Exploring Economic History

with Palgrave Macmillan

The Birth of Economic Rationality: The Importance of Language in Hume and Smith’s Work

Estrella Trincado’s new book The Birth of Economic Rhetoric: Communication, Arts and Economic Stimulus in David Hume and Adam Smith deals with the Scottish Enlightenment in an innovative way, relating rhetoric, rationality and economics. It contributes to the comparison between the theories of David Hume and Adam Smith and shows that interest lies more in their differences than in their similarities. 

Adam Smith began delivering public lectures on rhetoric and belles-lettres in Edinburgh in 1748 in private classes. His lectures implied a transition from the well-established academic tradition of formal rhetoric to the most practical and creative vision, Smith being a defender of naturalness as opposed to bombastic rhetoric, defended by Hume. Certainly, rhetoric as persuasion can be an instrument of bombast, a device to make someone come to your terms aiming at the search for some utility, be it more wealth or contacts, influences or power; but language can also be an instrument of communication with the common-to-all world. These different perceptions of Rhetoric were distinguishable at the very moment in which Rhetoric began to be considered an experimental science, precisely the period of the Scottish Enlightenment. The birth of economic rationality determines the roots of different rhetorical usages of economic science based in a different concept of time, which affects the instrument of money, blood and channel of production and growth. 

The Hume–Smith debate is a really fascinating one as there was no piece of knowledge that they would not try to understand and fix in their systems. During the Scottish Enlightenment there was a heated debate on many philosophical subjects. For instance, a definition of perception as a collection of images and phenomena was presented by David Hume, while Adam Smith resisted this definition of perception. For Smith, phenomenon is phantasia, only the image left by reality in our minds, which can be self-deceiving, but there is a common-to-all world that deserves our attention and care. Essays on Philosophical subjects by Adam Smith allowed for the perception of depth, while David Hume was only considering the perception of wide and length. 

The comparison between these two great philosophers is also a good setting for reconsidering the path the world will take in the future. Their ideas are pivotal in the understanding of why nationalism and national identities may be such a misleading track. Nationalism as a promotion of the identity of a nation is based on the philosophy of Hume, who considers the existence of national characters and defends that language determines our mind and thought. According to Hume, there is no permanent self, the self of language is the one that makes us survive and promotes the survival of a certain culture and common history. Then, we must reinforce pride in national achievements—and Hume also defends the superiority of races. This results in a society reinterpreting their identity, retaining elements that are deemed acceptable and removing elements deemed unacceptable, to create a unified community. However, for Adam Smith, the question is quite different. Smith criticized the pride of nations, races and social classes. He was against classical republicanism as civic participation that was confined to a narrow elite. Smith considered that black people from the coast of Africa were nations of heroes that tried to refuse the jails of Europe. Language selects the more representative experiences to a certain community, landscape or geography, but it is no more than a means to express a common reality. Language is not identical to thought, and thought may exist without language. So, nationalism is only one more of the alienations of modernity, with all the stress put on identities included. The real identity—the active self—is the one that is able to grasp time with curiosity and gratitude. The self that sympathizes with the feelings of others, be them of pleasure or pain. The self that affirms reality and life. The self that grows with the growth of other people and that develops with development of other countries.

The Birth of Economic Rhetoric: Communication, Arts and Economic Stimulus in David Hume and Adam Smith (2019) is authored by Estrella Trincado of the Complutense University of Madrid, Spain.