unspoiled works, but will do nothing else to stem the spread of spoilers - even though a negative externality in the billions calls out for prevention or regulation of some sort. Society quite successfully stems the spread of other categories of undesirable information like private information or information on weapons of mass destruction or child pornography, and spoilers would seem to be far easier to suppress than any existing category of information. Finally, and most damning, the minimal research on the topic of spoilers suggests that the net displeasure caused by spoilers is unclear, with one study finding benefits to being spoiled65 and another finding harm.
If there is a new book smell, and it can explain why books from the recent past are less popular than new book, then that means it is nothing intrinsic about the books themselves. Which suggests that it’s a matter of consumer perception; marketing has a long history of altering consumer perceptions for fun & profit. There may be no new book smell at all: it may simply be that new materials previous publications in catalogs or locations with limited space66. This would then feed into the habit-formation or introspective views of fiction consumption: one either hardens into liking only the music one heard as a teenager which is a tiny (commercially-driven) selection of the total corpus, or one is similarly locked into a small subset of works because they are the ones previously consumed and give the proper subjective experience67 (regardless of aesthetics).
If new books ceased to be written, then the publishers of the existing books will have to compete on other grounds, such as price and marketing - which would include faking new book smell. If people are so frequently mistaken about what they would enjoy most now, surely they can be mistaken in the future about new book smell. The modern success of Jane Austen and of lightly edited versions such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies demonstrates that the centuries need be no bar.
The experimental results
Existing research on things like the mere exposure effect suggest that much of esthetics might be trained and essentially arbitrary:
In a 2003 study, psychologist James Cutting (2003, 2006) briefly exposed undergraduate psychology students to canonical and lesser-known Impressionist paintings (the lesser-known works exposed four times as often), with the result that after exposure, subjects preferred the lesser-known works more often than did the control group. Cutting took this result to show that canon formation is a result of cultural exposure over time. He further took this to show that the subjects’ judgments were not merely a product of the quality of the works. (Cutting 2003, 335).68
A followup found that in some cases, exposure to art decreased liking69 (a result seen in some of the mere-exposure effect studies); exposure to lower-quality formats can cause the development of active preference for the artifacts of the lower-quality, a phenomenon we may be seeing with the MP3 audio format70, and one wonders how much social pressures play a role in perception, given historical anecdotes like Edison’s phonographs being hailed as indistinguishable by (his contemporary, not modern) audiences71. Other studies demonstrate specific connections to such contingent properties as perceived prestige; we’ve all heard of the many hilarious wine-tasting results where even individual judges flatly contradict themselves, but there are more value-neutral examples like the McGurk effect where what you expect is what you get. And fMRI studies are revealing interesting things like the neural correlates of pleasantness increasing with price or spikes in value-assessment regions and increased activation in regions which look like subjects trying to find something to criticize and justify their prejudice.72
But we can to some extent get a handle on what degree popularity or rankings corresponds to any intrinsic esthetic quality by running experiments using very obscure works. If there is a very close connection between quality and popularity, then that undermines my case: new works are extremely popular and often ranked very high (as a percentage of all works), so any reduction in new works would come at a corresponding esthetic losses. But conversely, the more random and unconnected to quality our ratings are, the less we should care about producing new works. We don’t know what quality is, or don’t care, or have some sort of self-discipline problem and can’t make ourselves prefer what we ought to, or something.
What do we find in the experiments? We find the results are not completely random, but they’re pretty close.
The 2006 study (and also Salganik & Watts 2009), took 14,300 online participants and presented them with a screen full of songs and asked them to rank them. Half were presented with information on how popular a song was (as measured by downloads after listening), and half were not. The rankings differed drastically between the two groups. This is a major blow to any belief that the jewels will rise to the top, since both groups can’t be right. But which? The researchers were clever, and further subdivided the 7,000 shown the popularity information into 7 subsections, which were shown the popularity information for their own particular subsection (each subsection starting with 0 downloads for each song); each subsection popularity ranking clashed with all the others. In other words, the social-influenced rankings were substantially random. They disagreed with the aggregated independent rankings of quality, and with all the other social-influenced rankings. (If 2 contradictory rankings cannot be correct, what about 9?) The most assurance the authors can give us is that This matches well with randomized models of cultural diffusion. A 2008 followup, , found that with a subsequent 12,000 participants, songs could be made popular just by lying to participants that they were popular (although again the best songs tended to recover somewhat).
One might hope that cultural experts like literature professors and critics would give us true rankings of quality, and so we could at least trust the canonical rankings, but that seems quite desperate; such experts have more social pressures available than a mere download count, professional pressures, etc. If ethicists are not more ethical (to cite just one of many examples), why would we expect critics to be more critical?
