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Adam Smith's PluralismRationality, Education, and the Moral Sentiments$

Jack Russell Weinstein

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780300162530

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300162530.001.0001

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Reason and the Sentiments

Reason and the Sentiments

(p.129) 6 Reason and the Sentiments
Adam Smith's Pluralism

Jack Russell Weinstein

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Thinkers of the eighteenth century withdrew from Aristotelian formal logic. Smith himself needed something to replace this Aristotelian model of reasoning, especially since Hobbesian linear rationality proved to be inadequate for his needs. This chapter examines his alternative, arguing not simply that rhetoric is in itself a component of reasoning but that there is more. Smith did not completely reject Aristotle's logic, he only shifted its importance and limited its role.

Keywords:   Aristotle, logic, Hobbes, rhetoric, reasoning

In the last chapter I showed how the eighteenth century withdrew from Aristotelian formal logic and illustrated the difficulties in using rationality-based language for thinkers who did not have as nuanced a vocabulary as our contemporaries. I concluded that Smith required something to replace the Aristotelian model of reasoning, especially since Hobbesian linear rationality was inadequate for his needs. In this chapter I examine his alternative, arguing not simply that rhetoric plays an important role in Smithian deliberation but that rhetoric is in itself a component of reason.

Rhetoric as Reasoning

In his Lectures on Rhetoric1 Smith identifies four kinds of communication—instruction, entertainment, conviction, and persuasion—and presents four kinds of corresponding discourses—historical, poetic, didactic, and oratorical.2 That discourse which is most related to syllogistic logic is the didactic, a form whose rules Smith dismisses as “obvious” (LRBL ii.97). This “central” mode of discourse, as J. C. Bryce describes it, “emerges as not only a mode of expression but as a procedure of thought.”3 Didactic discourse may be applied either to “our reason and sound judgment” or to “our passions and by that means persuade us at any rate” (LRBL ii.14).

Smith defines a didactic discourse as one “in which the design of the writer is to Lay Down a proposition and prove this by the different arguments which lead to that conclusion” (LRBL ii.125). Interestingly, despite its importance he limits his comments almost exclusively to lectures 24 and the first few paragraphs of 25.4 Perhaps this is an outcome of the “obvious” nature of the didactic structure; maybe Smith just didn't want to spend all that much time on material (p.130) he regarded as self-evident. Maybe, however, Smith limited his comments on the didactic because this type of discourse is itself dependent on and overlapping with all other discourse types and, as such, he is always discussing it.

Brown argues that “the distinction between didactic and oratorical/rhetorical discourse is not sustainable in practice in view of the complex interweaving of styles in a particular text.”5 She is probably right about this. However, while she regards this merging of styles as a significant defect, I argue that the didactic model of discourse is strong and fundamental enough that all other forms may possibly be, at their roots, and in certain contexts, didactic as well. Rather than being a weakness in Smith's theory, this flexibility constitutes strength. A rhetoric that is too rigid cannot be of much use given the boundary-breaking nature of literature and composition.

Smith emphasizes simplicity; one ought to present an argument in the form that will “make a greater impression on the mind” (LRBL ii.126). As a result Smith argues that in a didactic discourse the author should try never to have more than five propositions. If he or she must, the author should group propositions under no more than five umbrella propositions in support of the primary one. Anticipating the origins of postmodernism, Smith uses architecture as an explanatory analogy (LRBL ii.129).

Smith is arguing for a limited, intuitive argument structure because of the nature of the understanding: “When [propositions] exceed this number the mind can not easily comprehend them at one view; and the whole runs into confusion” (LRBL 126). As a theory of communication, then, LRBL is preoccupied with the success of the audience in understanding the messages both intentionally and unintentionally located in the text. As a theory of pluralism, the goal is to make persuasion as effective as possible by making translation between contexts as easy as possible.

As an example of a treatise whose style makes it too complicated to understand, Smith cites Aristotle's Ethics (LRBL ii.131), comparing it to Newton's, attacking not only the Greek philosopher's style but also his mode of argumentation. Aristotle branches and organizes knowledge, whereas Newton lays down a chain of reasoning originating from a common principle. This chain gives us a pleasure “far superior to what we feel from the unconnected method where everything is accounted for by itself without any reference to the others” (LRBL ii.134).

In short, Smith's logic is inherently audience focused whereas Aristotle's is not. Logic, understood as the science of validity, is independent of the persons doing the work; an argument is valid whether the audience recognizes it or not.6 Whereas Aristotle felt it necessary to compose separate treatises on logical subjects and rhetoric, including distinguishing between a logical and rhetorical (p.131) syllogism, calling the latter an enthymeme, Smith's argumentation is intentionally rhetorical and necessarily intertwined with the audience.7 As Howell writes, “It was Smith who taught rhetoric to … assert jurisdiction over what logic no longer wanted to control”8

As we have seen, the position of spectator is a normative position, one that influences outcome and participates in the process of discovery. It is for this reason the so-called Newtonian method is so attractive to Smith.9 The beauty of the chain-based argument provides the audience with pleasure that motivates them toward the truth. Recall from chapters 1 and 2 that, for Smith, as for many of his influences, natural and moral philosophy incorporate the rules of aesthetics. There are no strict divisions to suggest, for example, that using architecture as a guide to argumentation is not inappropriate.

Smith elaborates on the nature of human understanding in HA;10 the use of the term ‘philosophical enquiries’ in the title suggests a connection to a wider theoretical purpose than just an account of the history of astronomy.11 The essay's significant overlap with LRBL further bolsters my argument that the lectures can be seen as a general theory of argumentation.

In particular, HA is concerned with the “subjective side of science.”12 According to Smith, human beings have a natural desire to understand events as a system (cf. TMS IV.I.11). Unified chains are pleasurable because the mind seeks discoverable “resemblances”—similarity and organization (HA II.1). It naturally sorts events and objects by commonality and uses this scheme as a form of explanation.

