The field of political economy was a branch of philosophy, and it would be more than a century before practitioners’ “scientific” aspirations changed the term to economics (with the “s” representing science). The book that established Smith’s reputation for most of his professional life was called “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.”
Smith published only two significant works, with “The Wealth of Nations” coming a full 17 years after “Moral Sentiments.” Although it would not be fair to call the ultimately more famous book a sequel to his first, “The Wealth of Nations” is not fully intelligible without understanding that context.
In “The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought,” Dennis Rasmussen, a professor of political theory at Tufts University, ably provides much of that needed context. In addition to painting a vivid portrait of the intellectual life of 18th-century Scotland, Professor Rasmussen provides a road map of the development of Smith’s ideas based on his personal history and the broader political, social, theological and academic environments.
Professor Rasmussen’s greatest contribution, however, is to shed new light on the surprising depth and nature of the intellectual and personal influence of the radical skeptic philosopher David Hume on Smith. If Smith was the ultimate establishment figure, Hume was the ultimate subversive.
Widely viewed as one of the greatest philosophers — if not the greatest — ever to write in English, Hume had already gained international renown before Smith produced his first book. Yet Hume’s radical ideas, particularly on the nature of religious belief, ensured that he could never secure a university position of any kind — and prompted two failed efforts by the Church of Scotland to have him excommunicated.
It was not just in their lifetimes that Hume’s renown outstripped Smith’s. Hume’s continuing impact on individual thinkers and broader fields of study is truly breathtaking. Kant, Darwin and Einstein (who credited him with inspiration for relativity theory) is a short list of great minds…