A Positivist Dogma (PD) of scholarship is the rule that one must supply hard evidence for claims such as "Z was influenced by Q" or "B is responding to C," etc. This is thought to be the insurmountable barrier between evidence-based scientific scholarship and shoddy research that bottoms out in arguments from authority, or (worse) some mystical insight. ("I just intuit that Kant read Hume's Treatise!") Moreover, not all evidence is appropriately hard: Y's book can be found in X's library (at X's death), show signs of wear and tear, but still be unread by X. (This could happen to books in your library!) Y may even be mentioned by X in X's main works and still only be known second-hand. (How many of us have read Gödel Über formal unentscheidbare Sätze der "Principia Mathematica" in the original?) So, for example, given that Adam Smith never mentions Spinoza a responsible scholar should not assume that Smith is responding to or building on Spinoza.
Let's allow that the Positivist Dogma rules out a lot of lazy scholarship. It also prevents interpretive strategies that rely on authorial omniscience. One price to pay for PD is that it rules in a lot of lazy thought and gives ignorant scholars an excuse to remain...ignorant. For most scholars can discern there were once very different citation practices and modes of writings when crucial sources are never mentioned and extra-textual evidence on the reading habits of our subjects is deliberately scarce. For example, we know that Adam Smith, who was eager to control his posthumous reputation, had his notebooks burned in his presence just before his death. (Smith thought that Swift's reputation has suffered from the publication of Swift's personal papers.) But arguments from silence are tricky.
Now, in unpublished research Sarah Skwire has made a compelling case that Adam Smith's famous line early in the Wealth of Nations that "By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter, as a mastiff is from a greyhound, or a greyhound from a spaniel, or this last from a shepherd’s dog," echoes Shakespeare's Macbeth III.i.91. . (See also the student notes to Smith's Lectures on Jurisprudence.) Skwire has shown that there is more Macbeth in Wealth of Nations than meets the eye. Now, we know from student notes on Smith's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres that he lectured on Shakespeare (although not, it seems, Macbeth), so a strong case can be made that the link between Wealth of Nations and Macbeth is not accidental. Either way, in the case of Smith we know that some of his silences are very deliberate. For example, Smith was famously proud to refute An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy, written by his rival James Steuart, without mention or allusion in the Wealth of Nations.
So what about Adam Smith and Spinoza?
A half century ago Joseph Cropsey tried to link Smith to the "tradition of modern thought" initiated by "Hobbes and Sinoza." But in doing so Cropsey basically treated Spinoza and Smith as modern day, atomistic Epicureans. Indeed, critical readers of Smith (such as Thomas Reid) discerned plenty of Hobbes and the selfish system in Smith (and this Hobbesian-Mandevill-ian vein on interpretation can continue to be mined fruitfully in Smith scholarship), Cropsey's strokes are too broad to really be instructive. So the Spinoza-Smith connection has not been explored much since. Jonathan Israel puts Smith in the "moderate" Enlightenment camp opposed to the Spinozistic," radical" camp. So, end of subject?
A few years ago I pointed out that Smith's position that theology should be made subordinate to morality is Spinozistic. We can (probably) find the position in Shaftesbury, and maybe in Hobbes. So, we can't infer too much from this. Even so, Smith agreed with Spinoza that there should be freedom of thought, and he follows Spinoza in treating religion sociologically. (See this post for a recent statement of my position on the similarities between Smith's and Spinoza's views.) As I have remarked before, reading a draft ms by Mike Hill and Warren Montag has led me back to the Spinoza-Smith connection, and I offered a speculative reading of Smith as sharing in Spinoza's doubts about the application of mathematics to nature.
More important, it is often forgotten that after Descartes banished talk of occult sympathy from the new philosophy (see his Principles, 4:187), Spinoza reintroduced sympathy at Ethics 3, P. 15, Scholium. Now, Spinoza is quick to distance himself from the 'occult' interpretation of sympathy. For Spinoza sympathy picks out the way manifest qualities are regularly connected (in fact, associated) by way of (say) resemblence. As Ryan Hanley argues in forthcoming work, throughout the remainder of Ethics III Spinoza develops an account of sympathy in terms of an imitative (E3P27S1) and something like an associative mechanism (E3p52S). As Hanley reminds us, the significance of these moves on eighteenth century moral philosophy cannot be underestimated. But by Smith's time these ideas may be so common that one need not invoke Spinoza. In fact, despite the multitude of differences between Hume and Smith on sympathetic matters, scholars prefer to link Smith to Hume (than explore any other link).
Last week, Ryan Hanley sent me a one-sentence note about Smith's "History of Astronomy" (first published in 1795). Now, as Hanley knows, I consider the "History of Astronomy" one of the most important works of eighteenth century philosophy. Smith ensured it did not get burned with his other papers, and in my view the piece and the accompanying text hold the key to understanding a multitude of Smith's views. Smiht's Astronomy is also a founding document for those of us working with historical approaches to philosophy of science with a lot of themes (paradigms, incommensurability, normal science, revolutions, etc) that we now associate with Thomas Kuhn, but that Smith embeds in a sentimentalist epistemic psychology (see my old paper). (As I learned from Laura Snyder, it provoked in Whewell the desire to write a competing History of Inductive Sciences.) Hanley asked me a simple question: "has anyone written on the fact that Smith's definition of wonder at "History of Astronomy" 2.3 is exactly Spinoza's at Ethics 3, Pr 52?"
