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Smith, Sen and Becker — an aside

Taking a bit of a breather from writing projects to comment on some of the more esoteric stuff I am learning as I explore the world of Adam Smith for a paper I hope will be ready for presentation in a month. The problem I have when engaging in this kind of research is that I get distracted by the material I stumble on while seeking more background. I’ve never been one to avoid diving into a subject I know very little about, and as a result I am constantly finding it necessary to take ten steps back into the literature in order to move one or two steps forward.

In this case, working on Smith has been leading back to studies of 18th century thought, and especially that period we find in all our basic history books: the Enlightenment. It is not that I come at this without any knowledge at all — after all, any US political scientist, especially if they’ve studied or written about the Constitution, has developed at least a superficial sense of Enlightenment thought. But learning more about the political and intellectual atmospherics of the day is really eye-opening.

Two current reads that have me pleasantly distracted, one very recent and the other a work from the 1930s.

The newbie is Amartya Sen’s recently published “The Idea of Justice.” What attracted me to this was the fact that last year Sen wrote articles and gave speeches that celebrated or drew attention to the fact that 2009 was the 250th anniversary of the publication of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. (I actually got to attend Sen’s presentation in Glasgow last April, but my hearing was so bad by then that I could not really enjoy it; fortunately, his comments are about to be published in some online journal and the major points are in the book.) When the Idea of Justice came out late in 2009, I grabbed a copy — which then sat until a month ago when I found time to dig in. Well worth the read, especially for a distinction he makes between two approaches to justice that emerge from the Enlightenment. One approach, essentially rooted in Hobbesian social contract theory, he terms “transcendental” for its emphasis on perfecting justice through institutional arrangements, has been the more prominent perspective given its adoption by the likes of Rousseau, Kant and (today) Rawls. The alternative, for which he gives Smith significant credit, he terms the “comparative approach,” and he offers it as the perspective he favors for fostering justice through “realizations”.

As Sen points out, the distinction between the two threads of the Enlightenment has been there for all to see, but never really highlighted — a task he performs effectively in this book.

The older book throws a different light on the Enlightenment: Carl Becker’s 1932 Yale lectures published under the not so sexy title of “The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers.” I came across this book initially because of Becker’s concept of “magic words”, which was similar to the concept of “keywords” used by cultural studies folks — but when I started to read for context to see how he was using that phrase, I was hooked. What a brilliantly written book, and one that offers a distinctive view of the Enlightenment that challenges our textbook notions and throws an entirely different light on the writings of the period. Bottom line: the Enlightenment is best regarded as the last gasps of Medieval thought rather than as the first breaths of modern thought. What we have here, perhaps, is the beginning of the critical theory/postmodern perspective — coming from a scholar whose best known work has been on American intellectual history.

My task now is to somehow make a viable point of all this as it relates to Adam Smith…. Back to work. ?

March 27th, 2010 Posted by | accountabilitybloke | no comments