Adam Smith: a historical historical detective?


Adrian Blau at King’s College London has an on-going project of making methods in political theory more useful, transparent and instructive, especially for students interested in historical scholarship.

I found his methods lecture, that he gave to Master’s students and went onto publish as ‘History of political thought as detective work’, particularly helpful for formulating my approach to political theory. The advantage of Blau’s advice is that it avoids pairing technique with theory. You can be a Marxist, a Straussian, a contextualist, anything or nothing, and still apply Blau’s technique.

Blau suggests that we adopt the persona of a detective when trying to understand the meaning of historical texts. That is, we should acknowledge

  • uncertainty associated with our claims
  • that facts of the matter will almost certainly be under-determined by the available evidence
  • that conflicting evidence probably exists for any interesting question
  • that interpreting any piece of evidence through any exclusive theoretical lens is likely to lead us to error

To make more compelling inferences in the face of these challenges, we can use techniques of triangulation (using independent sources of evidence together). This could include arguing for an interpretation of a thinker’s argument based on a close reading of their text, while showing that other people in the thinker’s social milieu deployed language in a similar way (contextual), and also showing how helpful that argument was for achieving a political end that was salient in that time and place (motivation).

This advice was useful when tightening up my clarification of John Stuart Mill’s anti-censorship position. Various theorists argue that Mill’s progressive liberalism would place him on the side of modern-day state censors if their intention was to protect the disadvantaged from harms like hate speech. Part of their justification is that Mill’s defence of freedom of thought and discussion, including his infamous corn-dealer example, is ambiguous as to what might justify a restriction on free speech in practice. By contrast, his overriding commitment to human freedom and social progress is not in doubt.

In response, I drew on slightly lesser known earlier work of Mill where he discussed the practical implications of British libel law that seemed to mark out the boundary of actionable speech more clearly. In addition, I found that Mill studiously avoided endorsing restrictions on any speech that he felt was associated with women’s subordination, even as part of an argument for women’s liberation. Mill seemed to think that his anti-censorship position supported, or was at least compatible with, his other social goals. The fragmentary evidence I offered could also be explained by Mill changing his mind or simply being confused in On Liberty. But it does mean that there is evidence out there for a coherent, practical, not-quite classical liberal, Mill.

Re-reading Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations recently jolted my memory of first being introduced to Blau’s method. Smith is one of those thinkers who strikes you as uncannily modern, as if a slight update of his use of language could see him diving straight back into an academic symposium. He was a genius but in addition he has a discipline and care in his writing that one likes to see in contemporary scholarship. He also has a method and theoretical framework that avoids metaphysical abstractions that tend to date very quickly. When he’s confident, Smith tells you. When the evidence he has to hand is more impressionistic, he warns you.

Smith also makes clever use of the fragmentary evidence available to him. Smith did not have access to copious official statistics to make his case. He had to peer into the past using an incomplete written record. In this sense, although an economist, Smith had to make use of the same techniques that we use to interpret texts. This frequently involved reasoning about the motivation and context of writing in order to infer what might have been going on.

Examining classical scholars, in one amusing aside, Smith critiques an ancient maxim that vineyards are the most profitable agricultural improvement by pointing out that the very insistence that it was profitable (when perfectly done) seemed to suggest that there was actually a great deal of dispute about when it was a good idea. Who were the vineyard-proponents arguing with such that the case had to be constantly re-iterated?

That the vineyard, when properly planted and brought to perfection, was the most valuable part of the farm, seems to have been an undoubted maxim in the ancient agriculture, as it is in the modern through all the wine countries. But whether it was advantageous to plant a new vineyard, was a matter of dispute among the ancient Italian husbandmen, as we learn from Columella. He decides, like a true lover of all curious cultivation, in favour of the vineyard, and endeavours to show, by a comparison of the profit and expence, that it was a most advantageous improvement. Such comparisons, however, between the profit and expence of new projects, are commonly very fallacious; and in nothing more so than in agriculture. Had the gain actually made by such plantations been commonly as great as he imagined it might have been, there could have been no dispute about it.

In another section, Smith refers to written charters of rights for citizens of European towns, which included minimal family and property rights, as evidence  that the previous institutional arrangements were probably barbaric and close to slavery (even if he lacked direct accounts of those circumstances):

After the fall of the Roman empire… the proprietors of land seem generally to have lived in fortified castles on their own estates, and in the midst of their own tenants and dependants. The towns were chiefly inhabited by tradesmen and mechanics, who seem in those days to have been of servile, or very nearly of servile condition. The privileges which we find granted by ancient charters to the inhabitants of some of the principal towns in Europe sufficiently shew what they were before those grants. The people to whom it is granted as a privilege that they might give away their own daughters in marriage without the consent of their lord, that upon their death their own children, and not their lord, should succeed to their goods, and that they might dispose of their own effects by will, must, before those grants, have been either altogether or very nearly in the same state of villanage with the occupiers of land in the country.

Both these examples are speculative, inferential leaps (my interpretive leaps, and if I am anything like correct, Smith’s own leaps in abductive reasoning). But Smith’s theory, and his frequent reference to the institutions that his contemporaries could observe help to bolster his historically engaged case that the advance of commercial society ameliorated mass poverty and helped undermine the arbitrary rule of local lords and aristocrats.

Blau has recently edited a book, Methods in Analytical Political Theory, now available for pre-order (and if you are associated with a university, to recommend to a librarian). For anyone based in London, there is a book launch with an interesting series of speakers hosted at King’s College London on 29th June.

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