This book is an explication of Adam Smith's remark in the early pages of the Wealth of Nations where he writes, ‘Every man thus lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant, and the society itself grows to be what is properly a commercial society.’ I here argue that the judgment that a ‘society’ can be typified as ‘commercial’ is significant. It involves a twin conceptualisation. That is to say, it articulates a notion both of ‘society’ (rather than say regime-type) as an appropriate ‘unit’ for analysis and of ‘commercial’ as the encapsulation of a distinctive mode of organisation. To adopt this articulation is to subscribe to the ‘idea of commercial society’.
I want to claim that this ‘idea’ has particular resonance among that group of thinkers standardly grouped as the Scottish Enlightenment. Whether or not W. R. Scott's use of the term ‘the Scottish Enlightenment’ in his book on Hutcheson, published in 1900, was the first reference the term is now well-established. Even while its content and contours are generally agreed, there remains, of course, a divergence in interpretation and nuance. This book highlights a particular aspect and makes a case for its special significance. It does not pretend to foist on the Scots some homogeneity of perspective – indeed it is one of the striking elements of their writings that they are contesting the meaning and implication of this idea.
In practice, I adopt the following ‘rough and ready’ parameters. My temporal frame is from the publication of Hume's Treatise (1739–40) to the sixth edition of Smith's Moral Sentiments (1790). But I feel no qualms about, for example, referring to Hutcheson's work before and Ferguson's after those two dates. Within that half-century my theme requires me to be selective – not everything written is germane. What this means is that Smith followed by Hume, Millar, Ferguson, Kames and Robertson figure prominently and more than occasional reference is also made to Dunbar and Wallace. Where especially apt I discuss Turnbull, Blair and Dalrymple and a few others. There are two others (p.vii) on whose writings I draw. Gilbert Stuart was a Scot but enjoyed no institutional status and lived much of his life in London. He was a fierce, though scholarly, polemicist whose animus is not unconnected to his failure to obtain a university position (Robertson as Principal of Edinburgh being the main villain). However, in virtue of his meticulously documented demurrals, his writings deal with a number of the same issues as his compatriots. It is not controversial to include him within the ambit of the Scottish Enlightenment, as I did in my Social Theory of the Scottish Enlightenment (Edinburgh University Press, 1997). James Steuart was also an ‘outsider’; a Jacobite sympathiser who spent much of his life on the Continent. Nonetheless because (despite significant differences) his major work, influenced by Hume as he acknowledges, does deal pertinently with some of the common themes that the Scottish-based authors consider I have sparingly availed myself of it.
Over many years and many publications I have pursued the theme of this book. While I reference this earlier work (and occasionally exploit it), I have endeavoured not to repeat myself but to examine afresh the idea of a commercial society; certainly to do so more systematically and thoroughly than in any earlier discussions. I have also incurred many debts. I have enjoyed the friendship and intellect for over forty years of Roger Emerson, Nick Phillipson and the late Andrew Skinner. At Glasgow I also had the benefit of interacting with Alexander Broadie and Colin Kidd, to whom I can add Craig Smith and not only for reading an earlier draft of this book, for which selfless task I am especially grateful. I am also pleased to acknowledge the material support I received from the Carnegie Trust who helped fund a trip to Japan, where I was further assisted by support from the Japan Science Foundation (thanks to Hideo Tanaka). I was enabled, thanks to this support at an important formative stage, to ‘try out’ some of the ideas in this book at a variety of universities (I am grateful to all who facilitated that).
I have spent all of my academic career in the University of Glasgow and I will always remain grateful to David Raphael for appointing me. Though this book is far more than about Smith it is fitting that I record my conviction that it was his Glasgow years that formed him into the world-historical figure he has become. The sentiments that inspired Smith at his installation as rector of the university to declare that his time there was the ‘happiest and most honourable’ in his life I wish also to claim for myself. In that spirit I wish to dedicate this book to the University of Glasgow.