Edited by Jürgen G. Backhaus
Chapter 54: Adam Smith (1723–90)
Helge Peukert The man, his, life and background Some critics such as Schumpeter (1954, pp. 185–94) notwithstanding, Adam Smith’s major achievement is the early exposition of a new type of social, cultural, economic, legal and political system after the slow but steady erosion of feudalist and agricultural societies and former theoretical concepts such as mercantilism and physiocracy. The Wealth of Nations (Smith, 1976) is not primarily a partisan pamphlet. Its subject matter is the understanding of the socioeconomic transformation at his time in the context of a history of civilization (the intensive debate about Smith’s work is well documented and accessible in Clark et al., 1966; Skinner and Wilson, 1975; Wilson and Skinner, 1976; Glahe, 1978; Skinner, 1979; Wood, 1984–94; Jones and Skinner, 1992). Although most of his writings were burnt by his literary executor, the complete edition of his works sheds light on his encompassing intent to develop a theory of a new type of society. This comprises his handling of rhetoric and belles-lettres (Smith, 1983, including his essay ‘Considerations concerning the ﬁrst formation of languages’), essays on philosophical subjects (Smith, 1977, including a highly original theory of science, taking astronomy as an example – see the excellent interpretation by Thomson, 1965), lectures on jurisprudence (Smith, 1982 – the original did not survive, but notes by his students did: see the introduction by Meek et al.), his ﬁrst published book in 1759 about the theory of moral sentiments (Smith, 1984) and his masterpiece about the wealth of nations, ﬁrst...
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