A reliable narrator? Adam Smith may say so.

  1. 1. Thomas Rommel

    Universität Tübingen (University of Tubingen / Tuebingen)

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A reliable narrator? Adam Smith may say so.
Thomas Rommel
University of Tuebingen
Keywords: stylistics, literary criticism

Did Adam Smith, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher and foremost representative of a new discipline called economics, use stylistic markers consistently? Did he really, as he claimed in metastylistic comments in The Wealth of Nations, communicate ideas in a plain and sober style and apply literary illustrations in explicitly identified passages only? And does the notorious phrase "if I may say so" fulfil the same important function in all his works, in particular in his seminal Theory of Moral Sentiment of 1759?
A computer-assisted approach reveals how Adam Smith's narrative strategies are deliberately adapted to the form, content and implied reader of his early to his later works and that he is by far too subtle a rhetorician to be a fully reliable narrator.

Earlier findings
Previous research into Adam Smith's work showed that he uses a variety of stylistic devices to differentiate between "detached scientific discourse" on the one hand and figurative language on the other. In his monumental study The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, Smith consistently introduces metastylistic comments when he deviates from plain prose and uses imagery.

He identifies this imagery explicitly with a limited set of stereotypical words and phrases to alert the reader that a change in stylistic register is to follow. Phrases like "if I may use such an expression", "if one may say so", or "if I may be allowed so violent a metaphor" illustrate Smith's careful way of introducing what he considered a deviation from sober and thus adequate language. He expressly distances himself from illustrations that might not be considered appropriate stylistically in a detached analysis of the state of the nation.

In the particular context of a precisely defined passage, however, Smith thinks that an illustration is acceptable in his specific kind of 18th-century discourse provided it is clearly identified and expressly pointed out to the reader.

This narrative strategy can be described as a typical phenomenon of Smith's political and philosophical writing, and like other authors of non-fiction at that time he took great care to avoid excessive figurative illustrations. 18th-century poetics rested largely on the assumption that style represents the organization of thought, and therefore metastylistic commentary was deemed necessary even when introducing well-chosen, adequate, and precise illustrations.

New electronic study
These findings, presented at the 1996 Bergen conference, resulted from a detailed analysis of Smith's seminal Wealth of Nations. As part of a larger project on Adam Smith and 18th-century poetics, research into all published texts (excluding the correspondence) of this eminent philosopher was conducted on the basis of the earlier results. Some observations, especially in Smith's non-economic philosophical writings, suggest that a thorough analysis of a number of narrative and stylistic strategies could yield further insights into the way Smith uses literary illustrations and how he contributed to the shaping of 18th-century scientific and philosophical discourse. In particular Smith's essay "The History of Astronomy" and his most influential philosophical analysis of man in The Theory of Moral Sentiment display similar narrative characteristics that later culminate in the Wealth of Nations. A gradual development towards a stylistic evaluation in metastylistic markers can be observed, a development that called for a detailed electronic examination of the complete set of Smith's writings.

Based on the 1976 Glasgow edition a machine-readable corpus of "the complete electronic Smith" was produced that allowed for diachronic as well as synchronic (i.e. single-text) analysis. A set of specifically chosen words and phrases were used to identify how the speaker in the text directly addresses and thereby subtly manipulates the reader into accepting certain stylistic premises.

Starting points were those passages where a shift in narrative level occurs and where the narrator switches to meta-discourse, communicating with the reader about the form of the text.

A number of significant phrases like "as we say", "as it is commonly expressed", "says the same very intelligent author", "if one may say so", "if I may use such an expression" etc. had previously been used in the study of narrator-reader communication in the Wealth of Nations. The scope of these phrases was extended and then search routines were applied to the complete corpus, using all search patterns in a variety of combinations.

The interaction between the persona of the speaker and the implied reader forms one of the central narrative devices in Smith's work, and Smith takes great care to explain his rhetorical strategies in metastylistic passages. This can be observed in all of his texts, with growing frequency but apparently not with growing consistency.

The results of the computer-assisted approach revealed a number of surprising variations of metastylistic phrases; what, for instance, does a modern reader expect from an narrator who begs to "be allowed so coarse an expression" in the context of a philosophical treatise on the Theory of Moral Sentiments?

In addition, a development in complexity and stylistic discrimination that seems indicative of Smith's careful attempts at narrative distance can be traced through the texts. A growing awareness of precise narrative evaluation in his metastylistic comments can be observed when he evaluates and comments on the degree of stylistic discrepancy between text and marked illustration. This phenomenon not only highlights Adam Smith's increasing skill at rhetorical presentation but also his successful attempts at integrating 18th-century poetics into his philosophical inquiries.

And finally a surprising number of textual echoes could be identified; these are particularly revealing as they establish links between both the metastylistic phrases and the illustrations of the different texts. Amongst other textual details these echoes especially illustrate how Smith uses the device of metastylistic communication to influence the reader and how skilfully he creates the impression of narrative reliability.

Seen from the vantage point of a close examination of the complete corpus of his writings, Adam Smith emerges as a brilliant rhetorician who very skilfully communicates with the reader. Throughout his work, his reader-oriented type of discourse establishes the image of a trustworthy narrator who argues and reasons convincingly, explaining his technique and his intentions, and whose language serves as a tool rather than an end in itself. Evidence from the text, however, suggests that Adam Smith operated on more than two narrative levels, and a contrastive analysis of all of his writings shows him to be much too skilled to be limited to a mere "reliable narrator".

Campbell, Thomas D. Adam Smith's Science of Morals. Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, 1971.

Fowler, Roger ed. Style and Structure in Literature. Essays in New Stylistics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1975.

Griswold, Charles L. Jr. "Rhetorics and Ethics: Adam Smith on Theorizing about the Moral Sentiments." Philosophy and Rhetoric 24:3 (1991), 213-237.

Muller, Jerry Z. Adam Smith in His Time and Ours. Designing the Decent Society. New York: The Free Press (Macmillan), 1993.

Sutherland, Kathryn. "Fictional Economics: Adam Smith, Walter Scott and the Nineteenth-century Novel." ELH 54 (1987), 97- 127.

Toolan, Michael J. The Stylistics of Fiction: A Literary- linguistic Approach. London: Routledge, 1990.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at Queen's University

Kingston, Ontario, Canada

June 3, 1997 - June 7, 1997

76 works by 119 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ALLC (9), ACH/ICCH (17), ALLC/EADH (24)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC