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The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought

Author(s):Rasmussen, Dennis C.
Reviewer(s):Middleton, Edward Austin

Published by EH.Net (June 2018)

Dennis C. Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. xiii + 316 pp. $30 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-691-17701-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Edward Austin Middleton, Department of Economics and Business Administration, Hood College.

Dennis Rasmussen (Professor of Political Science at Tufts University) begins his acknowledgements by mentioning the joy found writing The Infidel and the Professor, and I believe him to be earnest. His narrative effectively transmits to the reader the personal warmth he surely felt exploring the friendship and humor shared between Smith and Hume, and the sense that we should count ourselves fortunate if we had but one friend like they had in each other. This I believe is Rasmussen’s primary aim, to illuminate the intimacy, spontaneity, and collaboration of these personalities not easily perceived reading only their thoroughly-edited individual publications, or biographies focused on one of the pair. To this purpose, the volume is an unqualified success. Reading it creates a personal experience of Smith’s opening principle in The Theory of Moral Sentiments of deriving pleasure at others’ happiness. This is not to say The Infidel and the Professor is without flaw, either by construction of Rasmussen’s methods and style, or in particular claims he makes; rather that these flaws are characteristic only of the secondary aims of the book.

The pattern of the chapters is to recount the biographies of Smith and Hume, severally at first, and cover broad lengths of time. Rasmussen accounts for their educations, their comings and goings, employments and intellectual pursuits, and their social circles. The narrative is punctuated by chapters on focal events: Smith’s publication of The Theory of Moral Sentiments; Hume’s row with Rousseau; and 1776 in accelerando fashion, with chapters covering The Wealth of Nations, the posthumous publication of Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and Hume’s death. Vignettes illustrating their personalities are drawn from correspondence, mostly third party as the pair infrequently wrote each other, though few of these moments will be novel to readers of their biographies. In the focal chapters Rasmussen engages Smith and Hume’s published texts and cites scholarship on the same. The book spends roughly half its length on each type of chapter, slightly favoring biographical narrative.

The choices of formatting and reliance on correspondence suggest that the first best use of The Infidel and the Professor is for the non-academic reader, or as a supplementary undergraduate text in the history of thought: scholars are rarely mentioned by name in the text; endnotes make reference-checking tedious while improving the flow for readers taking claims for granted; longer quotes remain embedded in the text rather than separated in a block; Rasmussen avoids technical digressions, instead referencing the relevant scholarship for those interested and providing a summary in accessible language. By placing Smith and Hume’s work in relation to each other and the social context of their time, the book demonstrates the nature of the academy as an ongoing collaborative conversation, rather than a canon of independently-generated works of genius. Even the more text-oriented focal chapters support this theme by highlighting where Smith adopts examples from Hume’s work, whether they are developed in support of or in opposition to their original use. Rasmussen employs Hollywood’s “show, don’t tell” principle to open the eyes of his target audience to the interconnectedness of scholarship.

These same choices make the volume less useful to the academic reader. Putting aside endnote tedium, the use of secondary and tertiary sources means an author is confronted by a veritable mountain of material on any given point of Smith or Hume’s philosophies; the mountain becomes a range when the scope of the author’s work expands to include his subjects’ entire lifetimes and corpora. A careful reader must understand the degree to which Rasmussen must act as editor when selecting his evidence, and generally consider Rasmussen’s claims as illustrative, rather than demonstrative.

This is not at all to say Rasmussen depicts Smith or Hume scholarship as speaking with one voice in every matter — he takes pains, for example, to stress disagreement between scholars on Smith’s personal religious affiliation, and the extent to which Smith’s refusal to oversee the posthumous publication of Hume’s Dialogues represented a strain on their friendship — merely that the style adopted to serve the primary purpose of animating their lifelong friendship places strong constraints on the comprehensiveness of the literature review.

Furthermore, because Rasmussen’s story concerns the interaction between Smith and Hume, other influences are neglected. Hume seems to spring forth more or less ex nihilo; and Smith is utterly dependent on Hume. Francis Hutcheson, the personality alongside Hume Smith considered “never to be forgotten,” plays a role, but smaller than he otherwise might, particularly considering Hutcheson’s foundational influence on both. Aristotle and Plato are mentioned only in passing. The parlors of François Quesnay and les Économistes play host, but little instruct. Neither Hugo Grotius nor Epictetus are mentioned at all. The effect of this neglect is to paint Smith as a mere satellite in Hume’s philosophical orbit; an effect compounded by the necessity that, after Hume’s death, there’s hardly much more story to tell about an interaction between them. The book ends with a brief account of Smith’s life after Hume, and Smith’s own remarkably unremarked passing, almost as if, after Hume, Smith was merely waiting his turn.

An uncharitable reader might think Rasmussen’s omissions indicate a lack of understanding of Smith. Such a reader mistakes Rasmussen’s project, however, to place us in the drawing room and by the fireside with these men. It is to complain a tool is ineffective for a purpose for which it had not been designed. I am grateful for the experience and would solicit for my own pleasure the undoubtedly countless anecdotes of Hume’s wit uncovered during the research for this book, which for reasons of brevity were left on the editing room floor. Even so, not a few times did I mark in the margins a thread of inquiry I should like to pull on in the future, using The Infidel and the Professor as a starting point. I do not doubt but it will be likewise stimulating for you.

Edward Austin Middleton is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Economics at Hood College. His dissertation research addresses Adam Smith’s advocacy of usury price ceilings in credit markets taking into consideration sympathetic payoffs associated with financial successes.

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Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century