Adam Smith on Rousseau and the Origin of Languages

Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 209-238 (2022)

George Mason Legal Studies Research Paper No. LS 21-05

33 Pages Posted: 26 Mar 2021 Last revised: 22 Jan 2022

See all articles by Nelson Lund

Nelson Lund

George Mason University - Antonin Scalia Law School

Date Written: March 25, 2021

Abstract

Adam Smith’s major works are widely thought to constitute a deliberate though implicit rebuttal to the critique of life in modern commercial societies that Rousseau presented in the Discourse on Inequality. This article examines Smith’s few explicit references to Rousseau, all of which denigrate him in ways that Smith must have known are unsupported at best and insupportable at worst. The analysis focuses on the only topic that elicited a specific substantive criticism of Rousseau: the origin of languages. Both authors seriously investigated this topic, but in strikingly different ways. Rousseau’s analysis of the evolution of language is deeper and more philosophically ambitious than Smith’s, which may help to explain why Smith mocked Rousseau’s proto-Darwinian account of human evolution, but never tried to refute it. The article concludes by suggesting that Smith may have shared Rousseau’s understanding of human nature to a greater extent than he wished to acknowledge, and that he may have hinted at this agreement through the traditional technique of esoteric writing.

Keywords: Rousseau, Adam Smith, Condillac, Languages, Human Knowledge, Discourse on Inequality, Considerations, Essay on the Origin of Languages

JEL Classification: B3, B30, B31

Suggested Citation

Lund, Nelson Robert, Adam Smith on Rousseau and the Origin of Languages (March 25, 2021). Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 209-238 (2022), George Mason Legal Studies Research Paper No. LS 21-05, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3812416 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3812416

Nelson Robert Lund (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Antonin Scalia Law School ( email )

3301 Fairfax Drive
Arlington, VA 22201
United States
703-993-8045 (Phone)

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Downloads
155
Abstract Views
951
Rank
351,981
PlumX Metrics