Constitutional Moment
NGO’s Ethics

Hume and Smith

By Jonathan B. Wight

The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought (Princeton University Press, 2017).  

Dennis C. Rasmussen, Associate Professor of Political Scientist at Tufts University, has written an engaging and informative account of the professional and personal relationship between Smith and Hume. A full review will appear in The American Economist.  Here is a synopsis.

The book explores the overlap of economic and moral theories and personal amities that flowed between two of the Scottish Enlightenment’s greatest thinkers, providing a rich intellectual history. An important takeaway is the analysis of Smith’s intellectual debts to Hume for many concepts that later appeared in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations.

What makes The Infidel so interesting are Rasmussen’s details of how Smith’s formulations build on and enhance, and in some cases reject, Hume’s approaches. The chapter that discusses Smith’s refinements in Moral Sentiments to Hume’s moral approach is an excellent guide for anyone interested in learning more about Smith’s contributions to ethical theory.

Both men never knew their fathers; both remained single their whole lives; both were Scottish sentimentalists opposed to overly rationalistic accounts of morals or institutions; both opposed the prevailing vested interests of the times.  Hume was gregarious and jolly and wrote easily and voluminously with great wit; Smith was introverted and often depressed; he wrote laboriously and produced only two major books. 

Hume was a risk-taker and Smith much more cautious.  Hume wore his religious skepticism openly; Smith was evasive and sometimes double-talked on this subject.  Yet they were best friends from the late 1740s until Hume’s death in 1776. Smith suffered vicious criticism, afterwards, for his effusive eulogy to Hume.

The book is highly recommended for summer reading!


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