Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Dennis C. Rasmussen's "The Infidel and the Professor"

Dennis C. Rasmussen is associate professor of political science at Tufts University. His books include The Pragmatic Enlightenment.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought, and reported the following:
David Hume and Adam Smith are two of the most important thinkers in the entire Western tradition: Hume is widely regarded as the greatest philosopher ever to write in English, and Smith is almost certainly history’s most famous theorist of commercial society. The two were, remarkably, best friends for most of their adult lives, and The Infidel and the Professor tells the story of that friendship.

The book is split roughly evenly between biography and philosophy. A number of the chapters focus principally on Hume’s and Smith’s lives and personal interactions, while others concentrate on their writings and the impact that each had on the other’s outlook. Page 99 falls in the midst of one of the latter chapters, the one that takes up Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments—a book that he always deemed “much superior” to his more famous work, The Wealth of Nations. Virtually the entirety of Smith’s book shows unmistakable signs of Hume’s influence, but he rarely adopted Hume’s views wholesale; on the contrary, he modified almost everything he touched. Page 99 marks the beginning of a section devoted to Smith’s departures from Hume on the question of the foundation of justice.

Both Hume and Smith use the term “justice” to mean nothing more (or less) than refraining from harming the life, liberty, and property of others, but they hold very different views of where this virtue comes from. Hume argues that the virtue of justice is founded entirely on its utility, i.e. that we approve of just conduct solely because it serves the public interest. Smith contends, however, that our sense of justice springs not from reflection on its usefulness but rather from the sentiment of resentment. When we witness an act of injustice—the murder of an innocent person or the theft of her life’s savings, say—we sympathize with the victim and our feelings of resentment on her behalf lead us to want to punish the wrongdoer, even without sitting back and thinking about the long-term impact that such actions have on society. Though this is far from the most central issue in the overall thought of Hume and Smith, it does capture nicely the character of their intellectual relationship—one marked by broad concurrence but also intriguing disagreements.
Learn more about The Infidel and the Professor at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue