A Phenomenology of Nothing

I’m presenting a paper at a conference on “Adam Smith as a Theologian” in early January, here in Edinburgh. The conference is a response to the overemphasis on Smith’s economics at the expense of his moral theology. Everyone knows about the “invisible hand”–a phrase which actually occurs twice in all of Smith’s writings–and the free market vision proposed in Wealth of Nations. But few know that Smith actually got famous for his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (first pub. 1759). In that book, first published while he was a prof over at Glasgow Uni, he provides kind of a phenomenology of “sympathy,” that “universal” and “natural” trait by which we all are able to put ourselves in another’s shoes and feel what they feel. I haven’t read very much of the book yet, but it looks like he’s going to say, somehow, that this natural sympathy is the basis of morality, and therefore we can (and sometimes do) make institutions which are morally just.

Again, I’ve yet to finish the book, but it seems like Smith’s view of a natural morality will share all the problems inherent in any such “natural theology.” But I’m more interested right now in the book as a case study in pre-sociological speculative philosophy. (I deal with the natural theology stuff in my paper.) Smith is basically just spouting off a fairly coherent phenomenology of sympathy, without really giving any concrete examples. Sure, he’ll often times give a general picture of what he means, such as to say something like “you know when you see someone really angry, and it’s hard not to be initially put off by their anger rather than share it.” All the examples are of this vague “you know when…” type.

Anyway, that’s all to say thank God for Wittgenstein, Austin and the others who forced philosophers to answer the question “show me what you mean.” It may be laudable to ground philosophy in common experience, however vague, but it’s not hard to turn on what is assumed to be “common” and find it only to be common for professors and other elites. This problem is not limited to Smith, but to those who actually paraded under the name “phenomenologist” before Bourdieu (Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Gadamer, etc.). Obviously, this is a far too easy, anachronistic assessment in the wake of 20th-century historicism.

Back when it was published Smith’s book was hailed as being informative and entertaining. In this day and age, it’s hard not to write it off as merely entertaining. Some rich guy even hired Smith to travel around Europe with his son. How bored must people have been back in 1759 to consider this kind of thing entertaining? Well, how bored are you to have read this far?



  1. 1
    Chase Says:

    You’re going to be hanging out with an MP? I’ll give you $100 if you can get his wig.

  2. 2
    Chase Says:

    Oh wait, that handbill is not from your conference. BOOO.

  3. 3
    elcaballo Says:

    It’s a book cover.

  4. 4
    Chase Says:

    Re: your last line. I was bored enough to read the blog post and then read part of it aloud to Kate. The offer still stands on any MP wig you can get your hands on — a crisp Franklin.

  5. 5
    elcaballo Says:

    I’ll see what I can do. Though you should realize the exchange rate makes that only around £65, making your offer slightly less impressive. Sorry.

    Why would you bore Kate with any part of this post? Which part?

  6. 6
    wess Says:

    This Thanksgiving I am thankful to “God for Wittgenstein, Austin and [but especially] the others.”

  7. 7
    Chase Says:

    I read Kate the last paragraph. You know she’s into 18th century England, and I thought your quip at the end was funny.

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