How an 18th century thinker can inspire us to tackle challenges of Artificial Intelligence and climate change
Smith’s wide-ranging thoughts, formed through years of spirited but respectful debate with his peers, crystallised in his masterworks The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations.
But what would Smith have thought about the great issues of today, including climate change and the rapid rise of technology, especially the febrile debate about Artificial Intelligence?
In a year marking the 300th anniversary of the great philosopher and economist’s birth, one academic argues that we shouldn’t ask WHAT Smith would have thought, but HOW.
Prof Adam Dixon is the Adam Smith Chair in Sustainable Capitalism at Panmure House in Edinburgh - Smith's final home, saved from dereliction 15 years ago and reborn as a centre for intellectual debate in the spirit of Smith.
On 29 November, Prof Dixon will give a lecture at the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE), How To Think Like Adam Smith, part of the celebrations of the 300th anniversary of Smith’s birth in Kirkcaldy.
Smith was a significant figure in the intellectual milieu which helped spawn the RSE in 1783, with a mission to ensure “the advancement of learning and useful knowledge”. Smith, a founding member of the RSE, is described by its current General Secretary, Professor Michael Keating, as “a prime example of the stellar cast of founding members that would establish the RSE as an intellectual powerhouse.”
Prof Dixon sees a clear link from the late 18th century to Panmure House’s modern mission. He says: “Panmure House has been reborn to debate modern issues in the spirit of Smith and his contemporaries , who read widely and embraced cross-disciplinary enquiry. The RSE and Panmure House take that heritage seriously, as we celebrate Smith’s tercentenary and his continued relevance today.
“Against that backdrop, I am often asked the question ‘What would Adam Smith think?’ about this or that. It’s impossible to know what Smith would think, and I believe it’s a much more worthwhile exercise to consider how he would think.”
In examining this, Prof Dixon will consider three key points: Smith as a realist; his use of metaphor and rhetoric; and his approach to liberty.
On the first point, Prof Dixon says: “I will focus on Smith as a realist, not an idealist. He absorbed so much from the world around him and developed his ideas based on real-world experience. We can imagine the debates between Smith and his friends during their lively discussions at regular supper meetings at Panmure House. They were not in some kind of 18th century echo chamber, established to reinforce their own narrow views - they would debate issues in a very open, tolerant way.
“These great thinkers were human sponges who read widely, and wrote about and debated big ideas at a time of great change, as the industrial revolution gathered pace.
Prof Dixon also believes Smith’s realism shaped his views of the world as a place of great complexity needing detailed explanation: “He knew history is messy, institutions are sticky and change is hard. He was sceptical about those who thought progress was linear and inevitable.”
On Smith’s use of metaphor and rhetoric, Dixon says: “His use of, for example, the ‘invisible hand’ [the unseen forces of self-interest that impact the free market] and the ‘impartial spectator’ are a means of understanding mechanisms within the economy and society that we cannot necessarily observe.”
Prof Dixon will also discuss Smith as a liberal, at a time that was still mainly pre-democratic and pre-industrial: “I will deploy these ideas to look at how Smith might think about modern issues. I think he would be fascinated to debate contemporary state intervention and neo-mercantilism [sometimes called ‘economic nationalism’ which encourages exports, discourages imports, controls capital movement, and places currency decisions in the hands of central governments].
“And it’s interesting to think how he might have thought about climate change and technology. I’m keen to examine why the way of thinking of Smith and his contemporaries is still so relevant.
“It’s not about reinventing the wheel - it’s about looking at how social sciences and the spirit of inquiry involving wide-ranging critical thought can be deployed to tackle the problems of today.”
Prof Dixon sees parallels between now and the late 18th century - such as the disruptive impact of the first Industrial Revolution then and the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ now, based on the rapid advancement of technology.
“There are many issues around technology and AI that resonate with the way Smith and his peers thought; what is its impact on the labour market, how do we harness innovation wisely, and who regulates it and why? That idea of examining difficult questions from multiple angles and understanding possible trade-offs is very much how Smith and his contemporaries thought.
“Ultimately it’s about what it all means for the betterment of society, what public goods it can deliver. Smith would have loved these conversations.”
Prof Dixon’s lecture, followed by a conversation with the RSE’s Prof Martin Hendry, is at 6pm on Wednesday November 29th, at the RSE, 22-26 George Street, Edinburgh. To attend in person/online: https://rse.org.uk/whats-on/event/how-to-think-like-adam-smith/
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is Scotland’s National Academy, created in 1783 by Royal Charter for the “advancement of learning and useful knowledge”.
Professor Michael Keating, Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen and RSE General Secretary, says: “The origins of the RSE are closely linked to the Scottish Enlightenment, that remarkable 18th century period when Edinburgh’s intellectual climate fostered great leaps forward in the arts, sciences and social sciences – prompting French philosopher Voltaire to observe that ‘we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation’.”
The RSE was created on the Enlightenment principle that all forms of well-reasoned and logical enquiry were equally important. Arts and social sciences were founding disciplines, showing how Hume’s study of human nature, Smith’s work on economics, and Ferguson’s discussions on history had changed the way such subjects were viewed.
Professor Martin Hendry, RSE Vice President for Public Engagement, says: “In June 1783, the most prestigious of Edinburgh’s many clubs and societies - the Edinburgh Philosophical Society - transformed itself into the Royal Society of Edinburgh, with all 179 members automatically becoming founding members of the RSE, including Adam Smith.”
Lively debate and an exchange of ideas proliferated in late 18th century Scotland, especially in new societies and clubs, where key Enlightenment figures met to discuss, develop, and critique innovative theories on subjects from history and morality to natural philosophy and medicine. An increasingly educated population meant ideas were spread easily and quickly across the country through newspapers and book publishing.
The RSE’s predecessor, the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh, supported this knowledge spread through the publication of journals and scientific articles, and distribution of funds and other support, including sponsoring Smith’s lectures and writing from 1748-1751.
The RSE has been marking the achievements and legacy of Smith in 2023, the tercentenary of his birth. “Today he’s considered the father of modern economics and is the most famous former student of the University of Glasgow – with whom the RSE has been proud to collaborate on its programme that seeks to reframe and contextualise Smith and his work against a 21st century backdrop,” explains Prof Hendry. “As part of the RSE’s contribution to the Smith tercentenary programme, we are delighted to host Professor Dixon’s lecture How to Think Like Adam Smith.”
Adam Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, in 1723 and studied at the University of Glasgow from the age of 14, then the University of Oxford.
He moved in 1778 to Panmure House in Edinburgh, which became a crucial meeting-place for Enlightenment scholars. Smith completed further editions of his two great masterworks - The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations at Panmure House before he died there in 1790, aged 67.
Panmure House was falling into dereliction in 2008 when it was purchased by Edinburgh Business School, part of Heriot-Watt University. A complex ten-year programme saw Panmure House reborn in 2018 as a centre for modern-day intellectual inquiry in the spirit of Smith.
Its mission is to “provide world-influencing social and economic debate and research, convening in the name of Adam Smith to effect positive change and forge global, future-focussed networks.” It hosts lectures, seminars, educational programmes and Fringe performances, which this year included Enquiry Concerning Hereafter, a play about the close and complex relationship between Smith and his great friend David Hume as they contemplate death.