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Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History)

3.81  ·  Rating Details  ·  74 Ratings  ·  19 Reviews
The great eighteenth-century British economist Adam Smith (1723–90) is celebrated as the founder of modern economics. Yet Smith saw himself primarily as a philosopher rather than an economist and would never have predicted that the ideas for which he is now best known were his most important. Thisbiography shows the extent to which Smith's great works,The Wealth of Nations ...more
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published September 13th 2010 by Yale University Press (first published July 15th 2010)
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Apr 16, 2016 Frank rated it it was amazing
I have to say that not only is this one of the better biographies that I have read and one of the few books that I couldn’t put down. It is well written and obviously well researched. Though the biography itself is only 284 pages long if you ignore the notes and sources, bibliography and index I was left with the impression that I knew everything there was to know about him. Not only is the subject’s life covered but that of the times he lived in as well. As one would expect since Adam Smith had ...more
Mar 22, 2016 Cristofer rated it liked it
Although I must admit that I lack just too much knowledge about Adam's Smith life, and his other mayor work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, I did get the impression of understanding a little bit more about Adam Smith's life and ideas. I cannot deny that this book had a lot of research, but, at times, it seems that it may had not been enough. However, I cannot deny what was said several times during the book, Adam Smith was a very private person. The fact that he burned most of his unfinished wr ...more
Lauren Albert

Clearly this was written with a specialist in mind, consciously or unconsciously. There are a lot of things that Phillipson seems to assume you know which I don’t think a regular educated (non-philosophy major) reader would know. Some examples—He mentions more than once that Smith was influenced philosophically by Euclidean geometry. Now, even though he states it influenced his method rather than his content, it still is not self-evident what that means. How could the method of geometry translat
Feb 08, 2013 Mark rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Anybody interested in Adam Smith, classical economics, or biographies of philosophers
Though his name looms large as the founder of modern economic theory, Adam Smith himself is in many ways a mysterious and unknowable figure. Faced with the challenge of writing a biography of a man who left only a little correspondence and only two books, Nicholas Phillipson provides a broader portrait of Adam Smith's intellectual world. In doing so, he sites Smith firmly within the context of the Scottish Enlightenment, showing how he took the explorations of his teachers and colleagues (most n ...more
Dr. Tim
A masterful and extensively researched book which acts as a great introduction to literature of the enlightenment. Some have accused the book of being overtly esoteric and thus, inaccesible to those who are not schooled in the Age of Enlightenment or general 18th century philosophy. For my part, I would propound that it is, rather than esoteric, intelligently written and, if anything, likely to inspire any reader to further investigate the morally complex, philosophically challenging and intelle ...more
Mar 09, 2015 Lewis rated it really liked it
What a great guy. If only all the shallow conservatives who talk about capitalism actually understood what Smith was trying to do--then we might have capitalism instead of some sort of distorted neo-fascist oligarchy. I'd give it a five except it is not a page-turner; no, it is not.
Karl Rove
Aug 03, 2011 Karl Rove added it
Shelves: read-in-2011
A really good read, this is well-written, deeply informed, and often surprising intellectual biography of the world’s first great free marketer. Phillipson argues Smith can best be understood as part of a team with his close friend David Hume that sought to create not a science of economics, but a science of man that sought to understand how man thought, spoke, understood his surroundings and sought to live his life. Seen through this prism of a quintessential Enlightenment effort, Smith’s THEOR ...more
Apr 21, 2014 Rob rated it really liked it
Shelves: i-own, bio, philosophy
This was a fine, contextualizing biography. I agree with the author that Adam Smith's life and works cannot be understood except in the milieu of the Scottish Enlightenment and Epictetian stoical philosophy. Adam Smith was not promoting the intrinsic value of selfish competition, but was instead writing a prescription for enlightened rulers to mold the forces of capitalism to the greatest benefit of the largest proportion of mankind. This was a part of Smith's larger project to describe a philos ...more
The Book : An Online Review at The New Republic
ADAM SMITH is not exactly a biographer’s dream. An intensely private man, he seemed to go out of his way to leave no trail for future chroniclers. His correspondence is dry and workmanlike, with few personal details or revealing moments. He made sure his private notes and unpublished works-in-progress were burned before his death. Having lived unmarried with his mother for most of his life, he left behind very few intimates who could relate his story for posterity.Read more...
Apr 06, 2011 Jeff rated it it was ok
There is not much surviving data on Smith's personal life, particularly his early life, so this author decided to focus on what is known about his environment in Scotland and those that did or may have taught him. Smith was a philosopher and educated man who also wrote a major work that is used in economics. However, there are about 200 pages that precede the Wealth of Nations section and while someone who is studying Smith would enjoy it, as a casual reader it failed to catch my attention. I th ...more
The American Conservative
'It takes the literary genius of a Hume or Rousseau to make 18th-century moral psychology engaging. Equally, perhaps, it takes the scholarly flair of an Albert Hirschman or Deirdre McCloskey to make the intellectual history of moral theory absorbingly interesting. Phillipson, though amiable, is a bit pedestrian.'

Read the full review, "Das Capitalist," on our website:
Jon Marc Smith
Sep 09, 2011 Jon Marc Smith rated it really liked it
Does a great job of fitting Smith into the broader Enlightenment movement. Also lots of great info about Smith and Hume, their relationship, and Scotland.
Dan Walker
Digs deeply into the philosopy of Adam Smith, his colleagues, and the world he lived in. Too much for me at the time. I did not finish the book.
Streator Johnson
Mar 13, 2013 Streator Johnson rated it liked it
Does a good job of placing Smith the context of his times but the prose is a little leaden....
Dec 22, 2012 Olivia rated it it was ok

Pretty tortuous to get through! Very academic and dry.
Nov 24, 2010 David marked it as to-read
Author interview on "Econtalk" podcast of 22 Nov 10
John Pugh
Jan 07, 2013 John Pugh rated it liked it
Good but a little too academic.
Andrew Steele
Andrew Steele marked it as to-read
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Raphaël Rufus rated it it was amazing
Apr 19, 2016
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