Smith's comments naturally relate to his remarks on cause and effect: the habitual identification of events in a chain allows a spectator's mind to move easily from one to another. For Smith, cause and effect motivate individuals to learn more: “There is no connection with which we are so much interested as this of cause and effect; we are not satisfied when we have a fact told us which we are at a loss to conceive what it was that brought it about” (LRBL ii.32). Any interruption of this chain of events is unpleasant and necessitates further action to soothe the imagination: “The very notion of a gap makes us uneasy for what should have happened in that time” (LRBL ii.37).

He elaborates in HA: “But if this customary connection be interrupted, if one or more objects appear in an order quite different from that to which the imagination has been accustomed, and for which it is prepared, … we are at first surprised by the unexpectedness of the new appearance, and when that momentary emotion is over, we still wonder how it came to occur in that place. The imagination no longer feels the usual facility of passing from the event which goes before to that which comes after” (HA II.8).

(p.132) In HA and LRBL Smith develops a narrative theory of the understanding that is directly related to my study of sympathy. By ‘narrative’, I mean a linked chain that explains both the cause and the trajectory of an argument. The trajectory can be understood teleologically, as MacIntyre argues. Or it can be understood in terms of more basic storytelling, which is compatible with both MacIntyre's approach and Smith's remarks on how the mind contextualizes sympathy. Newtonian explanations, as Smith describes them, are not teleological because they are derived from principles describing material, efficient, and formal causes but do not necessitate a final cause. Nevertheless, his remarks on system in HA suggest a Kuhnian understanding of scientific paradigms: the persuasive power of a scientific theory lies in the cohesive nature of the explanation and how it soothes our narrative imagination (cf. HA iv.8, 19).

Yet again we see the importance of prioritizing TMS. For Smith, agents' motives and capacity to understand are based on chain-like connections between objects or events; they are built upon a narrative thread. For Hobbes, one desire simply replaces the preceding one. For Smith, however, narrative preserves preexperienced emotions and desires as essential to the teleology or the history so far. Furthermore, as in any good story, a narrative can respect the multiple motivations that inspire a complex character; there need not be only one singular impulse for activity as Hobbes presumes.

However, while narrative allows for all these disparate elements, it also organizes them for deliberation. The mind works best when the spectator can move swiftly from one piece of a theory to the other without getting bogged down in too many simultaneous pieces of information that, as Smith cautions for historical writing, obscures the connection between “the Cause and the event” (LRBL ii.36). For Smith, the imagination is powerful enough to fill in basic pieces. In “plain language” discourses, for example, “if we happen to lose a word or two, the rest of the sentence is so naturally connected with it as that it comes into our mind of its own accord” (LRBL i.10). Nevertheless, a narrative is best understood when there are no broken links. If there are missing pieces, the moment information is provided to fill these gaps, the unease “vanishes altogether” (HA II.9).

Narrative is not the be-all and end-all of thinking. Smith is clear that narration is not enough in itself to arouse interest; one must take notice of “the effects it had on those who were either actors or spectators of the whole affair” (LRBL ii.5). This echoes Smith's theory of sympathy, reminding his readers that one must work to make a personal history of interest to spectators. However, while narratives aren't sufficient, they are necessary. For Smith, understanding requires a narrative structure, but interest in the subject depends more on (p.133) commonality or character. TMS sets up the problem of overcoming otherness, and LRBL explains the mechanics.

We can see how this relates to Smith's theory of pluralism and why he argues that both the community and sovereign have an interest in cultivating attention to difference. In essence, Smith is trying to create a mechanism through which individuals can become interested in others despite their lack of commonality. Narrative becomes more robust as more information is learned and more time passes; as we have seen in previous chapters, the narrative eventually becomes strong enough for judgment. The difficulty with narrative is not that it is, at times, too simple to provide guidance. Rather, it is that as narratives become more complex, the agent finds it hard to distinguish between that which is known and that which is assumed. The cultural components of stories and those influences that would eventually be considered subconscious blind agents to objectivity. Racism, patriarchy, and imperialism are all the result of complex narratives, and it isn't until the second half of the twentieth century that postmodern thinkers like Foucault exposed the dangers that come with narrative complexity.

Yet Smith anticipates this concern. In his account of the history of oration Smith warns his readers: “There can here be no room for a narration, the only design of which is by interweaving those facts for which proof can be brought with others for which no proof can be brought, that these latter may gain credit by their connection with the others. But as nothing is now of any weight for which direct proof is not brought this sort of narration should serve no end. The pleader therefore can do no more than tell over what facts he is to prove, which may often be very unconnected” (LRBL ii.246–247).

According to Smith, narratives can be easily corrupted. To mix those pieces of information that can be proven with those that cannot may cast doubt on the entire system, and, given Smith's eighteenth-century worldview, he focuses on the literary form of the confusion. He explains that with too much complexity the narrative thread can too easily be lost by the audience: “Long sentences are generally inconvenient and no one will be apt to use them who has his thoughts in good order” (LRBL i.53).

Additionally, during his advice regarding “the proper method of choosing the arguments and the manner of arranging them as well as the Expression,” Smith argues there should be little elaboration, “no nicety nor refinement, no metaphysicall arguments” and that “the Expression and Stile is what requires most skill and is alone capable of any particular directions” (LRBL ii.138–39). This both introduces the discussion of deliberative eloquence in oratory and concludes his discussion on didactic arguments. It points out the central (p.134) difficulty in communicating detailed scientific information and the systematic explanations thereof: obfuscation.

Despite all of these qualifications and although narrative is a limited form, it is still the foundation for Smith's use of reason (however we define it). For Smith, the desire to learn is itself a narrative tendency; our natural proclivities move us from wonder to surprise to admiration (HA Intro. 1–4). Just this progression tells a story—there is a conflict (the anxiety of surprise), action (the inquiry that comes from wonder), and a resolution (the calmness of admiration). Recall that, for Smith, philosophy is the science that organizes and places order upon seemingly disconnected information to ensure coherence. For Smith, the philosopher is more finely tuned to the gaps in the chain of events. He or she sees missing information—“the invisible chains which bind together all these disjointed objects”—and brings with it a “tone of tranquility and composure” (HA II. 12).