There is a fundamental tension in these discussions, between the revealed preferences of people and a claimed enjoyment or esthetic factor; if the latter really are greater for older works, why do people choose the inferior goods? One general observation is that people in general may not benefit from additional choices, as they suffer willpower depletion. This ties into the observation that some studies point to an paradigm in which people do not evaluate choices based on the total benefits each choice delivers (with a fixed time penalty, exponential discounting), but rather based on a constantly mutating time factor which short-changes the future for the present (hyperbolic discounting); with hyperbolic discounting, an otherwise rational agent can know he would receive many more utilons from reading his Dickens novel, but because Dickens would pay off slowly, he would choose the trashy magazine, again and again, winding up with a lower total utilon score - by his own reckoning! - than if he had just sat down to Dickens.73 An imaging study74 found that they could predict sales data for songs by measuring activation in the ventral striatum (a very low-level part of the brain, strongly linked with emotions & weakly linked to instincts), and predict better than asking the participants what song they liked. All this suggests to me that esthetic works is one of the rare situations where taking away choices can make people better off.
For other people named Adam Smith, see Adam Smith (disambiguation).
|Born||16 June 1723 NS|
(5 June 1723 OS)
Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland
|Died||17 July 1790(1790-07-17) (aged 67)|
|Alma mater||University of Glasgow|
Balliol College, Oxford
|Notable work||The Wealth of Nations|
The Theory of Moral Sentiments
|Political philosophy, ethics, economics|
modern free market,
division of labour,
the "invisible hand"
Adam SmithFRSA (16 June 1723 NS(5 June 1723 OS) – 17 July 1790) was a Scottish economist, philosopher and author as well as a moral philosopher, a pioneer of political economy and a key figure during the Scottish Enlightenment era. Smith is best known for two classic works: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776) and The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). The former, usually abbreviated as The Wealth of Nations, is considered his magnum opus and the first modern work of economics.
Smith studied social philosophy at the University of Glasgow and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he was one of the first students to benefit from scholarships set up by fellow Scot, John Snell. After graduating, he delivered a successful series of public lectures at Edinburgh, leading him to collaborate with David Hume during the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith obtained a professorship at Glasgow teaching moral philosophy and during this time wrote and published The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In his later life, he took a tutoring position that allowed him to travel throughout Europe, where he met other intellectual leaders of his day.
Smith laid the foundations of classical free market economic theory. The Wealth of Nations was a precursor to the modern academic discipline of economics. In this and other works, he developed the concept of division of labour and expounded upon how rational self-interest and competition can lead to economic prosperity. Smith was controversial in his own day and his general approach and writing style were often satirised by Tory writers in the moralising tradition of William Hogarth and Jonathan Swift. In 2005, The Wealth of Nations was named among the 100 Best Scottish Books of all time. The minor planet 12838 Adamsmith was named in his memory.
Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, in the County of Fife, Scotland. His father, also Adam Smith, was a Scottish Writer to the Signet (senior solicitor), advocate and prosecutor (Judge Advocate) and also served as comptroller of the Customs in Kirkcaldy. In 1720, he married Margaret Douglas, daughter of the landed Robert Douglas of Strathendry, also in Fife. His father died two months after he was born, leaving his mother a widow. The date of Smith's baptism into the Church of Scotland at Kirkcaldy was 5 June 1723 and this has often been treated as if it were also his date of birth, which is unknown. Although few events in Smith's early childhood are known, the Scottish journalist John Rae, Smith's biographer, recorded that Smith was abducted by gypsies at the age of three and released when others went to rescue him.[N 1] Smith was close to his mother, who probably encouraged him to pursue his scholarly ambitions. He attended the Burgh School of Kirkcaldy—characterised by Rae as "one of the best secondary schools of Scotland at that period"—from 1729 to 1737, he learned Latin, mathematics, history, and writing.
Smith entered the University of Glasgow when he was fourteen and studied moral philosophy under Francis Hutcheson. Here, Smith developed his passion for liberty, reason and free speech. In 1740, Smith was the graduate scholar presented to undertake postgraduate studies at Balliol College, Oxford, under the Snell Exhibition.
Smith considered the teaching at Glasgow to be far superior to that at Oxford, which he found intellectually stifling. In Book V, Chapter II of The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote: "In the University of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching." Smith is also reported to have complained to friends that Oxford officials once discovered him reading a copy of David Hume's Treatise on Human Nature, and they subsequently confiscated his book and punished him severely for reading it. According to William Robert Scott, "The Oxford of [Smith's] time gave little if any help towards what was to be his lifework." Nevertheless, Smith took the opportunity while at Oxford to teach himself several subjects by reading many books from the shelves of the large Bodleian Library. When Smith was not studying on his own, his time at Oxford was not a happy one, according to his letters. Near the end of his time there, Smith began suffering from shaking fits, probably the symptoms of a nervous breakdown. He left Oxford University in 1746, before his scholarship ended.
