On this day, in 1752, Adam Smith was appointed professor at the University of Glasgow. Though still in his twenties, his fame already preceded him. Through the offices of a wealthy family friend, he had already given a series of private lectures on philosophical subjects in Edinburgh, which had caught the attention of the intelligensia of Scotland’s great capital.
Most people today think of Smith as an economist. But in fact he was more of a social psychologist. At Glasgow he taught logic, ethics, rhetoric and belles-lettres (the arts of using language effectively and finely) and jurisprudence (what today we would perhaps call politics).
And it was his work on ethics that made him truly famous. His 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments analyzed the human social psychology of morality. A hundred years before Darwin’s Origin of Species, it took the view that our morality persists because it is useful and helps our species to prosper. That human beings are social creatures; they need the reinforcement of others who appreciate the good they do, and their behaviour is changed by the disapprobation of others whom they hurt.
His book brought him the commission of personal tutor to a young nobleman, with whom he toured France and Switzerland, meeting other leading intellectuals of his day, and giving him the material to flesh out his other great book, The Wealth of Nations.
Learn more about Adam Smith here.