Sunday, October 15, 2017


Dennis C. Rasmussen, The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that shaped Modern Thought”. Princeton University Press, 2017.
Dennis Rasmussen has written an excellent account of a neglected aspect of the intellectual stimuli associated with enduring changes in philosophy, political economy and, eventually, in the practice of science, from a period known as the Scottish Enlightenment.
Of course, the European Enlighenment was occasioned by a much wider geographical spread of many individuals than just the two above, albeit central figures, of David Hume and Adam Smith. But their intellectual relationship was a central factor that helped to determine the nature and consequences of what others in England, France, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia and Europe’s universities were doing separately and together.
Rasmussen captures to details of Hume’s and Smith’s contributions to Enlightenment thinking in a uniquely two-levels account. The main text is clear cut, stating the historical facts in clear manner as to what each believed. Hume, of course, was mostly controversial in his critique of the prevailing religious dogma and he attracted the ignorant hostile reactions of Church members. Smith, his junior by 12 years, and publically beyond suspicion as an apparently orthodox Christian believer in public, though in fact, privately he was a sceptic too. It took sometime for the pair to disclose privately to each other the philosophical basis for their mutual scepticism, and their quite different behaviours in the face of the hostile politico-religious environment of the times the lived in. 
The other levels of their relationship are revealed in Rasmussen’s use of an informative 50 pages of end notes for scholars interested in the supporting evidence for his assertions. Reading the main text together with the end-notes reveals the depth of Rasmussen’s scholarship. It also explains why he as written such an intensely interesting book about an intellectual relationship between two men at the centre of the Scottsh Enlightenment.
For all the things that Hume and Smith had in common intellectually they also had much that was so different. Hume took on the burden of establishing the empty philosophical basis of the dominant Christian religion of his times. His candour enraged extremist Christian believers. Pathetic attempts to drive Hume out of the Church of Scotland failed, not least because those who knew him well realised he was not an emissary of Satan, but a man of gentle scholarship and impeccable social manners and modest behaviour.
Here I would add some comments on Adam Smith whose conduct in the crisis of Hume’s decline and death in 1776 remains somewhat inexplicable in Rasmussen’s authoritative and otherwise excellent account.
Clearly, Smith wanted to playdown Hume’s insistence that he would not change his views on religion as he approached death, which religious persons’ anticipated would be dealt with by God severely in respect of Hume’s disavowal that there was a God.  Hume, of course, did not recant. 
My point here is that Rasmussen does not explain Smith’s role in Hume’s near-death discussions. I have suggested elsewhere that Smith’s views on religion and the existence of God are explainable and were discretely close to David Hume’s ideas .
See my two published papers: 1):  Gavin Kennedy, Journal of The History of Economic Thought (JHET, 2011. “The Hidden Adam Smith in his Alleged Theology”, September, pp 385-402; and 2): and in The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith, 2013, “Adam Smith on Religion”, pp 464-8, OUP.  
Basically, Smith hid his views on religion from his mother, a devout Christian who had brought her only son up in a like manner. Adam would never do anything to upset his mother even at some personal cost in his relations with others. His partial amendments to his last edition of Moral Sentiments (1790) show clearly his private non-religious ideas, as amended in public statements after his mother had died.

Rasmussen’s ‘The Infidel and the Professor’ in my view is the best authoritative scholarly book on David Hume and Adam Smith published in the last 5 years. It is destined to be the classic book of those times.


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