Scholarly Comments on Academic Economics

Dissing The Theory of Moral Sentiments: Twenty-Six Critics, from 1765 to 1949


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Today many people dwell deeply in Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). But the work was long “dissed”—disrespected, disliked, disparaged, dismissed—notably by Scots, though sometimes amidst more than token praise. Critics in the decades after 1790 assembled several related criticisms: TMS was said to err by relying on allegory, metaphor, and figurative language at the most crucial points in the theory; at those points it was said to rest on principles themselves vague or, even worse, circular; it was said to lack foundations; it was said to violate fundamental demarcations. Such criticisms quickly consigned TMS to “oblivion” (as one writer put it), where it remained for some 160 years. In the present article I present a train of quotations, to highlight the pattern of dissatisfaction, by 26 authors, namely: Thomas Reid, George Ridpath, Henry Home Lord Kames, Adam Ferguson, Dugald Stewart, Thomas Brown, James Mackintosh, Henry Brougham, Sophie de Grouchy Marquise de Condorcet, Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis, Victor Cousin, Théodore Jouffroy, Henri Baudrillart, Alexander Bain, H. T. Buckle, Leslie Stephen, Walter Bagehot, Henry Sidgwick, J. A. Farrer, H. C. Macpherson, Simon Patten, James Bonar, Richard T. Ely, W. R. Scott, Harold Laski, and Arthur Prior. (I use only works available in English, up to 1949.) The train of criticism prompts questions: Why was dissatisfaction scarcely expressed prior to 1790? Why, after 1790, was dissatisfaction suddenly so current and so dispositive? Why, after some 160 years of oblivion and then beginning from the late 1970s, did TMS finally win warm and widespread favor? What do we make of the long-dominant dissatisfaction with TMS’s allegory, non-foundationalism, and supposed circularity? Have those today who love TMS come to terms with the assemblage of criticism that had consigned TMS to oblivion for some 160 years?