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Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith: A Philosophical Encounter

Author(s):Griswold, Charles L.
Reviewer(s):Oprea, Alexandra

Published by EH.Net (November 2018)

Charles L. Griswold, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith: A Philosophical Encounter. New York: Routledge, 2017. xxi + 275 pp., $90 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-138-21895-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Alexandra Oprea, Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) Program, University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill.

 
Philosophers don’t write dialogues anymore. Should they?

Although not actually written in the format of a dialogue, Griswold’s manuscript is particularly suited to show the reader the promise and peril of a modernized version of this ancient approach to philosophical exposition. Unlike in the Platonic dialogues where Socrates walks his philosophical disciples through a book-length argument trailed by their insistent nods of agreement, however, in Griswold’s volume the philosophical encounter emerges as a dialogue among equals. Griswold announces his intention to “construct a dialogue between these two thinkers [Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith], imagining what the one might say in reply to the other” (p. xviii). This reconstructed conversation goes beyond their usual opposition concerning the merits of commercial society to address fundamental questions concerning self-knowledge and self-deception, philosophical methodology, human nature, freedom, politics, and religion. As readers of Griswold’s previous work have come to expect, the treatment of each topic is erudite, detailed, and insightful. Although I cannot possibly do justice to the book in this brief review, I offer here a sketch of the overall structure of the book’s central “conversation.”

The first two chapters introduce a Rousseauian problematic. Do our ties of love and friendship depend on self-deception? Can we ever really know ourselves or do we end up inhabiting “a sort of narcissistic echo chamber in which illusion easily gives rise to manipulative ideology, false consciousness, or rationalization” (p. 14)? Griswold is careful to force Rousseau into consistency by posing his own questions to his philosophical and literary activity. Rousseau’s fortuitous escape from the world of self-delusions (his illumination on the road to Vincennes), Griswold suggests, has enabled him to see our plight, but there is precious little that he can (and even should) do to cure it.

Smith makes few appearances in the first two chapters. It is only in the third chapter that Griswold has Smith build his own account upon distinct psychological and philosophical foundations. Instead of pre-social selves progressively obscured by civilization, Smith describes human beings as socially constituted. There is no self without society and no outside perspective from which to criticize our self-deception. According to Griswold, Smith’s thought experiment about a solitary “human creature” suggests that “it does not feel that its identity or standing is put into question [by being brought into society] so much as constituted” (p. 124). Chapter 3 offers the most direct confrontation between Smith and Rousseau, carefully curated by Griswold to include philosophical reconstructions, empirical evidence, and incisive objections.

Smith’s voice gets increasingly louder through chapters 4 and 5. Rousseau’s conception of freedom appears too demanding and his politics, Griswold suggests, is impossible on its own terms: “the requirement of belief in the civil religion is incompatible (given assumptions about belief, truth, and rationality) with freedom as defined by this social contract theory” (p. 219). Fortunately, Smith comes to the rescue of both commercial society and modernity. Our social relations can free us. The free interplay of religious sects can enlighten us. Both authors concern themselves with forging the bonds of political society. However, Rousseau’s vision appears increasingly concerning. For example, while both authors inquire into the role of legislators, in Griswold’s reconstruction Rousseau’s version is quasidivine and terrifying, while Smith’s is humane and pragmatic. By the end of the book, Rousseau’s deep pessimism about modernity has been, if not defeated, at least swept away by the more confident voice of Smithian moderate reform.

This philosophical encounter in dialogue certainly has merit.

An advantage of the reconstructed dialectic is that it itself encourages self-examination. One cannot single-mindedly expound one’s preferred system. From the mouth of an opponent, objections have more force. Not only that, but the choice of protagonists has the potential to transcend disciplinary boundaries. Rousseau and Smith have been disputed by historians, philosophers, economists, political theorists, and literary scholars. As figures who cross contemporary disciplinary boundaries, their conversation has the potential to awaken scholars from dogmatic disciplinary slumbers by guiding access to alternative assumptions, methods, and ideas.

Despite this potential, the editor of the conversation is always close by. Just as Rousseau’s epistolary novel never fails to disclose the visible hand of its moralizing author, the topics of conversation selected by Griswold reveal his higher comfort with Smith’s moral universe than Rousseau’s. For the Rousseau scholar, the exclusion of Emile remains puzzling despite the initial caveats concerning the scope of the study and the selection of sources. Masterful as the treatment of natural pity in the Second Discourse is, can Griswold satisfactorily explain the role of imagination in pitié without following its stages of development in Rousseau’s model of the “savage meant to inhabit cities”? Can he have Rousseau properly articulate his vision of moral freedom without his model of the man meant to be free even within a corrupt commercial society? One might make the case that the conversation scales were tipped in Smith’s favor because his work received the more rounded treatment.

Smithian or not, Griswold’s book cannot be complacently enjoyed. It must be actively wrestled with. Rousseau would have been proud. In Emile, he worried that giving his student books would lead to substituting bookish knowledge for critical thinking. By constantly shifting our perspective, Griswold has forced his reader to pay attention and make up her own mind.

The problem is that the intellectual price of entering this volume’s uncomplacent conversation may be prohibitively high. Perhaps it should not surprise us that Plato’s dialogues never had room for more than one expounder of a systematic theory. The crowd of aspiring philosophers still standing at the end of such a dialogue may have been dispiritingly small. To allow the exchange of ideas to unfold, Griswold includes hundreds of detailed footnotes engaging scholarship on at least six major works by Smith and Rousseau in at least three languages. And even with his work to separate the erudite and scholarly footnotes from the body of the conversation, the text is difficult and demanding. Such a philosophical encounter among strong interlocutors with contrary visions risks exhausting even its more philosophically initiated audience.

Although the book is not for every reader and demands extensive background knowledge on each of the main figures, it rewards close reading with information, insight, and (hopefully) illumination.
Alexandra Oprea is a core faculty member in the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program at UNC Chapel Hill. Her work primarily focuses on the division of educational power between families, state and federal governments, teachers’ unions, courts, and non-profits. Her paper “Pluralism and the General Will: The Spartan and Roman Models in Rousseau’s Social Contract” is forthcoming in the Review of Politics.

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century