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  • Print publication year: 2002
  • Online publication date: June 2012

4 - The “Adam Smith Problem”


By the time August Oncken published his article in 1897, the scholarly tide was already beginning to turn regarding the so-called Adam Smith Problem. During the previous half-century or so, several commentators had developed and pressed what the German scholars called the Umschwungstheorie, which held that Adam Smith the moral philosopher, who had originally thought that human relations were based on a “sympathy” people felt for one another, at some point became Adam Smith the economist, who thought that self-interest was what motivated them. A series of nineteenth-century scholars had argued that there were, after all, two Adam Smiths, not one. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that Smith had produced several editions of The Theory of Moral Sentiments during his lifetime, including a final, substantially revised edition only months before he died (and thus some fifteen years after the first publication of The Wealth of Nations). How could one take Smith seriously if he not only failed to realize his fundamental conversion in philosophical outlook, but also failed to recognize the two distinct views when he was revising them side by side? The conclusion many nineteenth-century scholars drew was that Smith's two books were simply inconsistent. Smith may have been a great economist, but he was no philosopher.

By the close of the nineteenth century, however, several books had appeared that challenged Smith's alleged inconsistency.