Smith on Rousseau

Daniel B. Klein for AdamSmithWorks
May 3, 2021


In this video, Daniel B. Klein speaks about the historical and intellectual relationship between Adam Smith and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 
Jean-Jacques Rousseau remains a much-debated figure. Was he an anti-liberal? If his works have aroused and emboldened anti-liberal thoughts and sentiments, is it fair to pin that on him?
Another much-debated figure is Adam Smith. How seriously did Smith take Rousseau? Did he like Rousseau? Did he treat him fairly?
Scholarly assessments differ. I think Smith took Rousseau seriously, did not like him, and did not treat him entirely fairly.
In 2008 Dennis Rasmussen published the fine book The Problems and Promise of Commercial Society: Adam Smith’s Response to Rousseau. Rasmussen sees in Smith more liking and sympathy toward Rousseau than I.
There are five sources in which Smith refers to Rousseau: 
  1. The 1756 letter on literature in the Edinburgh Review (reproduced in the modern edition of Essays on Philosophical Subjects).
  2. The 1761 essay on language, which Smith subsequently appended to The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
  3. The undated essay on the imitative arts, published posthumously in Essays on Philosophical Subjects.
  4. Letters to David Hume, 1766 and 1767, contained in Smith’s correspondence.
  5. A remembrance of B. Faujas Saint-Fond, from his meeting Smith in 1784.
Recently, in an online session I examined those materials, with a presentation of 25 minutes. The discussion that followed turned to whether Rousseau was an anti-liberal. The video features Nelson Lund of the George Mason University law school and author of Rousseau’s Rejuvenation of Political Philosophy: A New Introduction (2016) and a paper about Smith’s treatment of Rousseau. 
I thank Professor Lund for his engagement and the Institute of Intellectual History, University of St. Andrews, for posting the video.

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