Here's an attempt to explore Hanley's discerning observation. Let's start with the passage from Smith's Astronomy:
Whatever, in short, occurs to us we are fond of referring to some species or class of things, with all of which it has a nearly exact resemblance; and though we often know no more about them than about it, yet we are apt to fancy that by being able to do so, we show ourselves to be better acquainted with it, and to have a more thorough insight into its nature. But when something quite new and singular is presented, we feel ourselves incapable of doing this. The memory cannot, from all its stores, cast up any image that nearly resembles this strange appearance. If by some of its qualities it seems to resemble, and to be connected with a species which we have before been acquainted with, it is by others separated and detached from that, and from all the other assortments of things we have hitherto been able to make. It stands alone and by itself in the imagination, and refuses to be grouped or confounded with any set of objects whatever. The imagination and memory exert themselves to no purpose, and in vain look around all their classes of ideas in order to find one under which it may be arranged. They fluctuate to no purpose from thought to thought, and we remain still uncertain and undetermined where to place it, or what to think of it. It is this fluctuation and vain recollection, together with the emotion or movement of the spirits that they excite, which constitute the sentiment properly called Wonder, and which occasion that staring, and sometimes that rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart, which we may all observe, both in ourselves and others, when wondering at some new object, and which are the natural symptoms of uncertain and undetermined thought. (Smith)
As I have remarked before, in the paragraphs leading up to this passage, Smith extends and departs from the Humean framework in non-trivial ways. In Smith, wonder is primarily caused by a failure to assimilate an object or event to either an existing mental taxonomy or an anticipation of nature. Smith gives the emotion (and the accompanying physical symptoms) a physiological basis in a fluctuation of the imagination and the consequent movement of the spirits. In context Smith is very careful to distinguish among surprise, admiration, and wonder (and he takes poets to task for not doing so).
Now here's Spinoza's treatment:
PROP. LII. An object which we have formerly seen in conjunction with others, and which we do not conceive to have any property that is not common to many, will not be regarded by us for so long, as an object which we conceive to have some property peculiar to itself.
Proof.--As soon as we conceive an object which we have seen in conjunction with others, we at once remember those others (II. xviii. and note), and thus we pass forthwith from the contemplation of one object to the contemplation of another object. And this is the case with the object, which we conceive to have no property that is not common to many. For we thereupon assume that we are regarding therein nothing, which we have not before seen in conjunction with other objects. But when we suppose that we conceive in an object something special, which we have never seen before, we must needs say that the mind, while regarding that object, has in itself nothing which it can fall to regarding instead thereof; therefore it is determined to the contemplation of that object only. Therefore an object, &c. Q.E.D.
Note.--This mental modification, or imagination of a particular thing, in so far as it is alone in the mind, is called Wonder [a d m i r a t i o]; but if it be excited by an object of fear, it is called Consternation, because wonder at an evil keeps a man so engrossed in the simple contemplation thereof, that he has no power to think of anything else whereby he might avoid the evil. (In the Elwes translation, alas.)
Smith and Spinoza treat wonder as something that occurs by way of the imagination. In particular, when a mental object stands in isolation from other such objects. (As Spinoza puts it in his treatment of the individual passions, A d m i r a t i o est rei alicuius imaginatio, in qua mens defixa propterea manet, quia haec singularis imaginatio nullam cum reliquis habet connexionem.) For Spinoza wonder is strictly speaking not a primitive affect. It is a consequence of unpleasant feeling. Smith treats wonder in the same manner (wonder is consequence of discomfort, and itself painful). By contrast for Hume wonder is generally pleasing. I quote from a famous passage: “The passion of surprise and wonder, arising from miracles, being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived." ("Of Miracles"; see also Treatise 22.214.171.124.)
Now Smith is aware that Admiratio can pick out wonder and admiration. As Smith puts it at the start of the History of Astronomy, "Wonder, Surprise, and Admiration, are words which, though often confounded, denote, in our language, sentiments that are indeed allied, but that are in some respects different also, and distinct from one another. What is new and singular, excites that sentiment which, in strict propriety, is called Wonder; what is unexpected, Surprise; and what is great or beautiful, Admiration." So, Smith might be taken to innovate away from Spinoza (where admiratio tends to be used in both senses.) However, Smithian admiration is closely connected to Spinozistic devotion (D e v o t i o est amor erga eum, quem admiramur.)
Smith's treatment makes no allusion to Spinoza. So, in light of PD all that we can say is that Smith departs from Hume in interesting ways that bring him close to Spinoza. (And we can say this while being agnostic on the multitude ways in which Hume IS Spinozistic.) I leave this train of reflections with two comments. First, as we have seen, signficant themes in Smith are all foreshadowed in Ethics 3p52. This could be a coincidence, of course. But it becomes less so as we find more evidence of Spinozistic commitments at the core of Smith's system, even if Smith reads very differently from Spinoza. Second, Smith's Essays on Philosophical Subjects (the posthumous material that Smith kept from the flames), explore two related (Spinozistic) themes: first, Smith treats mathematical, natural philosophy as a species of refined superstition; second, Smith very subtly rejects the design argument. But about these matter some other time more. All I claim here is that sometimes a dogma can prevent us from seeing what ought to stare us straight in the face.