1896. Group and individual in Adam Smith and surround

In today’s seminar on Edinburgh there was a tendency to assume the primacy of the individual over the group, to think that the individual without relationships, enters into a relationship with others by a free act. This, so the thinking goes, creates the group and allows for things like morals and sympathy.

The alternative view is that the group comes before the individual, that the individual differentiates out of the group, that this took a long time historically, and creating the idea of the individual took a little longer, probabaly with the helpf of Christian thought.It is probably important to be aware how controversial this is , and how at splay it has been in western thought.

Those who see the individual as primary tend to imagine that society is made up of adults somewhat like us who chose to relate to others or not. Those who see the group as primary tend to see life as starting with birth in the nexus of the mother and her supporting environment.

Adam Smith wrote in the middle of the change from feudalism to industrialism, a series of changes which passed trough smith’s life and times.

The word sympathy betrays the more complex origin.

From the online Etymological Dictionary)

sympathy (n.)
1570s, “affin

  • ity between certain things,” from Middle French sympathie (16c.) and directly from Late Latin sympathia “community of feeling, sympathy,” from Greek sympatheia “fellow-feeling, community of feeling,” from sympathes “having a fellow feeling, affected by like feelings,” from assimilated form of syn- “together” (see syn-) + pathos “feeling” (from PIE root *kwent(h)- “to suffer”).
  • In English, almost a magical notion at first; used in reference to medicines that heal wounds when applied to a cloth stained with blood from the wound. Meaning “conformity of feelings” is from 1590s; sense of “fellow feeling, compassion” is first attested c. 1600. An Old English loan-translation of sympathy was efensargung.


Smith was a complex fellow. A few things he wrote,

Tms 1;13

  • But whatever will be the causes of sympathy, or however it may be excited, nothing pleases us more than to observe another man a fellow feeling with all the emotions of our own breast call nor are we ever so much shocked that’s by the appearance of the country. Those who are fond of the divorce all of our cinemas from certain refinance of self-love think them selves had no loss to account, according to their own principles, both for this pleasure in this time. [Pleasure and pain will beThe subject of the next weeks provocation.]


Tms 4:190

The most humane action requires no self- denial, no self-command, no great exertion of the sense of propriety they consist only in doing what this exquisite sympathy would of its own accord prompt us to do.


Mainstream economics treats individual, property, capital, as simple things the same across all societies. The implication is obvious: if it is universal no point in trying to change it.

Its not that we have to embrace change against constancy. Both are part of vitality. Working with conflicting dynamics is what good social thinking ought to be about.

Thus It is important that we understand that individual is not a god given entity but part of a complex historical process. These few paragraphs are not definitive but I wanted to help open the perspective.

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