the other adam smith


The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith’s first book, was published in early 1759. Smith, then a young professor at the University of Glasgow, had some understandable anxiety about the public reception of the book, which was based on his quite progressive lectures. On 12 April, Smith heard from his friend David Hume in London about how the book was doing. If Smith was, Hume told him, prepared for “the worst”, then he must now be given “the melancholy news” that unfortunately “the public seem disposed to applaud [your book] extremely”. “It was looked for by the foolish people with some impatience; and the mob of literati are beginning already to be very loud in its praises.” This light-hearted intimation of the early success of Smith’s first book was followed by serious critical acclaim for what is one of the truly outstanding books in the intellectual history of the world. After its immediate success, Moral Sentiments went into something of an eclipse from the beginning of the 19th century, and Smith was increasingly seen almost exclusively as the author of his second book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which, published in 1776, transformed the subject of economics. The neglect of Moral Sentiments, which lasted through the 19th and 20th centuries, has had two rather unfortunate effects.

more from Amartya Sen at The New Statesman here.