Complexity is problematic in scientific systems as well as in oratory. Smith uses the history of astronomy to show how, viewed over time, the more intricate systems become, the less believable they are. For example, the Ptolemaic system, with its complicated epicycle and its approximate results, was neither pleasing nor satisfying. Its complexity inhibited its greatness, and its unpredictability always elicited surprise (HA IV.8).

Smith believes that as systems advance, their complexity decreases. Just as, according to Smith, “the simpler the machine the better” (LRBL i.v.34), the less intricate the system, the more believable it is, because a system is simply “an imaginary machine invented to connect together in the fancy those different movements and effects which are already in reality performed” (HA IV. 19).

Smith gets the term ‘system’ from Shaftesbury; it serves a variety of purposes.13 First, it is a way of addressing the connectedness of linked concepts; astronomers put forth systems, as do moral philosophers. Second, a unified system allows for aesthetic evaluation of the linking of said concepts; a person can compare and prefer one system over another on the basis of their beauty, their intricacy, or, presumably, their accuracy and efficiency. Ptolemy's and Copernicus's maps of the heavens come to mind here. Third, the systematic nature of linked concepts emphasizes the role of the imagination and judgment in knowledge; discrete ‘facts’ are not as useful or as informative as seeing those facts in relation to other facts about the world. Recall that, for Smith, moral and aesthetic judgments are impossible outside of social structures. Comparative knowledge needs a system to offer comparison. Fourth, systems allow for the combining of specialized and general knowledge. As we will see, Smith sees history and the market as contributing to the development of narrow and advanced knowledge and capacities; this is the role of the division of labor. But, (p.135) as I have argued elsewhere, the division of labor can also be described as the “conjoining of [human] labor.”14 Specialization functions only if it has other specializations to complement. Or, as Cropsey writes, “Marx insists on presenting free commerce as though its essence were conflict; Smith presents it as though its essence is a kind of sociality or collaboration.”15

Systems allow us to take the bird's-eye view of seeing how these narrow foci interact and enhance one another. Knowledge on the systematic level is therefore the generalization of the more specific tasks. Thus we have Smith's remark that systems resemble machines: a mechanical apparatus presents linked components with a variety of purposes that can be evaluated on the basis of a multiplicity of standards, including aesthetic, efficacy, and efficiency. Its components cannot work or be judged in isolation, and an understanding of the machine in general is different from (although complementary to) an understanding of the specific components and functions of the machine. Finally, Smith's remark that systems are similar to machines echoes Newton's account of the “clockwork” universe.

According to Smith, systems are rejected because they become too complex, and complexity is often the product of too many laws and the lack of one unifying principle. Smith's rejection of Aristotle in LRBL is indicative of his rejection in HA. In the earlier essay Smith tells us that Aristotle's method of moving from the particular to the general is inferior to Newton's method of theorizing from the general to the particular. By beginning with individual principles, Smith argues, one begins with a multiplicity, but multiplicities inspire surprise and wonder and are therefore both inefficient and lead to anxiety.

At this point we see that the faculty of reason and the understanding are becoming inseparable. While they are distinct concepts analytically, for Smith, individuals must be able to both comprehend and communicate ideas, systems, and sentiments in a manner that is suitable to the structures of the human mind. Reason and rhetoric become one, thereby forming the basis of Smith's rationality.

This is a controversial claim, made more so by an ambiguity in terms. Rhetoric is usually thought of as a science and reason as a faculty. My claim, then, is twofold. First, logic and rhetoric are intertwined; as descriptions of inference and argument analyses and construction, they are necessary elements in mapping human thought. Second, given the centrality of language in Smith's system and given the importance of spectator-based sympathy, an individual's role as audience member and as moral actor is an essential part of what it means to be a human being. Therefore, rhetoric becomes a capacity for Smith in the same way that reason does, or, rather, the faculty of reason is a compound faculty containing both the natural rhetorical perspective and natural reason. (p.136) The faculty of reason is the foundation for narrative rationality because the faculty of reason is itself rhetorical.

Reason and Sympathy

Smith never explicitly defines rhetoric. His lectures are a mixture of it and belles lettres. Reminiscent of Shaftesbury's Characteristicks, they are as much concerned with aesthetic standards as with persuasion. In fact, not only does Smith not distinguish the two explicitly in his course, there does not seem to be even an analytic distinction within them. He defines his two concerns as “‘an examination of the several ways of communicating our thoughts by speech’” and “‘an attention to the principles of those literary compositions which contribute to persuasion or entertainment.’”16

This division is echoed in lecture II, in which Smith describes the course as first being concerned with “the perfection of stile” and then with that which is “agreable in Stile” (LRBL i.133–36). The rules for perfection consist “in Expressing in the most concise, proper and precise manner the thought of the author, and that in the manner which best conveys the sentiment, passion or affection with which it affects or he pretends it does affect him and which he designs to communicate to his reader” (LRBL i.133). Agreeability, however, is “when all the thoughts are justly and properly expressed in such a manner as shews the passion they affected the author with, and so that all seems naturall and easy” (LRBL i.136). Therefore, for Smith, rhetoric is the science of perfecting agreeable prose, a significantly different definition than Aristotle's “to see the available means of persuasion … in each case.”17 It describes the process by which a person authentically communicates his or her sentiments.18 Persuasion is, in some sense, beautiful for Smith.

It is not inappropriate that Smith actually defines the term ‘moral sentiments’ in LRBL. He calls them “morall observations,” a definition that incorporates much more than feelings or reactions (LRBL i.144).19 The term is used in reference to Shaftesbury's letters, and thus ‘observations’ is to be understood not simply as empty viewing without judgment, but as the complete package of observation, reflections, deliberations, and conclusions. We see here similarities with Nussbaum's comments that emotions are complex intentional objects. Moral sentiments are the product of reasoning as well as of reaction. They involve moral judgment and personal commitment.

