Monday, January 1, 2018

Adam Smith on the Conversable Spirit

A working premise of this website is that, as David Hume wrote in 1742, there is value in breaking down the "separation of the learned from the conversable world." Hume added: "Must our whole discourse be a continued series of gossiping stories and idle remarks? ... I cannot but consider myself as a kind of resident or ambassador from the dominions of learning to those of conversation, and shall think it my constant duty to promote a good correspondence betwixt these two states, which have so great a dependence on each other." I chose the name for this website with Hume's comment in mind.

Here is a similar sentiment from Adam Smith, a friend and admirer of Hume, from his first great work, the 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments (part VII, book IV, paragraph 28):
"Frankness and openness conciliate confidence. We trust the man who seems willing to trust us. We see clearly, we think, the road by which he means to conduct us, and we abandon ourselves with pleasure to his guidance and direction. Reserve and concealment, on the contrary, call forth diffidence. We are afraid to follow the man who is going we do not know where. The great pleasure of conversation and society, besides, arises from a certain correspondence of sentiments and opinions, from a certain harmony of minds, which like so many musical instruments coincide and keep time with one another. But this most delightful harmony cannot be obtained unless there is a free communication of sentiments and opinions. We all desire, upon this account, to feel how each other is affected, to penetrate into each other's bosoms, and to observe the sentiments and affections which really subsist there. The man who indulges us in this natural passion, who invites us into his heart, who, as it were, sets open the gates of his breast to us, seems to exercise a species of hospitality more delightful than any other. No man, who is in ordinary good temper, can fail of pleasing, if he has the courage to utter his real sentiments as he feels them, and because he feels them. It is this unreserved sincerity which renders even the prattle of a child agreeable. How weak and imperfect soever the views of the open-hearted, we take pleasure to enter into them, and endeavour, as much as we can, to bring down our own understanding to the level of their capacities, and to regard every subject in the particular light in which they appear to have considered it. ... 
"The man who eludes our most innocent questions, who gives no satisfaction to our most inoffensive inquiries, who plainly wraps himself up in impenetrable obscurity, seems, as it were, to build a wall about his breast. We run forward to get within it, with all the eagerness of harmless curiosity; and feel ourselves all at once pushed back with the rudest and most offensive violence."
In some ways, these sentiments seem deeply old-fashioned. But a number of Smith's phases hit home for me. This website is one long indulgence in one of my natural passions. In writing, I seek a kind of sincerity, although in my writing I often fall short of the "unreserved" sincerity recommended by Smith. My comments and views may be "weak and imperfect" at times, but I am trying hard not to wrap myself "in impenetrable obscurity"--which is always a specter lurking over discussions in economics. Now and again, I hope you can abandon yourself with pleasure to the selection of articles and insights provided here.

May the New Year bring you the pleasure of some genuinely open and honest conversations. May you even have the pleasure of "achieving disagreement," which refers to the kind of disagreement that is not based in confusion, suspicion, and hostility, but instead a disagreement that is based on a full and sympathetic understanding of the alternative views.