In the fourth part of our Adam Smith tercentenary series, Professor Kathleen Riach talks to Dominic Ryan about how Smith’s influence spread far beyond economics with his views in relation to gender providing particular inspiration for women’s movements down the centuries
Our current understanding of economics, politics and even social and individual morality has, beyond doubt, been shaped by the writing of Adam Smith.
There are many examples through the past 300 years of his direct and indirect influence in shaping the world as we know it.
As we celebrate Smith’s tercentenary this week, the plurality of Smith’s thinking is something that Kathleen Riach, Professor of Organisation Studies and British Academy Midcareer Fellow at the University of Glasgow’s Adam Smith Business School, is keen to highlight.
Professor Kathleen Riach, Professor of Organisation Studies and British Academy Midcareer Fellow at the University of Glasgow’s Adam Smith Business School
“Adam Smith is famous, of course, as the founding father of economics and probably some may know the anecdotal tales of how he was kidnapped by travellers when he was younger or that he was often to be found walking through the streets in a nightgown,” she says.
“That kind of gives us a caricature of a ‘scatty professor’. However, if you look more closely at his work, there’s a display of intensely serious thought and reflection and an engagement that spans an incredibly wide range of areas – from economics to science to astronomy to what we would understand today as psychology in terms of how people engage with one another.”
For anyone engaging with Adam Smith’s work for the first time, Professor Riach recommends that, as a modern reader, perhaps the best way is to think about him is as a fully inclusive polymath.
“He was writing at a time when our idea of disciplines was not about science being over there and philosophy being over here; these weren’t clearly delineated. This is reflected in his examination of the entire complexity of human motives and behaviours. These wide-ranging considerations are deeply intrinsic in his work.”
For the many academics – and even more non-academics – attending the tercentenary events at the University of Glasgow and across Scotland, an integral theme for discussion is understanding how the Scotsman thought about and proactively promoted learning and education in general.
“He didn’t see learning as something that happened only in a university but integral to building character and taking place in multiple social settings,” says Professor Riach.
“We can see this partly in his work where he talks about where we can learn from family, for example, but also in how he himself engaged publicly in debating ideas and sharing learning. Our commemoration really speaks to that idea of public engagement, but also the general public ‘relearning’ about Adam Smith an important historical figure and one who continues to be an important figure in Scotland and globally right now.”
While Smith’s seminal work The Wealth of Nations is often misrepresented as the go-to playbook for modern capitalism, his ruminations go far beyond being a template for governments’ economic and political machinations, explains Professor Riach.
Smith’s work resonated with leading women thinkers and writers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, above
“The Wealth of Nations invites questions such as how do we balance the idea of free commerce with free individuals? How do we balance markets and morality? How do we make sure that we’re developing in society but not forsaking a large percentage of those individuals? These ideas cut across all his work, both in The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
“However, this is often forgotten because people pick up certain strands in isolation, sometimes for nefarious purposes. That’s why, during his tercentenary, we are so interested in a much more holistic reading of Smith.
“The seed of these ideas start in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which provides some wonderful ways and lesser known insights into how we think about the world and interact with others. And it comes down to a really simple question: how do we live alongside other people in society in a moral way? That’s what Smith is interested in.”
Professor Riach points out that Smith discusses the concept of fellow feeling and sympathy – something we might understand today as empathy – when writing about how our moral beliefs develop and change over our lives.
“Historically, it’s one of the earliest and most sophisticated accounts of what we might understand now as modern-day social psychology,” says Professor Riach. “However, he goes one step further in his work. It’s not only about how we develop a moral character. He also warns us about a variety of other tendencies that we need to guard against, which I think are relevant today.
“So, for example, he talks about the frivolity of fashion, and warns against disingenuous individuals.
“I really love that we could apply these ideas to fast fashion or social media interactions and influencers and, as he writes in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, we should acknowledge a wariness for ‘the cunning devices of an artful imposter’, ‘the arrogant airs of an assuming pedant’ and ‘confident assertions of a superficial and imprudent pretender’.”
Despite Smith’s social inclusiveness in his thinking – in The Theory of Moral Sentiments he speaks to the idea of our dependency on others: ‘All the members of human society stand in need of each other’s assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries’ – much of his work has been criticised as being framed from a male gender-biased
This is something Professor Riach is keen to explore further, saying: “While there are some challenges in reading his work in relation to gender, we absolutely know his work influenced women thinkers and writers during his life and through the 300 years ever since. Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, refers to his work in a vindication of the rights of women, which is, of course, often seen as the start of the suffrage movement and, indeed, feminism.
“We know that he was influential for women thinkers, but there’s actually now starting to be a growing attention on the connections between women and Smith’s own intellectual development.
“So it wasn’t just that he influenced women, he was influenced by women in his life and in his thoughts. During his time travelling, he would have interacted with women in what was known as the French Salons, which were mixed gender intellectual arenas. As far as we know – for now at least – we didn’t really have anything like them established in Scotland.
“We know, too, that he presented a first edition of The Wealth of Nations to Marie Françoise Catherine de Beauvau-Craon, Marquise de Boufflers, and it’s important to note that these books would have been very expensive in those days so you didn’t hand them out willy-nilly!” There is also evidence from Smith’s personal letters that there was an exchange with Lady Frances Scott, who critiqued some of his work that he went on to publish.
“So we know that there may have been opportunities for many intellectual exchanges with women,” says Professor Riach, “but we haven’t really examined Smith in terms of this intellectual and public life with women in The Scottish Enlightenment. That’s really something exciting we can begin to talk about during his tercentenary.
“As Smith himself wrote, we need to make sure that we understand each other rather than simply espouse what we think, and this goes for thinking about gender or any other kind of social relations.
“In general, he directs us to think about how we continually encounter, understand, and develop our ideas, what we see is right or wrong, and how we agree what is right and wrong in society, but also how we live alongside each other in complicated and complex ways.”
Symposium proves a popular finale to week
The dedicated Tercentenary Week ends at the University on Saturday 10th June with an all-welcome get-together at the Hunter Halls in the Gilbert Scott Building at the University of Glasgow.
Such has been the interest that the event is already sold out.
“The aim of this symposium is to collate Adam Smith’s ideas and establish his legacy through open, engaging and frank conversations about how his thinking reflects attitudes and reactions to contemporary issues,” says Professor John Finch, Head of the Adam Smith Business School.
There will be a full day of talks, panel discussions and theatre activities with panellists and guest speakers from around the world focusing on topics such as: The History of Smith: Why Scotland? Why Glasgow?; Smith’s Economics: Would Smith be surprised by today’s modern economy?; Smith’s Political Economy: What can we learn from Smith about today’s political and policy debates?
It’s not all talk, however. There will also be the first ever public performance of a new piece of music commissioned for Smith’s tercentenary composed by the University of Glasgow’s very own alumnus Helen MacKinnon.
Exhibitions will mark tercentenary
TO mark the tercentenary of Adam Smith, the University of Glasgow is hosting an on-campus and also a virtual exhibition to coincide with the key events in his commemoration.
As the curator of the world’s most significant collections of Smith-related artefacts, this will include letters and books from the university’s own archives and the Hunterian Museum.
Following the commemoration week, the virtual exhibit will be maintained as a lasting resource of go-to information to promote Adam Smith and his ideas.