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Logic and rhetoric at the heart of Smith’s ideas

Summary:
Today (22 April) is the date when, in 1751, Adam Smith was appointed Professor of Logic and Rhetoric at the University of Glasgow. Though only 28, he was already well known as a gifted scholar. He had given a very successful series of public lectures on philosophy, in Edinburgh. The intelligentsia of Scotland’s capital were impressed.Before the year was out, the young Smith was promoted to the prestigious Chair of Moral Philosophy — a post he held until 1764. In the meantime, he served as Dean of Faculties, Quaestor of the University Library (i.e. in charge of management and accounts — he was a very meticulous person), and Rector.Today, we remember him as a pioneering economist. But he was really more of a philosopher and social psychologist — he saw economics, politics, ethics and

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Today (22 April) is the date when, in 1751, Adam Smith was appointed Professor of Logic and Rhetoric at the University of Glasgow. Though only 28, he was already well known as a gifted scholar. He had given a very successful series of public lectures on philosophy, in Edinburgh. The intelligentsia of Scotland’s capital were impressed.

Before the year was out, the young Smith was promoted to the prestigious Chair of Moral Philosophy — a post he held until 1764. In the meantime, he served as Dean of Faculties, Quaestor of the University Library (i.e. in charge of management and accounts — he was a very meticulous person), and Rector.

Today, we remember him as a pioneering economist. But he was really more of a philosopher and social psychologist — he saw economics, politics, ethics and aesthetics as merely different parts of the human mind. Among the subject he taught at Glasgow were logic, ethics, rhetoric and belles-lettres (the arts of using language effectively and finely), and jurisprudence (what today we would call politics). A polymath, he even wrote a long essay on Newton and the philosophy of science.

He was familiar with the Classical Greek and Roman authors, having largely educated himself in Balliol College’s outstanding library, having found that: “In Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.” 

His real fame began in 1759 with the publication of his Theory Of Moral Sentiments, which analyzed the social psychology of morality. A century before Darwin's 1859 Origin of Species, it took a remarkably modern evolutionary view that our morality persists because it is useful and helps our species to prosper. Human beings, he said, are social creatures, needing the reinforcement of others; and their values are modified by the praise or disapproval of others.

It struck a chord with many who were not convinced by the contemporary ideas on where morality came from. The book brought him a generous offer to become personal tutor to the Duke of Buccleuch, still in his early teens, and to take him on the Grand Tour of Europe. On that journey, Smith met and talked with other the other leading European intellectuals of the time. In France, he wrote to his friend David Hume, back in Edinburgh, that he had started mapping out ideas for a new book. Those ideas would become An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations — a book that Smith referred to as his Inquiry, but which we know as The Wealth of Nations. It turned out to be one of those books that changed history.

Learn more about Adam Smith here. Download a condensed version of Smith’s two great books here: Adam Smith – A Primer; Condensed Wealth of Nations.

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Dr. Eamonn Butler
Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute, rated one of the world’s leading policy think-tanks. He has degrees in economics, philosophy and psychology, gaining a PhD from the University of St Andrews in 1978.

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