These definitions point to a further layer of complexity. For Smith, rhetoric is not simply an intended transfer of ideas or beliefs. The audience can also gain information about the author, not just the message; for Smith, the rules regarding (p.137) how one ought to present one's ideas are partly based on the nature of an individual author's personality. How one speaks and writes is an indication of what kind of person the speaker or author is. Rhetoric is a window into character: “The stile of an author is generally of the same stamp as their character…. the flowery modesty of Addison [and] the pert and flippant insolence of Warburton … appear evident in their works and point the very character of the man” (LRBL i.80).20

Smith remarks, for example, that he is judging Lucian based on his works (LRBL i.122) and uses the same method to judge the orators Aeschines and Demosthenes much later on in the course (LRBL ii.231). He tells us that Addison writes properly for a humble man because “his Sentences are neither long nor short but of a length suited to the character he has of a modest man; who naturally delivers himself in Sentences of a moderate length and with a uniform tone” (LRBL i.129).

Smith asserts, “A wise man too in conversation and behaviour will not affect a character that is unnaturall to him; if he is grave he will not affect to be gay, nor if he be gay will he affect to be grave” (LRBL i.135). He then condemns Shaftesbury for violating this rule, explaining that he had a “very puny and weakly constitution” and “abstract reasoning and deep searches are too fatiguing for persons of this delicate frame” (LRBL i.138–39). He also accuses Shaftesbury of copying Plato's style of writing and condemns him for the false posturing that results (LRBL i.146).21

According to Smith, Shaftesbury had “no great depth in Reasoning” and would therefore “be glad to set off by the ornament of language what was deficient in matter” (LRBL i.144). Although he does compliment Shaftesbury's method of reasoning in his lecture on didactic texts—Smith calls it “perfect” (LRBL ii.126)22—he summarizes his opinion of both Shaftesbury's rhetoric and character as follows: “Polite dignity is the character he aimed at, and as this seems to be best supported by a grand and pompous diction that was the Stile he made choise of. This he carried so far that when the subject was far from being grand, his stile is as pompous as in the most sublime subjects.—The chief ornament of Language he studied was that of a uniform cadence and this he often does in contradiction to precision and propriety, which are surely of greater consequence. He has this so much in view that he often makes the one member of his sentence an echo to the other and often brings in a whole string of Synonymes to make the members end uniformly” (LRBL i.146).

I mentioned in chapter 2 that Smith's ad hominem attack against Shaftesbury may be justified by recalling the classical Greek and Stoic notion that philosophy is as much a way of life as a method of inquiry. Here we see another possible defense for Smith's remark. The suggestion that the attack against the person is a (p.138) fallacy because it is irrelevant to the argument—that truth is independent of the conveyer of that truth—may be too simplistic. Instead, according to Smith, how one communicates the truth is irrevocably wrapped in the rhetoric one chooses. How one presents oneself is necessarily viewed through the flowers and flourishes of language and behavior. How one sees the world is itself an influence on the argument, and, because of the nature of the impartial spectator, because self-knowledge, for Smith, is an outgrowth of Shaftesbury's soliloquy and the imagination, how one understands oneself is also wrapped in rhetoric.

Smith has this to say about Shaftesbury:

Shaftesbury himself, by what we can learn from his Letters, seems to have been of a very puny and weakly constitution, always either under some disorder or in dread of falling into one. Such a habit of body is very much connected, nay almost continually attended by, a cast of mind in a good measure similar. Abstract reasoning and deep searches are too fatiguing for persons of this delicate frame. Their feableness of body as well as mind hinders them from engaging in the pursuits which generally engross the common sort of men. Love and Ambition are too violent in their emotions to find ground to work upon in such frames; where the passions are not very strong. The weakness of their appetites and passions hinders them from being carried away in the ordinary manner. (LRBL i.138–39)

This is without a doubt an ad hominem. Smith argues here that Shaftesbury was of “too delicate a frame” to reason well, a remark that would most likely be rejected by modern readers. Yet Smith knew what he was doing. Although the history and origin of the ad hominem fallacy is currently in dispute—there is a decadelong disagreement as to whether the fallacy was first introduced by Locke, as is usually argued, or whether its traces can be found in Aristotle even though it is not on his list of fallacies23—Smith would have been familiar with all of the relevant texts. He would have known an ad hominem when he saw one.

There are no doubt times when individuals are too sick to concentrate. But Smith's comments are more targeted than that. His remarks concern Shaftesbury's constitution, not his circumstance, and are therefore condemning Shaftesbury's intellectual capacities in general. Rather than judging his predecessor on the merits of his philosophy, Smith condemns Shaftesbury's work on the basis of biographical facts. This argument appears as fallacious as they come.

Smith chose Jonathan Swift's writing over Shaftesbury's because the latter was ornate and hard to follow; the argument was buried under superfluities that distracted or misled the reader.24 For Smith, this style of writing leads to problems because the florid prose inaccurately communicates Shaftesbury's (p.139) character.25 When communication is distorted, either intentionally or not—and Smith sees Shaftesbury as doing it intentionally—it interferes with the capacity to sympathize. This impairs the sympathetic process and weakens the capacity to make moral judgments.

Smith believes that Shaftesbury deflects our ability to understand him. He is guilty, to use more modern terminology, of a violation of good faith, a key virtue of most modern pluralisms. According to Smith, Shaftesbury's style interferes with the audience's ability to understand; it impinges upon the lessons Shaftesbury wishes to impart and the sympathy his readers ought to experience toward him. Shaftesbury, intentionally or not, sabotages the community of inquiry.

We can now see why Smith attacks Shaftesbury in the form of an abusive ad hominem. For Smith, attacking character is contiguous with attacking communication, which is contiguous with attacking an argument. Rhetorical style presumes moral assertions, and in Shaftesbury's case—a philosopher who is himself prescribing both moral and aesthetic principles—communication of his character becomes distorted as he obfuscates his writing.