In Book V of The Wealth of Nations, Smith comments on the low quality of instruction and the meager intellectual activity at English universities, when compared to their Scottish counterparts. He attributes this both to the rich endowments of the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, which made the income of professors independent of their ability to attract students, and to the fact that distinguished men of letters could make an even more comfortable living as ministers of the Church of England.
Smith's discontent at Oxford might be in part due to the absence of his beloved teacher in Glasgow, Francis Hutcheson. Hutcheson was well regarded as one of the most prominent lecturers at the University of Glasgow in his day and earned the approbation of students, colleagues, and even ordinary residents with the fervor and earnestness of his orations (which he sometimes opened to the public). His lectures endeavoured not merely to teach philosophy but to make his students embody that philosophy in their lives, appropriately acquiring the epithet, the preacher of philosophy. Unlike Smith, Hutcheson was not a system builder; rather it was his magnetic personality and method of lecturing that so influenced his students and caused the greatest of those to reverentially refer to him as "the never to be forgotten Hutcheson"—a title that Smith in all his correspondence used to describe only two people, his good friend David Hume and influential mentor Francis Hutcheson.
Smith began delivering public lectures in 1748 in Edinburgh, sponsored by the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh under the patronage of Lord Kames. His lecture topics included rhetoric and belles-lettres, and later the subject of "the progress of opulence". On this latter topic he first expounded his economic philosophy of "the obvious and simple system of natural liberty". While Smith was not adept at public speaking, his lectures met with success.
In 1750, Smith met the philosopher David Hume, who was his senior by more than a decade. In their writings covering history, politics, philosophy, economics and religion, Smith and Hume shared closer intellectual and personal bonds than with other important figures of the Scottish Enlightenment.
In 1751, Smith earned a professorship at Glasgow University teaching logic courses, and in 1752 he was elected a member of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, having been introduced to the society by Lord Kames. When the head of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow died the next year, Smith took over the position. He worked as an academic for the next thirteen years, which he characterised as "by far the most useful and therefore by far the happiest and most honorable period [of his life]".
Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759, embodying some of his Glasgow lectures. This work was concerned with how human morality depends on sympathy between agent and spectator, or the individual and other members of society. Smith defined "mutual sympathy" as the basis of moral sentiments. He based his explanation, not on a special "moral sense" as the Third Lord Shaftesbury and Hutcheson had done, nor on utility as Hume did, but on mutual sympathy, a term best captured in modern parlance by the twentieth-century concept of empathy, the capacity to recognise feelings that are being experienced by another being.
Following the publication of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith became so popular that many wealthy students left their schools in other countries to enroll at Glasgow to learn under Smith. After the publication of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith began to give more attention to jurisprudence and economics in his lectures and less to his theories of morals. For example, Smith lectured that the cause of increase in national wealth is labour, rather than the nation's quantity of gold or silver, which is the basis for mercantilism, the economic theory that dominated Western European economic policies at the time.
In 1762, the University of Glasgow conferred on Smith the title of Doctor of Laws (LL.D.). At the end of 1763, he obtained an offer from Charles Townshend—who had been introduced to Smith by David Hume—to tutor his stepson, Henry Scott, the young Duke of Buccleuch. Smith then resigned from his professorship to take the tutoring position. He subsequently attempted to return the fees he had collected from his students because he resigned in the middle of the term, but his students refused.
Tutoring and travels
Smith's tutoring job entailed touring Europe with Scott, during which time he educated Scott on a variety of subjects—such as etiquette and manners. He was paid £300 per year (plus expenses) along with a £300 per year pension; roughly twice his former income as a teacher. Smith first travelled as a tutor to Toulouse, France, where he stayed for one and a half years. According to his own account, he found Toulouse to be somewhat boring, having written to Hume that he "had begun to write a book to pass away the time". After touring the south of France, the group moved to Geneva, where Smith met with the philosopher Voltaire.
From Geneva, the party moved to Paris. Here Smith came to know several great intellectual leaders of the time; invariably having an effect on his future works. This list included: Benjamin Franklin,Turgot, Jean D'Alembert, André Morellet, Helvétius, and, notably, François Quesnay, the head of the Physiocratic school. Smith was so impressed with his ideas that he might have dedicated The Wealth of Nations to Quesnay had he not died beforehand. Physiocrats were opposed to mercantilism, the dominating economic theory of the time. Illustrated in their motto Laissez faire et laissez passer, le monde va de lui même! (Let do and let pass, the world goes on by itself!). They were also known to have declared that only agricultural activity produced real wealth; merchants and industrialists (manufacturers) did not. However, this did not represent their true school of thought, but was a mere "smoke screen" manufactured to hide their actual criticisms of the nobility and church; arguing that they made up the only real clients of merchants.
