Adam Smith; Or, ‘Tis 300 Years Since

This year marks 300 years since the birth of Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith (1723–1790). More specifically, today – Monday 5 June 2023 – marks Smith’s 300th birthday.[1]

Posthumous portrait of Smith by an unknown artist, known as the ‘Muir Portrait’ (c. 1800). National Galleries Scotland

Born in Kirkcaldy, in Fife, Scotland, Smith first attended the University of Glasgow as a student in 1737, aged just 14. He subsequently studied for a time at Balliol College, Oxford, before returning to Scotland.[2] Between the years 1751 and 1764, Smith worked as Professor of Logic, and then as Professor of Moral Philosophy, at the University of Glasgow.[3]

Smith is universally acknowledged as a key figure in and ‘leading protagonist of the Scottish Enlightenment’.[4] His two most famous works are The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), in which he expounds the social significance of key concepts such as sympathy and impartial spectatorship, and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), in which he discusses the impact of commerce upon society and introduces concepts such as the division of labour.

Titlepage to the first edition of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (Sp Coll RQ 3114–5). Source: Special Collections enriched by Wealth of Nations by Robert Maclean (University of Glasgow)

Today, Smith is often hailed as ‘the father of economics’ and, over the course of this next week, various events will take place at the University of Glasgow to commemorate and discuss his life, legacy, and the enduring relevance of his work today.

In July 2023, the Eighteenth-Century Scottish Studies Society (ECSSS) will hold its annual conference at the University of St Andrews, titled Commemorating 300 years of Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and John Witherspoon, and 250 years since Boswell and Johnson’s tour of the Hebrides.[5]

Both Katie Halsey and I will attend this conference, at which I will also present a paper titled ‘[L]et me implore of her then to pause, and say to her self, “What am I doing, and whither is my fantasy leading me?”: Smithian spectatorship and the Scottish post-Enlightenment novel’.

This paper is an extension of ideas developed in my doctoral thesis, and considers the pertinence of Smithian sympathy and impartial spectatorship to the reading practices advocated in the early-nineteenth-century novels of Scottish authors Mary Brunton and James Hogg.

For the remainder of this blog, I’d like to take the opportunity to discuss the premise of my paper as a means of demonstrating and providing a (very) brief glimpse into the lasting importance of Smith’s ideas to scholarship today.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith introduces the related ideas of sympathy and impartial spectatorship as means through which we form moral judgements on both our own behaviour and the behaviour of others – they represent frameworks through which we interact with other individuals and, in so doing, reflect objectively on our own actions.

Whereas sympathy involves imagining oneself in the position of another (what we would more readily term ‘empathy’ today), impartial spectatorship involves an individual reflecting on their own behaviour in the same way that one might impartially view the actions of another:

We endeavour to examine our own conduct as we imagine any other fair and impartial spectator would examine it. If, upon placing ourselves in his situation, we thoroughly enter into all the passions and motives which influenced it, we approve of it, by sympathy with the approbation of this supposed equitable judge. If otherwise, we enter into his disapprobation, and condemn it.[6] (my emphasis)

As my paper will acknowledge, the discussion of Smithian theory within novel studies is by no means a new phenomenon. Studies to date have often considered the dramatisation of Smithian sympathy and spectatorship within both the eighteenth-century sentimental novel and the nineteenth-century realist novel.[7]

In my paper, I focus instead on the importance of spectatorship outwith, as opposed to within, the framing of a fictional narrative. I contend that knowledge of Smith’s theory of impartial spectatorship can aid our understanding of the self-reflective and distanced model of reading that novelists such as Brunton and Hogg ostensibly encourage readers of their novels to adopt as a means of self-improvement.

Indeed, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith identifies distance as a key factor of impartial spectatorship, suggesting that:

We can never survey our own sentiments and motives, we can never form any judgment concerning them; unless we remove ourselves, as it were, from our own natural station, and endeavour to view them as at a certain distance from us.[8] (my emphasis)

Title page of the second edition of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (published in 1761). Source: The British Library

Within the novels of Brunton and Hogg (and, indeed, other early-nineteenth-century Scottish novelists such as Susan Ferrier, whose novels also provide the basis of my thesis), distance is likewise identified as a requisite for this improving model of reading.

During this time period, negative stereotypes surrounding novel reading typically depicted an immersive model of novel reading whereby it was believed that readers (particularly female readers) would become consumed by fiction and consequently unable to distinguish it from the events of real life.

Conversely, the model of improving reading put forward by Brunton and Hogg centres on a reader observing impartially the actions and motives of a fictional character from a distance before turning to reflect on their own actions and motives, based on the examples provided to them within the fictional narrative.

As Brunton acknowledges in her preface to her debut novel, Self-Control (1811),[9] her wish for readers of her novel is that ‘these pages may assist in enabling their own hearts to furnish proof that the character of Laura, however unnatural, is yet not unattainable’.[10]

Here, then, Laura, who is the heroine of the novel, is presented explicitly by Brunton as an example for readers to view from a distance, before attending to specifically ‘their own hearts’ (my italics) for self-inspection and, if necessary, self-reform.

Brunton outlines an approach to reading that bears striking resemblance to the process of Smithian spectatorship, thus demonstrating how knowledge of the latter can aid our analysis of the former.

This example of novel reading is, of course, but a fleeting insight into the enduring usefulness of Smith’s ideas – and impartial spectatorship comprises, moreover, but one of these ideas. As this blog has hopefully revealed, however, Smith’s theories of sympathy and impartial spectatorship provide an instructive basis from which to consider how we interact with each other, how we perceive fiction, and how reading might provide a catalyst for effective self-evaluation and improvement.

[1] Smith’s official date of birth is unknown, and the 5th June, when he was baptised in his home town of Kirkcaldy, is therefore generally accepted as his birthday.

[2] Click here for an informative video of Smith’s life, presented by Dr Craig Smith, Adam Smith Senior Lecturer in the Scottish Enlightenment at the University of Glasgow.

[3] Smith’s borrowings as a Professor at Glasgow, and also borrowings of Smith’s works, can be found in the Books and Borrowing database (coming soon!).

[4] Alexander Broadie, “Introduction”. The Cambridge Companion to the Scottish Enlightenment, 2nd Edition, ed. Alexander Broadie and Craig Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge UP), p. 1.

[5] Click here for an account of our attendance at last year’s ECSSS conference, held at the University of Liverpool.

[6] Adam Smith, Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Knud Haakonssen (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), p. 129.

[7] For more on Smith and the novel, see: Ian Duncan, “Fanaticism and Civil Society: Hogg’s Justified Sinner.” (2009); Stephanie Degooyer, “‘The Eyes of Other People’: Adam Smith’s Triangular Sympathy and the Sentimental Novel.” (2018); Jonathan Lamb, The Evolution of Sympathy in the Long Eighteenth Century (2009); Rae Greiner, “Sympathy Time: Adam Smith, George Eliot and the Realist Novel.” (2009); Robert Clark, “Jane Austen’s Emma, Adam Smith’s ‘impartial spectator’, market capitalism and free-indirect discourse.” (2020); Lauren Kopajtic, “‘Now, how were his sentiments to be read?’: Imagination and Discernment in Austen’s Persuasion” (2022),

[8] Smith, Adam Smith: The Theory of Moral Sentiments, p. 128.

[9] Click here to read an account of Mary Brunton’s debut novel, and Forgotten Best-Seller, Self-Control (1811).

[10] Mary Brunton, Self-Control, ed. Anthony Mandal (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), p. 3.