A Brief History of the Editions of TMS: Part I

david hume moral philosophy theory of moral sentiments impartial spectator habitual sympathy science of man

Erik W. Matson for AdamSmithWorks

Smith’s evolution across the six editions of TMS showcases his desire to refine his moral philosophy in an effort to extend what David Hume called “the science of man.”

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November 25, 2020
In the The Study of Man (1959) Michael Polanyi encourages us to study and commune with great minds:
Every pebble is unique, but profoundly unique objects are rare. Wherever they are found (whether in nature or among the members of human society) they are interesting in themselves. They offer opportunity for intimate indwelling and for a systematic study of their individuality. Since great men are more profoundly unique than any object in nature, they sustain a far more elaborate study of uniqueness than any natural object can. (quoted in Klein 2012, 314)
Polanyi serves as motivation for what might seem a dry exercise: a brief history of the editions of the Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS).2 Considering the history of the editions of TMS provides insight into 31 years of the intellectual evolution of Adam Smith—a great man and unique mind if ever there was one.
Smith’s evolution across the six editions of TMS showcases his desire to refine his moral philosophy in an effort to extend what David Hume called “the science of man.” In this vein we see Smith tinkering with his formulations of sympathy and conscience, partially in response to feedback from contemporaries. His evolution also showcases his desire to use philosophy to improve society. Dugald Stewart (1982) wrote in his “Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith,” that Smith’s “ruling passion” was a desire to contribute “to the happiness and improvement of human society” (271). In the sixth edition particularly, Smith exhorts us to the pursuit of wisdom and virtue as the path towards the good life. His exhortation comes in light of his assessment of the tremendous promises and potential pitfalls of commercial society, an assessment based in “long reflection … on his wide knowledge of public affairs and his equally wide reading of history” (Raphael and Macfie 1982, 1). In addition to getting a window into the mind of a great man, considering the editions of TMS provides an opportunity to reflect on the relation between economics and ethics, commercial society and the good life.
In what follows I first provide a short sketch of the changes in the first five editions. I then dwell on edition 6 of TMS, as it was the last thing Smith published during his lifetime and features the most changes. I conclude with some comments on the arc of Smith’s development.
The first edition of TMS was published in 1759 during Smith’s tenure as Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow.3 The book grew out of Smith’s lectures, as evidenced by testimonies of his contemporaries John Millar and James Woodrow. Part of the rhetoric of TMS indicates its origin from lecture notes. As if addressing a lecture hall, Smith writes at one point that “it has been observed on a former occasion” (TMS IV.2.7). Similar phrases recur throughout.
An immediate success, the first edition of TMS is written in elegant prose and presents what was—and is still— seen by many as an original account of moral judgment via sympathy. Edmund Burke wrote to Smith of the “ingenuity,” “solidity,” and “Truth” of his theory and praised his “elegant Painting of the manners and passions'' (Corr. 38, pp. 46-7). Hume relates the book’s reception in a letter to Smith: “I proceed to tell you the melancholy News, that your Book has been very unfortunate: For the Public seem disposed to applaud it extremely. It was lookd for by the foolish People with some Impatience; and the Mob of Literati are beginning already to be very loud in its Praises” (Corr. 31, 35).
A second edition of TMS appeared in 1761. Part of the changes in the second edition are in response to critical feedback from Hume and Scotsman Gilbert Elliot of Minto. Hume presses Smith on his claim that sympathy is necessarily agreeable. Hume writes to Smith,
I wish you had more particularly and fully prov’d, that all kinds of Sympathy are necessarily Agreeable. This is the Hinge of your System, and yet you only mention the Matter cursorily in p. 20 … It is always thought a difficult Problem to account for the Pleasure received from the Tears and Grief and Sympathy of Tragedy; which woud not be the Case, if all Sympathy was agreeable. An Hospital woud be a more entertaining Place than a Ball. (Corr. 36, 43)
Smith responds in a footnote (I.ii.i.9 n*), elaborating different moments of sympathy: (1) the sympathy of the spectator that emerges as she enters into the situation of the actor, and (2) the sympathy of the spectator that emerges as she observes a correspondence between the passions of the actor and what would be her own passions were she in the situation. It is the second moment that is always agreeable when likeness or concord is found, irrespective of the agreeableness of the original passion of the actor. “This last emotion, in which the sentiment of approbation properly consists, is always agreeable and delightful. The other may either be agreeable or disagreeable, according to the nature of the original passion, whose features it must always, in some measure, retain” (TMS I.ii.i.9 n*). Speaking of his response to Hume in a letter to Gilbert Elliot, Smith says “I think I have entirely discomfited him” (Corr. 40, 49). Hume was likely satisfied with the response; the whole exchange may be understood as a matter of clarifying what had not been sufficiently explicit.
In the same letter to Elliot, Smith responds to Elliot’s own criticism. Elliot’s original letter to Smith was lost. But Smith’s response draws out Elliot’s concern, a concern that Smith continued to dwell on throughout his career. Elliot worries about the social construction and limitations of ideas of virtue in Smith’s system. If our ideas about right conduct and the good are inculcated through social processes—if, as Smith says, our judgment “must always bear some secret reference” to the judgment of others (TMS III.i.3)—is virtue a crowd-dependent phenomenon?