To understand this further, let us consider Douglas Walton's diagram of the ad hominem argument scheme: “The respondent is a person of bad (defective) character. Therefore the respondent's argument should not be accepted.”26 Walton has argued that this logical move may be legitimate because an “attack on a respondent's character, say for honesty, sincerity or trustworthiness, can often undermine the respondent's credibility as a source.”27 As Walton points out, this is relevant in legal argument.

While Walton is probably correct, he is accepting the traditional assumption that the only relevance of the arguer is as the purveyor of testimony. In essence, he argues that because of the questionable character of the source, premises that might otherwise support a conclusion cannot be deemed acceptable on existing (testimonial) evidence.

Smith is doing something else. He is not arguing against the acceptability of the premises. Instead, he suggests that the nature of inference is fluid and that character affects logical consequence. Smith can challenge inferential connections because he is making both a psychological point and an empirical one. The psychological point is that since individuals make inferences justified by their own impartial spectators, the natures of their spectators determine the viability of the inference.28 D. D. Raphael shows that Smith's psychological grounding helps him derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’29

In contrast, Smith's empirical point is that spectators make moral determinations on the basis of observations, and inaccurate or distorted information about an actor or his or her context necessarily leads to inaccurate moral judgments. (p.140) Thus, for Smith, Shaftesbury is guilty of two improprieties. First, he intentionally obfuscates his character, thereby preventing individuals from making accurate moral judgments about him—this is a violation of the pluralist ethos. Second, Shaftesbury seems to truly believe that he is right in doing so. In other words, his “puny and sickly” character causes him to violate the rules of transparency and makes him feel good about it.

Given the tone of Smith's critique, it may not be surprising that Smith approves of the use of ridicule in argumentation, a practice “altogether consistent with the character of a Gentleman as it tends to the reformation of manners and the benefit of mankind” (LRBL i.v.116). This recalls Shaftesbury's own use of ridicule in truth-seeking and moderating religious practices.30 It also connects with Mandeville's sardonic method and explains how Smith can praise Swift for his clear, precise writing despite the layered yet never-acknowledged (by Smith) satirical nature of his writings.31

Whereas pointed and humorous references to an arguer's shortcomings are deemed irrelevant in a traditional logical argument, for Smith, ridicule is “appropriate when it issues from an appropriate sentiment and communicates clearly the nature of the object that gives rise to that sentiment.” For Smith, then, pathos does a good portion of the work that in classical rhetoric is more typically assigned to logos.32 Thus, we see that, for Smith, his comments on Shaftesbury are not simply an entertaining aside for the benefit of his students but also representative of a particular theory about argument, inference, and character. Given Smith's scheme, his observations about Shaftesbury are relevant and may be necessary.

Given that the rules of logic are, for Smith, really an account of natural reasoning, Smith seems to be calling into question any traditional account of relevance. If I am right that Smith's argumentation theory is a psychological account of inference, then the universe of allowable grounds and consequence becomes much wider. For Smith, reasoning is always a social phenomenon. For example, his famous observation that we get our dinner from appealing not to the butcher's, brewer's, and baker's humanity but to their self-interest is really a comment about persuasion.33 Commercial activity is itself, for Smith, “the necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech” (WN I.ii.2) and is built on “the naturall inclination every one has to persuade” (LJ(A) vi.56). As a result, according to Smith, “every one is practising oratory on others thro the whole of his life” (LJ(A) vi.56).34

Again, for Smith, logic and rhetoric, just like reason and rhetoric, are, in some way, one and the same. Given this fact, it makes sense that reasoning necessitates not the abstract identification of noncontextual inference but the intermingling (p.141) of assertions regarding both the argument and the arguers. If argumentation, oratory, and exchange are themselves interrelated, might it not be possible that argument claims are somehow connected to the character of the arguer? And if this is the case, then might it not be possible that calling an arguer's character into question is a form of calling the claim into question as well?

In Smith's account, Shaftesbury is morally flawed because he can neither see himself accurately nor present himself in a manner that will provide transparency for others to sympathize with him. Agents are self-observers; this is the function of the impartial spectator. Moral rationality is the process of trying to step outside of oneself in order to judge the propriety of one's actions. One must see oneself to do this, and one must allow others to see facts about himself or herself. The core advantage of self-spectatorship comes with wider access to information—one knows more about his or her history and circumstance than anyone else does—but the disadvantage is the feeling of urgency that comes with intimacy; Smith might have felt that this led Shaftesbury astray.

Smith's goal is for the moral agent to become as impartial as possible while still understanding that it is not immoral to prefer oneself to others, but Shaftesbury, Smith seemed to feel, was not as impartial as he should have been. As we have seen, Smith is explicit about the “natural preference which every man has for his own happiness above that of other people” and that each person is by nature “first and principally recommended to his own care” (TMS II.ii.2.1, VI.ii.1.1). By hiding his character and capabilities, Shaftesbury puts himself solely in his own care, preventing the community from being a moderating force.

The process of deliberation over the moral propriety of acts and sentiments is the epicenter of Smith's rationality and argumentation theory. The sympathetic process represents a commitment to common sense as a universal starting point for argumentation. The creation of the impartial spectator is evidence that argument analysis is the purview of disciplined, social, and specialized, or context-specific, knowledge. Obviously, communication is of the utmost importance here, and, as Smith argues, moral judgments are impossible outside of society (TMS III. 1.3). Moral inquiry is predicated on the communal nature of information. McKenna suggests that, for Smith, rhetoric supplants episte-mology and that communication is prior to ethics.35 One might go so far as to say that by inaccurately presenting himself Shaftesbury is trying to step outside of society, an attempt that would arise only from a flawed character. Whereas, as we have seen, the individual who violates the laws of justice experiences this retreat from social life negatively and feels remorse, Smith seems to think that Shaftesbury, in making himself and his argument opaque, revels in the asocial experience and feels no remorse at all.