The wealth of France was virtually destroyed by Louis XIV and Louis XV in ruinous wars, by aiding the American insurgents against the British, and perhaps most destructive (in terms of public perceptions) was what was seen as the excessive consumption of goods and services deemed to have no economic contribution—unproductive labour. Assuming that nobility and church are essentially detractors from economic growth, the feudal system of agriculture in France was the only sector important to maintain the wealth of the nation. Given that the English economy of the day yielded an income distribution that stood in contrast to that which existed in France, Smith concluded that the teachings and beliefs of Physiocrats were, "with all [their] imperfections [perhaps], the nearest approximation to the truth that has yet been published upon the subject of political economy". The distinction between productive versus unproductive labour—the physiocratic classe steril—was a predominant issue in the development and understanding of what would become classical economic theory.
In 1766, Henry Scott's younger brother died in Paris, and Smith's tour as a tutor ended shortly thereafter. Smith returned home that year to Kirkcaldy, and he devoted much of the next ten years to his magnum opus. There he befriended Henry Moyes, a young blind man who showed precocious aptitude. As well as teaching Moyes, Smith secured the patronage of David Hume and Thomas Reid in the young man's education. In May 1773, Smith was elected fellow of the Royal Society of London, and was elected a member of the Literary Club in 1775. The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776 and was an instant success, selling out its first edition in only six months.
In 1778, Smith was appointed to a post as commissioner of customs in Scotland and went to live with his mother in Panmure House in Edinburgh's Canongate. Five years later, as a member of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh when it received its royal charter, he automatically became one of the founding members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and from 1787 to 1789 he occupied the honorary position of Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow.
Smith died in the northern wing of Panmure House in Edinburgh on 17 July 1790 after a painful illness. His body was buried in the Canongate Kirkyard. On his death bed, Smith expressed disappointment that he had not achieved more.
Smith's literary executors were two friends from the Scottish academic world: the physicist and chemist Joseph Black, and the pioneering geologist James Hutton. Smith left behind many notes and some unpublished material, but gave instructions to destroy anything that was not fit for publication. He mentioned an early unpublished History of Astronomy as probably suitable, and it duly appeared in 1795, along with other material such as Essays on Philosophical Subjects.
Smith's library went by his will to David Douglas, Lord Reston (son of his cousin Colonel Robert Douglas of Strathendry, Fife), who lived with Smith. It was eventually divided between his two surviving children, Cecilia Margaret (Mrs. Cunningham) and David Anne (Mrs. Bannerman). On the death of her husband, the Reverend W. B. Cunningham of Prestonpans in 1878, Mrs. Cunningham sold some of the books. The remainder passed to her son, Professor Robert Oliver Cunningham of Queen's College, Belfast, who presented a part to the library of Queen's College. After his death the remaining books were sold. On the death of Mrs. Bannerman in 1879, her portion of the library went intact to the New College (of the Free Church) in Edinburgh and the collection was transferred to the University of Edinburgh Main Library in 1972.
Personality and beliefs
Not much is known about Smith's personal views beyond what can be deduced from his published articles. His personal papers were destroyed after his death at his request. He never married, and seems to have maintained a close relationship with his mother, whom he lived with after his return from France and who died six years before his own death.
Smith was described by several of his contemporaries and biographers as comically absent-minded, with peculiar habits of speech and gait, and a smile of "inexpressible benignity". He was known to talk to himself, a habit that began during his childhood when he would smile in rapt conversation with invisible companions. He also had occasional spells of imaginary illness, and he is reported to have had books and papers placed in tall stacks in his study. According to one story, Smith took Charles Townshend on a tour of a tanning factory, and while discussing free trade, Smith walked into a huge tanning pit from which he needed help to escape. He is also said to have put bread and butter into a teapot, drunk the concoction, and declared it to be the worst cup of tea he ever had. According to another account, Smith distractedly went out walking in his nightgown and ended up 15 miles (24 km) outside of town, before nearby church bells brought him back to reality.
James Boswell who was a student of Smith's at Glasgow University, and later knew him at the Literary Club, says that Smith thought that speaking about his ideas in conversation might reduce the sale of his books, and so his conversation was unimpressive. According to Boswell, he once told Sir Joshua Reynolds that 'he made it a rule when in company never to talk of what he understood'.