Jack Russell Weinstein
Adam Smith’s Pluralism: rationality, education and the moral sentiments
(New Haven & London, Yale University Press 2013) pb pp viii + 240
Everyone knows that ‘the Adam Smith Problem’ is not a problem, and yet somehow, it never quite goes away. The relationship between Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) and his Wealth of Nations (WN) remains sufficiently unsettled to sustain continuing debate. Jack Russell Weinstein’s book takes the ‘problem’ as its starting point, and using Mandeville as a focal point, offers an interesting and plausible account of the relation between the two books. TMS, Weinstein argues, is a rejection of Mandeville’s egoism, while WN accepts, and builds upon Mandeville’s insight that private vices can have public benefits (though to call them ‘vices’ is to side a little too closely with Mandeville perhaps). On this interpretation, then, we can see both, that the two books do indeed have different emphases, and that the ‘Adam Smith problem’ arose from mistakenly taking these differing emphases to be competing philosophical commitments – the first against, and the second in favor, of a Mandevillian account of human motivation.
With this interpretation firmly in place, Weinstein proceeds to his main task, which is to show how Smith’s account of morality, rationality, and socialization can be made relevant to contemporary debates about liberal pluralism. He argues that Smith’s philosophical explorations in TMS and WN together offer a more promising intellectual foundation for liberal pluralism than the (broadly) Kantian basis that Rawls sought unsuccessfully to give it, and that so many others have attempted to shore up. The topics of rationality and normativity figure prominently in the ensuing nine chapters, but the major topic is education, which provides the subject matter of four of them. Chapter Ten moves to a methodological topic and addresses the relation between historical investigation and normative prescription, while Chapter Eleven addresses postmodernist challenges to 18th century progressivism. Weinstein makes the case for holding that, contrary to some familiar interpretations, ‘Smith’s philosophy is not a romantic conservatism or a laissez-faire moralism but a forward looking corpus with a commitment to justice and diversity’ (240). Against Foucault, principally, he defends his contention that ‘twenty-first century theorists can learn from someone who published two and a half centuries ago’. In a final brief conclusion, Weinstein reaffirms his two main claims that ‘Smith offers a theory of pluralism that prefigures modern systems of diversity’ and that ‘he presents an account of human rationality that is representative of a holistic picture of human agency’ (264).
Weinstein has written a very fine book. He is exceptionally well read in his chosen area, and his style is fluent and engaging. If I have a criticism it is a slightly odd one, perhaps. The book is a little too long. This matters because the torrent of scholarly material that the modern academy produces requires readers to apportion their time. Long books run the risk of either being ignored, or only read in part with the accompanying risk of being misinterpreted. It would be a great pity if such a fate befell this book, especially given the many years of dedicated work that have gone into its production.
More importantly, perhaps, it could in my view have been shorter without great loss. Weinstein, as it seems to me, is too anxious to cover all the angles, and too defensive in his championship of Smith. He feels under pressure to show, for instance, that Smith disapproved of slavery and approved of gender equality. His explication of these points is informed and interesting, but it is hard to resist the sense that contemporary moral proclivities are being given too much authority. Furthermore, the closing chapters on ‘History and Normativity’ and ‘Progress or Postmodernism?’ are in an important way superfluous. My suspicion is that, despite the quality of Weinstein’s argumentation, the people to whom they are primarily addressed – strongly contextualist historians of ideas, postmodern relativists – are unlikely to be persuaded. On the other hand, those who have followed the fine philosophical and scholarly chapters that precede these will need little persuading, I think, that many common interpretations of Smith are indeed caricatures, and that there is real intellectual illumination to be recovered from TMS and WN on themes with which contemporary political and social theory is centrally concerned.