(p.142) Leaving Shaftesbury, we are left with the reminder that impartiality is a process of comparing standards—a connection to Smith's theory of pluralism. For Smith, it is impossible to achieve perfection or to be completely outside of one's own experience. The virtue that results from the impartial spectator is itself the result of a continual perspective change: a balance of ideal and pragmatic limitations. For Smith, there are “two different standards of self-judgment that exist: one is comparing our action with the ideal, and the other is comparing it with what is normally achieved in the world.”36 He writes,

The wise and virtuous man directs his principal attention to the first standard; the idea of exact propriety and perfection. There exists in the mind of every man, an idea of this kind, gradually formed from his observations upon the character and conduct both of himself and of other people. It is the slow, gradual, and progressive work of the great demigod within the breast, the great judge and arbiter of conduct…. Every day some feature is improved; every day some blemish is corrected…. He endeavours as well as he can, to assimilate his own character to this archetype of perfection. But he imitates the work of a divine artist, which can never be equalled. He feels the imperfect success of all his best endeavours, and sees, with grief and affliction, in how many different features the mortal copy falls short of the immortal original…. When he directs his attention towards the second standard, indeed, that degree of excellence which his friends and acquaintances have commonly arrived at, he may be sensible of his own superiority. But, as his principal attention is always directed towards the first standard, he is necessarily much more humbled by the one comparison, than he ever can be elevated by the other. He is never so elated as to look down with insolence even upon those who are really below him. He feels so well his own imperfection, he knows so well the difficulty with which he attained his own distant approximation to rectitude, that he cannot regard with contempt the still greater imperfection of other people. (TMS VI.iii.25)

In this excerpt, we see two different and simultaneous processes of self-division. The first is the familiar balance between the ideal and the actual: Smith's virtuous person strives for perfection, uses the ideal as a standard but must be genuinely satisfied with human limitations of virtue. At the same time, the virtuous person judges his or her superiority of character on the basis of the actions of others but refuses to judge others for not attaining the same level. Here we see more of the mechanics of Smith's rationality. The faculty of reason is designed to compare and contextualize, to look for ideals and limits based on an ideal. As the moral judge, the actor must use rationality-as-judgment to determine that which is both within the capacities of human experience and that which the ideal might appear to be.

(p.143) Smith's rhetoric shows that “the manner in which we organize discourse of various kinds often reflects our own psychology” as well as the psychology of others, reflecting the priority of TMS and the role of pluralism in Smith's corpus.37 As a result, the tension between impartiality and an agent's natural preference for his or her own happiness is as present in rhetoric as it is in moral judgment. Also in both, the closer one is to the incident, the harder it is to be impartial, a point Smith emphasizes by comparing the orator and historian. The orator “treats of subjects he or his friends are nearly concerned in; it is his business therefore to appear, if he is not realy, deeply concerned in the matter, and uses all his art to prove what he is engaged in.” The historian, in contrast, “acts as if he were an impartial narrater of the facts; so he uses none of these means to affect his readers” (LRBL i.82–83).

The difference in the two cases is based on the different parts of the argument that are being called upon in the construction of the discourse. The orator “or didactick writer has two parts in his work: in the one he lays down his proposition and in the other he brings his proof of that proposition.” The historian “has only one part, to wit the proposition” (LRBL i.81). This is the legacy of Smith's epistemological framework. In an empiricist worldview, all knowledge is, in part, rhetoric, or all knowledge is filtered through rhetoric: “Men always endeavour to persuade others,” and “every one is practising oratory on others thro the whole of his life” (LJ(A) vi.56). Smith echoes this sentiment in TMS when he writes that since people always desire to persuade others, “speech is the great instrument of ambition, of real superiority, of leading and directing the judgments and conduct of other people” (TMS VII.iv.25).38

It should be no surprise that rhetoric plays such an important part in Smith's argumentation theory since the necessary preconditions for moral judgment are the ability to know a person's story—to understand their narrative, to read their lives and to present, speak, and write our own. Smith's rhetoric is very much concerned with “what we would now call point of view.”39 Because language and morality are intertwined, Smith's lectures on rhetoric are also lectures on ethics, or at minimum, they are lectures on the communication of ethical cases and judgments. Under Smith's system, good writing is both descriptive and prescriptive.

Certain styles of writing and speech are more conducive to imparting information, and Smith is concerned with methods of providing facts as well as ways of describing objects (LRBL i.154, and LRBL i.172–75). Smith is also clear that some grammatical forms are better at communicating certain sentiments than others: “The Language of Admiration and wonder is that in which we naturally speak of the Respectable virtues. Amplicatives and Superlatives are the terms (p.144) we commonly make use of to express our admiration and respect…. Diminutives and such-like are the terms in which we speak of objects we love” (LRBL ii.104–5). Smith's lectures on rhetoric assume the problem of sympathy is a problem of clarity (LRBL i.v.57). The mechanics of language are the ground for sympathy, the result of the discrete physical nature of human beings and the consequence of empiricism.

Throughout my discussion, I have emphasized the role of narrative and storytelling in the determination of the facts of a moral actor's case. In chapter 3 I showed that, for Smith, the moral determinations about the propriety of an action are based not on determining how a spectator would act in the actor's situation but on how that spectator ought to act if he or she were a particular agent in a particular situation. To determine moral propriety is to know as much about the person's specific situation as possible. What Smith's rhetoric adds to this equation is that knowing the context depends on the ability to accurately communicate the situation for understanding as much as it depends on the ability to receive the information. Smith tells us, “The character of a man is never very striking nor makes any deep impression: It is a dull and lifeless thing taken merely by itself. It then only appears in perfection when it is called out into action” (LRBL ii.106–7).

While it is true that, for Smith, the pleasures of mutual sympathy motivate us to seek the moral approval of others, as a rhetorical problem actors are faced with the dilemma of making their situations interesting enough for people to attend to them. This is a central concern of any pluralism; individuals must be compelling enough to be noticed, particularly in the face of complicated and confusing differences. In fact, for Smith, even the life of those who receive acclamation must be described in ways to attract an audience's interest (LRBL ii.107). Description of a person's character, whether one's own or someone else's, is difficult and important.

