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Rousseau's 'Philosophical Chemistry' and the Foundations of Adam Smith's Thought

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Recent scholarship on Adam Smith has stressed that he accepts that commercial society has a number of important moral and political drawbacks, but it has not adequately addressed the question of why he defends commercial society despite these problems. I argue that one of Smith's earliest (and most often overlooked) writings, a review of Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality, points towards the ultimate grounds of his defence of commercial society, which lies above all in his account of the moral and political drawbacks of pre-commercial societies. Whereas Rousseau sees commercial society largely as a lamentable departure from a happy and peaceful state of nature, Smith sees it as a definite improvement over the poverty, dependence and insecurity that characterized most previous ages, its very real imperfections notwithstanding.

Keywords: Adam Smith; Bernard Mandeville; Jean-Jacques Rousseau; commercial society; history; human nature

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Government and Legal Studies, Bowdoin College, 9800 College Station, Brunswick, ME 04011-0498, USA, Email:

Publication date: January 1, 2006

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