Tuesday, December 13, 2011


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Adam Smith(17-170) and Jean Jacques Rousseau(171-1770) each provide their own distinctive social thought. Smith, political economist and moral philosopher, is regarded as the father of modern economics. Rousseau, a Franco-Swiss social and political philosopher, combines enlightenment and semi-romantic themes in his work. Thus Smith¡¦s work places emphasis on the relationship between economics and society, whereas, Rousseau focuses his attention on the social inequalities within society. Therefore, Smith and Rousseau, of the Scottish and Continental Enlightenment respectively, provide unique insights on their existing society.

Adam Smith is one of the main figures in the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith¡¦s main concern was the establishment of the free market, as laid out in his work ¡§The Wealth of Nations¡¨(1776). In the ¡§Wealth of Nations¡¨, Smith is very critical of the division of labour. The emphasis falls equally on the economic and social consequences of the division of labour(Smith, 186). Moreover, ¡§What is significant about the contribution of the Scottish Enlightenment to Sociology is the clear awareness that society constituted a process, the product of specific economic, social, and historical forces that could be identified and analyzed through methods of empirical science. Society was a category of historical investigation, the result of objective, material causes¡¨(Smith, 186). Smith believed that society would benefit from individuals who were self-interested in their own personal economic gains. Furthermore, Smith believed that the division of labour had a negative impact on society. He thus was very critical of the divison of labour. For Smith, ¡§the man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding¡KHe naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion and becomes as stupid as it is possible for a human creature to become¡¨(Lecture Notes, 0015). Smith clearly argues that the division of labour halted the growth and development of the people. If the people are unable to progress, Smith believes that society suffers as well. In essence, for the society to progress and development, the people must do so first. Therefore, the division of labour, in Smith¡¦s perspective, conflicts with the ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment thinking of individual progress and development. ¡§For Adam Smith, the development of a commercial society produced a social structure divided into three classes, landowners, capitalists, and labourers, ¡¥the three great constituent orders of every civilized society¡¦¡¨(Smith, 187). Thus, Smith¡¦s ideal society would be of people would work for themselves. He was a strong advocate for free market and posed strong opposition to the feudal system. He, along with other Enilghtenment thinkers, believed that the State had no legitmate role in the free market. Smith¡¦s defence of the free market was tied to the belief that state interference with the market benefits the rich and hurts the poor(Lecture Notes, 0015). Therefore, Adam Smith¡¦s vision of an ideal society was one in which most people are involved in independent commodity production(Lecture Notes, 0015). Thus for society to develop and prosper as a whole, its individual members must serve their self-interests.

Jean Jacques Rousseau¡¦s work, in contrast to Smith¡¦s, gives attention to the social inequalities within society created by social development. Rousseau believes the social development that the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers advocate, actually create a web of problems that previously did not exist. More specifically, his work concentrates on the articificial social inequalities. ¡§The artifical refers to the specifically socially or conventional aspects of reality ¡V the conditions of human life that are contrived or invented by human beings themselves¡¨(Smith, 1810). This means that people themselves are responsible for creating the social inequalities that exist within society. ¡§Rousseau¡¦s contrast of the ¡¥noble savage¡¦ with ¡¥civilized man¡¦ illustrates this conception; the former exists in a state of nature that provides everything necessary to a free and happy existence, while the latter is enslaved by all sorts of artificial wants and desires¡¨(Smith, 1810). Thus, this comparison that Rousseau uses illustrates clearly that social inequalities is a result of social development. The ¡¥noble savage¡¦ as Rousseau refers to, is not bounded by the artificial social inequalities that contrain the ¡¥civilized man¡¦.

Rousseau¡¦s critical view of society is based upon his theory that the social inequalities existing in society conflict with the laws of nature. ¡§Rousseau declared that it is plainly contrary to the law of nature¡Kthat the priviledged few should gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the bare necessities of life¡¨(Smith, 1810). These problems did not exist for the ¡¥noble savage¡¦, however, the ¡¥civilized man¡¦ lives in a society that creates and perpetuates social inequalities amongst its members. Rousseau states that, ¡§society creates more compex needs and therefore a more complex humanity than that found in the state of nature¡¨(Smith, 1816). Thus people are responsible for creating artificial differences among themselves.


Adam Smith and Jean Jacques Rousseau view society from different perspectives. Smith concentrates his attention on economics and individual development, whereas, Rousseau discusses the consequences of social inequalities that have arisen from social development. Smith advocates self-interest as a means for the society to develop and prosper, and in contrast, Rousseau sees this self-interest and development as the cause for social inequalities. Inequalities, that Rousseau believes, naturally do not exist.

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