Adam Smith and the Counter-Enlightenment

criticism counter enlightenment modren political theory

May 30, 2024


Bastardo considers where Adam Smith's wide-ranging thoughts place him in relation to his contemporaries and modern thinkers on political economy. 
The ideas of the Enlightenment can be framed and analyzed beyond the various definitions of the concept of liberty in modern political theory. In this regard, as in others, Adam Smith’s contributions bear remarkable differences to those of his contemporaries. 
According to liberal analytical philosopher Isaiah Berlin, the Enlightenment ideals faced an onset of criticism espoused by various thinkers and philosophers, ranging from its earliest echelons in the 17th century’s critique of aprioristic metaphysics all the way to the most prolific debates centered on the Kantian school of thought. Thus, the so-called ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ was born out of a methodological disregard for the original rationalist premise proposed by René Descartes and others. As this critical discourse became more elaborate, different schools of thought would reach an apparent understanding in their rejection of the rational universalism proposed by the ways through which the Enlightenment sought to understand the world.
In Berlin’s essay The Counter-Enlightenment, he explains that many factors motivated the rise of these thinkers. Over time, the German branch of said philosophers would establish the Sturm und Drang movement that engendered Romanticism. Binding these views together was a spiritual rejection to universalist apriorism, secular worldviews and utilitarianism. Other than opposing  rationalism, the Counter-Enlightened thinkers had very little in common. Some of them would betray their own beliefs and support the French Revolution of 1789.
Although Berlin doesn’t mention Smith directly, he takes special note of one of his most famous contemporaries, the conservative Irish philosopher Edmund Burke. According to Berlin, the conservative opposition to revolutionary Enlightened values preceded what he called a “vitalistic, intuitionist and irrationalist” onset of philosophical critique that would develop further in the 19th century. He establishes a series of attributes that stand in contrast to empiricist and rationalist categories, as noted:
(such views) contrasted with the utilitarian model of society as a trading company held together solely by contractual obligations, the world of ‘economists, sophisters and calculators’ who are blind and deaf to the unanalysable relationships that make a family, a tribe, a nation, a movement, any association of human beings held together by something more than a quest for mutual advantage, or by force, or by anything that is not mutual love, loyalty, common history, emotion and outlook.
(Berlin, Against the Current: The Counter-Enlightenment, p. 13)
Although Smith and Burke knew and admired each other on the personal and intellectual level, Smith’s view of rational self-interest as the motivation for social cohesion owes much to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Enlightenment, as it appears in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations
For all its questionable methodology, the Enlightened framework allows the early founders of Political Economy to think of man as something other than the product of a divine will. Man is considered as a natural being, subject to universal laws that allow for a general understanding of his interests and weaknesses. Such background allows Smith to build a systematic explanation of societal relations of exchange based on self-interest.
One could argue that the notion of homo oeconomicus stands as one of the greatest contributions of Political Economy to rationalism. And yet, it would be wrong to connect Smith exclusively to it. Before he can establish the rational motivations for profit and trade, Smith makes it clear that man’s natural predisposition to his own well-being, what can be described as “self-love”, extends to a form of caring for his fellowmen. As such, the anthropological basis for Smith’s thought creates a rationalist view of man that is optimistic, close to the Rousseaunian tradition.
Every man is, no doubt by nature, first and principally recommended to his own care and as he is fitter to take care of himself than of any other person, it is fit and right that it should be so. Every man, therefore, is much more deeply interested in whatever immediately concerns himself, than in what concerns any other man.
(Smith, 1759, pp. 82-3)
This claim entails a universal conception of man’s attributes, leanings and desires. It is clearly embedded in Enlightened values, opposed to the relativist worldviews championed by philosophers like Montesquieu, who believed that matters of such consideration were subject to incompatible differences across various contexts and epochs.
Isaiah Berlin regards socialist philosophers, late humanists and artists from the Romantic period, as further representatives of the Counter-Enlightenment in modernity. In historical terms, the apparition of socialism in the 19th century may be viewed as an embodiment of the same anti-rationalist tradition, only now using Hegelian phenomenology. 
Thus, it is no wonder that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels took it upon themselves to critique Political Economy, even if they drew their own ideas from it. What Marx and the post-Hegelian critics have in common is an extended rationalization to propose universal aprioristic notions regarding economics, society and politics.  
One may argue that, if Smith was influenced by Scottish Empiricism, he cannot be considered a rationalist.
But it is more complex than that.
Smith’s proposed Rational Choice Theory makes it clear that the individual is defined in strictly rational terms. Furthermore, man’s volition can only signify something if it is framed in alternatives defined by reason.
The fact alone that Smith’s Invisible Hand metaphor asserts an intellectual judgment of reality would suffice to consider him a rationalist. That being said, he does not attribute every decision in society to reason. As evidenced by The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith stood in firm belief that moral choices often made more sense when produced by an emotional logic. He was not alone in this, as some of the most important contributors to Political Economy from the liberal perspective, such as John Stuart Mill, would demonstrate.
If man-made phenomena such as the economic system are to be explained, one must make use of rationalist and empiricist categories. By opposing any attempt at universal laws, the critics of Political Economy assert a new variation of the antirationalist tradition, hoping, perhaps, to render any possible understanding of human relationships and economic benefit obscure.
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