Sunday, 20 February 2011

Otteson on Adam Smith

Noted Adam Smith scholar James R. Otteson has a new book out on Adam Smith. It is published by Continuum Press, and it is volume sixteen of a twenty-volume series entitled "Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers" edited by John Meadowcroft of King's College London. For more on the series see here.

The preface for the book reads:
This book is a part of a series entitled “Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers.” The series aims to introduce these thinkers to a wider audience, providing an overview of their lives and works, as well as expert commentary on their enduring significance. Thus Adam Smith begins with a short biography of Smith; it then gives an overview and discussion of his extant works, focusing on his two major publications, the 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments and the 1776 Wealth of Nations; and it concludes by discussing what Smith got right, what he got wrong, and why he is still worth reading—which he most definitely is. Also included is a bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

A slim volume like this can address only a fraction of the richness of Smith’s work, so it can be only a primer. One principle that has helped guide my selection of topics has been the aim of the book’s series.[1] Thus I have given added weight, where appropriate, to aspects of Smith’s thought that justify, or at least explain, his inclusion in a series about major conservative and libertarian thinkers. Depending on how one defines those terms, there are aspects of Smith’s thought that are conservative and aspects that are libertarian; and there are aspects that are neither.

I also try to make sense of Smith’s writing not only in the small but in the large as well—that is, not only in the details of this or that argument in this or that work, but in the larger aims of Smith’s scholarly corpus. I believe there is a coherence to Smith’s work, and, though I realize a book like this places limits on an attempt to demonstrate a claim like that, I do my best to make it plausible if not ultimately convincing.

In writing the book I have been conscious that for some readers it might serve as their first introduction to Smith, and for others it might serve as their only introduction to him. For a thinker as important as Smith, that makes the stakes for a book like this one high indeed. I have striven to present Smith in a way I believe he himself would have approved: charitably but objectively. No author, however brilliant, got everything right, so the reader will also find in these pages periodic discussion of problems or objections, as well as indications of ongoing scholarly criticism or debate. But I believe that some important aspects of Smith’s contributions endure, and I hope that by the end of this book you are convinced of that as well.

The best way to understand Smith remains, and will always remain, reading his works for oneself. If this book gives you reason to think that you should read Smith, it will have served its primary purpose.

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