Smith is as explicit in LRBL as he is anywhere about the impact of knowing the context and the detail of a moral situation. To describe character “in any tollerable degree of perfection requires great skill, deep penetration, an accurate observation and almost perfect knowledge of men” (LRBL i.189). He also reminds us of the importance of mutual sympathy (LRBL ii.16). Returning to a previous discussion, when Shaftesbury deflects our ability to understand him, it impinges on the lessons he wishes to impart and interferes with social unity, creating, at least potentially, significant fractures in relationships and perhaps in political society. Smith focuses on the communicative aspect of sympathy because one of the major unifying themes of LRBL is the working of the imagination. I touched on this subject above. Now, we can see more clearly that the (p.145) purpose of rhetoric is, in part, the cultivation of sympathy. The proper functioning of the imagination is based in part on how we make information available to ourselves and others.

The very first remark recorded in LRBL concerns the imagination's nature and limits (LRBL i.1).40 For Smith, the root of “perspicuity” is “the quality of being seen through.”41 In order to be clear and precise, language must not rely on too many competing, or synonymous, terms, and it must be built on the familiar; terms must be transparent. Words can be explained both by experience and by reference to history, background, and culture. According to Smith, foreign words thus can be admitted into the lexicon over time, but only after a period during which they become as familiar as their native cousins. Language, for Smith, is the product of culture, both local and national (LRBL i.2–5).

The connection between rhetoric and the imagination is essential because without the imagined impartial spectator, Smith's moral theory has no normative foundation. Smith's theory of conscience acts both as the nexus of deliberation and as the point of intersection between personal and universal perspective. Rhetoric either cultivates or hinders the imagination and thus allows for the creation and regulation of the impartial spectator.42

Since we are now concerned with rhetoric's role in the creation of the impartial spectator, we can consider analyses that point to the proper imagining and functioning of this normative device. We have seen how circumstance, particularly economic circumstance, can have both positive and negative impacts on the sympathetic imagination. Smith's work can be seen as a system, albeit an incomplete one, and therefore we can take this opportunity to bridge TMS, WN, and LJ (as a stand-in for Smith's unfinished work on jurisprudence) with LRBL, emphasizing, as always, the priority of his first book. In other words, there are economic concerns in LRBL just as there are moral concerns in WN.

Smith writes, for example, that use of language is heavily influenced by class (LRBL i.5). He adds that our method of presentation is also adjusted by the economic class of the audience (LRBL i.84). Even artistic endeavors are affected by economic difference. For example, even the great comedies are rarely, if ever, focused on the higher classes (LRBL ii.91).

To recall my earlier comments, Smith shows how intertwined class is with the rhetorical and artistic structures of society. Ethics, economics, jurisprudence, and aesthetics are as necessarily interrelated for Smith as they are for Mandeville and Shaftesbury. Smith's remarks on the economic influence of language underscore this point since, according to him, the effort to refine prose is itself the consequence of trade: “Prose is naturally the Language of Business; as Poetry is of pleasure and amusement” (LRBL ii.115). In LJ(A), (p.146) Smith elaborates how, in the first stages of commerce, trade at great distance was not impossible before contracts replaced oaths and verbal agreements (LJ(A) ii.54). These observations are part of a larger anthropology of language. He argues, for example, that commerce brought the transition from cultivating poetry and music to perfecting prose (LRBL ii. 115–16).

Smith's first point here is that prose and poetry serve radically different purposes. Whereas poetry is created for entertainment, prose is the product of pragmatic commercial endeavors. Smith's comments in WN emphasize the relationship between language and “the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another” (WN I.ii.1). He writes that it was likely that commercial society was “the necessary consequence of the faculties of reason and speech” (WN I.ii.2).

But Smith's comments on the role of economics in rhetoric continue to include not only the origin of language but also the influence of class in its refinement because “prose is naturally the Language of Business; as Poetry is of pleasure and amusement” (LRBL ii.115). Finally, Smith points to the distinction between necessities and luxuries—one of the defining characteristics of class—to show that as society grows more opulent, commercial and aesthetic considerations merge (LRBL ii.115–16).

This anthropology is similar to Smith's other analyses of the development of human capacities and structures. It is historical. It makes no reference to the divine. It assumes that progress follows the law of nature, and it holds an important place for the role of unintended consequences; I go into more depth regarding his philosophy of history in the last two chapters of this book. Smith's remarks on the relationship between language and commerce also parallel his discussions of slavery and the role of women in society.

With an eye toward Smith's anthropological and sociological method, I remind the reader that my discussion of the lectures on rhetoric is intended to emphasize Smith's notion of rationality. While Smith does use rhetoric to displace Aristotelian logic, “he did not openly condemn the syllogistic orientation of ancient rhetorical theory or propose inductive procedures in its place.”43 Smith's lack of comment is often as important as his explicit remarks. As Griswold implies, it is likely that Smith knew the Platonic observation that “the good rhetorician must know when to remain silent.”44 I therefore reiterate that Smith is not completely rejecting Aristotle's logic, only shifting its importance and limiting its role.


(1) . LRBL are records of lectures given at Glasgow during the years 1762–63, after the first publication of TMS but before WN. In many regards, these lectures represent the best possible scenario for found notes. For a sensitive account of the lectures, with special attention to some possible mistakes, see Howell, “Adam Smith's Lectures on Rhetoric: An Historical Assessment,” 11–43.

(2) . Skinner, A System of Social Science, 8.

(3) . Bryce, “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres,” 14.

(4) . Howell suggests that Smith seems to change his mind about the importance of didactic texts since his comment about the obviousness of didactic texts in lecture 22 is made in the context of explaining why he chooses not to discuss the topic at all. See Howell, “Adam Smith's Lectures on Rhetoric: An Historical Assessment,” 30.

(5) . Brown, Adam Smith's Discourse, 17.

(6) . I ask that the reader not take this point too far. I am not suggesting that mathematics is necessarily Platonic, nor do I wish to suggest any conviction regarding, for example, Frege's definition of number. My point is simply that mathematical and syllogistic logic are independent of the audience to such an extent that neither hypocrisy nor an argument ad hominem is said to affect the truth of an argument. As we shall see, Smith can be understood as calling this fallacy into question.

(7) . See Rhetoric 1355a, for example.

(8) . Howell, “Adam Smith's Lectures on Rhetoric,” 33.

(9) . Leonidas Montes argues for a reconsideration of the common assertion that Smith is Newtonian in his methodology. In doing so, he does not so much disassociate Smith from Newton as he disassociates Newton from Newtonianism. See Montes, Adam Smith in Context: A Critical Reassessment of Some Central Components of His Thought. See also Weinstein, “Review: Leonidas Montes: Adam Smith in Context: A Critical Reassessment of Some Central Components of His Thought.”

(10) . Scholars are unsure as to when HA was written. The best guess is some time before 1758, when Smith was in Edinburgh lecturing on rhetoric, but in fact there is enough information to suggest that he began writing it while still at Oxford as a student (EPS 7). If this is true, he would have written Astronomy while he was still in his early twenties. In either case, Astronomy predates TMS, WN, and the lecture notes in LRBL. Nevertheless, we can be more secure about citing HA than LRBL since Smith himself suggests the value of the essay. In a letter to Hume, Smith writes, “As I have left the care of all my literary papers to you, I must tell you that except those which I carry along with me there are none worth the publishing, but a fragment of a great work which contains a history of the Astronomical Systems that were successively in fashion down to the time of Des Cartes. Whether that might not be published as a fragment of an intended juvenile work, I leave entirely to your judgement; tho I begin to suspect myself that there is more refinement than solidity in some parts of it” (Corr. 137).

(11) . I am concerned with the people Smith describes, not his method of developing that description: for the latter, see Lindgren, “Adam Smith's Theory of Inquiry.”

(12) . Skinner, A System of Social Science, 37.

(13) . Mitchell, “Beautiful and Orderly Systems,” 82n4.

(14) . Weinstein, On Adam Smith, 60–61.

(15) . Cropsey, Polity and Economy, 152.

(16) . Bryce, “Introduction,” 12.

(17) . Rhetoric 1355b. From Kennedy, On Rhetoric.

(18) . Vivienne Brown points to an ambiguity in Smith's definition of rhetoric. In addition to the broad interpretation cited here, she argues that Smith asserts the more traditional Aristotelian definition, which requires, in her words, persuasion “at all costs” (Brown, Adam Smith's Discourse, 16).

(19) . This is wider than the generally acknowledged definition of sentiments. It is interesting that commentators tend to take the term for granted and as given. Raphael and Macfie do not define it in their introduction to the Glasgow Edition of TMS. Neither does Haakonssen in the introduction to his recent Cambridge edition. Griswold sees the term as synonymous with “passions” and “emotions” (Griswold, Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment, 76), and both Otteson's and Vivenza's indices direct readers to their entries on “passions” rather than address the issue exactly. This may, in the end, not be problematic, but given the fact that Western philosophy has historically viewed emotions and passions in opposition to reason, this simplified approach tends to distort what Smith had in mind. (This is not to suggest that Griswold, Otteson, and Vivenza do not address the role of reason in the sentiments within their individual works.)

(20) . I edit this quote more than usual because the student taking notes appears to have missed several key words and an additional example. These omissions do not affect the meaning of the sentence.

(21) . For an alternate discussion of Smith's criticism of Shaftesbury, see Otteson's “Shaftesbury's Evolutionary Morality and Its Influence on Adam Smith.”

(22) . I see this as further evidence that Smith does not regard didactic method as incompatible with the poetic, historical, or oratorical discourses.

(23) . Walton, “Searching for the Roots of the Circumstantial Ad Hominem”; Chichi, “The Greek Roots of the Ad Hominem Argument”; Walton, “Argumentation Schemes and Historical Origins of the Circumstantial Ad Hominem Argument.”

(24) . Commentators seem evenly divided as to whether Shaftesbury was a good writer, stylistically. Smith's student Hugh Blair, whose own lectures on rhetoric are so important to the discipline of English, continues many of Smith's objections, but Swift himself claims that Shaftesbury's Letter Concerning Enthusiasm is “very well writ” (Alderman, “The Style of Shaftesbury,” 214).

(25) . This approach is consistent with Griswold's claim that Smith was influenced by Theophrastus's The Characters, in which the classical Greek writer offered character studies as moral types. (Griswold, Jr., Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment, 59–60.) See also Locke, “Adam Smith and The Man of System,’” 42.

(26) . Walton, “Argumentation Schemes and Historical Origins of the Circumstantial Ad Hominem Argument,” 361.

(27) . Ibid.

(28) . I argue that this foreshadows MacIntyre's plurality of rationalities: context affects the very nature of reason. See my “The Invisible Hand of Rationality: On the Intersection of Adam Smith and Alasdair MacIntyre.”

(29) . Raphael, The Impartial Spectator, 134–35.

(30) . Aldridge, “Shaftesbury and the Test of Truth,” 129–56.

(31) . See Brown, Adam Smith's Discourse, 15.

(32) . McKenna, Adam Smith: The Rhetoric of Propriety, 92.

(33) . Ibid., 134.

(34) . Ibid.

(35) . Ibid., 78, 138.

(36) . Carrasco, “Adam Smith's Reconstruction of Practical Reason,” 108.

(37) . Skinner, A System of Social Science, 16.

(38) . Griswold finds a similar comment at WN I.ii.3. Although Smith is discussing trade “by treaty, by barter, and by purchase,” which, he states elsewhere, is the result of the capacity of speech, it seems a stretch to me to understand I.ii.3 as a comment on oratory. See Griswold, Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment, 43.

(39) . Phillips, “Adam Smith, Belletrist,” 67.

(40) . The first lecture in the records is actually the second of the course. We do not know the content of Smith's introductory class.

(41) . Bryce, “Introduction,” 15.

(42) . Ibid., 18–19.

(43) . Howell, “Adam Smith's Lectures on Rhetoric,” 42.

(44) . Phaedrus 272a, as paraphrased in Griswold, Adam Smith and the Virtues of the Enlightenment, 41.