Smith directs Elliot’s attention to new material in Part III: “I will begg of you to read over the first paragraphs of the section Section of the third part, then pass over the next three paragraphs, and read the sixth and seventh till you come to the paragraph at the bottom of page 260 which begins with the word, Unfortunately” (Corr. 40, 49; Smith’s italics). The added material in Part III to which Smith draws Elliot’s attention treats our natural desire of both praise and praiseworthiness. We naturally desire, Smith says, to receive praise and to be worthy of receiving praise. Both desires are essential for our peaceful coexistence in society. Smith tells Elliot that the edited and added material, along with his treatment of Mandeville in Part VII, should “confirm my Doctrine that our judgments concerning our own conduct always have a reference to the sentiments of some other being” and show that “notwithstanding this, real magnanimity and conscious virtue can support itself under the disapprobation of all mankind” (Corr.40, 49).
Spurred in part by Elliot’s comments, perhaps, Smith added a new chapter to the second edition: “Of the Influence and Authority of Conscience” (TMS III.3). It includes Smith’s famous earthquake passage in which he personifies conscience as “the inhabitant of the breast” who speaks in “a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions,” teaching us “that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it” (TMS III.3.4). The chapter is greatly expanded in edition 6.
The changes in editions 3, 4, and 5 are relatively minor and not flagged much in secondary literature. But a few are notable. To the third edition, published in 1767 after leaving University of Glasgow in 1764, Smith appended his “Considerations concerning the First Formation of Languages.” Originally published in 1761 in an Edinburgh journal called The Philological Miscellany, “Languages” treats, among other things, the natural or conjectural history of language. “Languages” is unfortunately not included in the 1976 Glasgow edition of TMS. One of the editors of the Glasgow edition, D.D Raphael, claims in an essay that “Languages” is “quite independent of the thought of The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (Raphael 1992, 103). But there is reason to think otherwise. Indeed, why would Smith bother appending the essay to TMS if the two works were “quite independent”?
Among other things, “Languages” clarifies the model of human development underlying the analysis of TMS. It illustrates the spontaneous path from simplicity to refinement through social interaction. It emphasizes the moral and cognitive dynamism of open societies and the stagnation of closed societies. For Smith “closed societies [have] a tendency to stagnate linguistically, socially, economically” (Phillipson 2000, 79). Consider Smith’s treatment of nouns. In “Languages” Smith tells us that all nouns were originally proper—“tree” designated “that particular tree by the stream.” But an “expanding range of experience,” coupled with a natural desire to make our needs and thoughts mutually intelligible, “triggered” “unconscious mental processes” that served to gradually transform proper nouns to common ones (Otteson 2002, 69). As it underlies the formation of language, so the desire to communicate, cooperate, and persuade underlies the formation of moral standards and the progress of economic growth. All three come about “insensibly, and by slow degrees” (Smith 1983, 211). The upshot is that “Languages” serves to broaden the conceptual framework of TMS into a more encompassing account of human nature.
One theme often emphasized in treatments of the changes between editions is theology. Edition 3 sees Smith making some cautious movements away from theological orthodoxy. Some signal passages involve the issue of divine justice. At II.ii.3.12 Smith replaces the phrase “religion authorises” with the phrase “religion, we suppose, authorises”; at V.2.5, in the context of the discussion of the character of the church, two occurrences of “is” are changed to “seems to be” and “is supposed to be” (Raphael and Macfie 1982, 39). The phrasing might be said to reflect a degree of equivocation regarding the Christian assurance that justice will literally be carried out in the life to come.
The fourth edition of 1774 features one small but interesting change: a change to the title of TMS itself. The title of edition 4 is: The Theory of Moral Sentiments, or An Essay towards an Analysis of the Principles by which Men naturally judge concerning the Conduct and Character, first of their Neighbours, and afterwards of themselves. Here the editors of the Glasgow edition made a second mistake: They chose to use the shorter title from the first three editions of the work, rather than including the full title from the final three editions. But the change in title highlights Smith’s understanding of the focus of the work: an analysis of moral processes in the context of a community of jural equals. The moral processes he elaborates as he teaches, especially in the final edition of the work, don’t translate so well into the realm of politics and are readily disrupted by desires for wealth and power.
The fifth edition of 1781 makes no changes of particular note. Either Smith or his publisher made a handful of revisions to punctuation and phrasing. “Edition 5 … contains a fair number of revisions of accidentals, chiefly in punctuation, but occasionally spelling” (Raphael and Macfie 1982, 40). The substantive changes were “minor” (ibid).
A discussion of the extensive changes in the sixth edition follows in part two of this essay.

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———. 2010. “The Virtues of TMS 1759.” The Adam Smith Review 5: 15–24.
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  1. ^ Senior Research Fellow, The Mercatus Center at George Mason University | ewmatson@gmail.com
  2. Abbreviations to Smith’s works: References to the Theory of Moral Sentiments are Smith (1982), hereafter “TMS,” followed by part, section (where one exists), chapter, and paragraph. References to the Correspondence of Adam Smith are to Smith (1987), hereafter “Corr.” followed by letter number and page.
  3. This paragraph and the next borrow from Raphael (2010).