Scholarly Comments on Academic Economics

The Logic of Reflection: Spectators Partial and Impartial


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Spectatorship is central to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. The necessary interplay in each individual between being actor and being spectator makes the world of TMS an odd kind of theater. Spectatorship is necessarily optical, and Smith works out both partial and impartial spectatorship in terms of what can be called the logic of reflection, which involves a very strange kind of optics. Smith uses the image of the mirror to do this, according to which I must divide myself into spectator and actor, and, as spectator, must view myself with my own eyes but as if I were an other, so from the outside. This vastly important line of thought was lost after TMS, and it only re-emerged, at least in Anglo-American thought, in the twentieth century. George Herbert Mead uses a logic of reflection strikingly similar to Smith’s in explaining the social character of the individual. Many views of this kind developed in the twentieth century, culminating in the neurophysiology of mirror neurons. However, in the work of Smith and Mead, it is hard to see how their particular account of the logic of reflection allows anything like the individual to exist. Smith seems not to be much concerned with that problem, but Mead is, so it is useful to use his account as a way to see problems in the character of Smith’s impartial spectator, and in the decidedly odd theater over which he presides. Finally, though, it is worth noting that though the line of thought of which the impartial spectator is a part favors “the great, the awful and respectable…virtues of self-denial,” there is another, less prominent but nonetheless important line in TMS that favors, rather, “the soft, the gentle, the amiable virtues.” That less prominent line of thinking is summed up in one short sentence: “Humanity does not desire to be great, but to be beloved.”