Adam Smith on Savages

Revue de Philosophie Économique 1 (1):13-36 (2017)
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I argue that (i) even though Adam Smith’s four stages theory has been criticized with good reasons as both vitiated by undue generalization from modern Europe to the first stage and made bottom-heavy by assumptions of modern episteme, yet, in his writings an alternative view emerges where the savage is not just crushed under the weight of want and isolation but is endowed with imagination and sympathy; (ii) his picture of the fourth stage is, far from a triumphal apology of Capitalism, a tragic diagnosis of an inner tension between ambition and greed and their unintended beneficial effects; (iii) the tensions in the picture are not just a report of tensions out there, but also depend on Smith’s pre-comprehension of the phenomena he tries to account for; (iv) and yet, the tragic character of this picture is to be credited to his integrity; I summarize peculiarities of Smith’s peculiar outlook, post-empiricism, as well as its potentialities (sect 2). I then reconstruct his view of development of language and science, suggesting that his theory of association of ideas and imagination provides a consistent account of both science and lore, yielding a comparatively less ethnocentric evaluation of the savage mind (sect. 3). I reconstruct his virtually twofold reconstruction of subsistence in the rude and early state, arguing that he tends to ascribe inability to evolve to want and isolation and describes his own view of evolution as a necessary path but also that in several passages imagination and sympathy do play a role also for the savage (sect. 4). I compare Smith’s view of the first stage with his diagnosis of commercial society arguing that his reconstruction is burdened by eighteenth-century ideology as well as by modern episteme and I conclude with an ambivalent appraisal of Smith’s comparison between the polished man and the savage.

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