Adam Smith: University of Glasgow Academic World Changer

By Dr Alex Benchimol, Senior Lecturer in Scottish Romantic Print Culture, and Dr Craig Smith, Adam Smith Senior Lecturer in the Scottish Enlightenment.

Adam Smith was a student and professor at the University of Glasgow during the flourishing of learning that marked the Scottish Enlightenment — a movement that profoundly changed the ways in which knowledge was understood, and paved the way for our physically and intellectually interconnected, global, and knowledge-driven society.  

A core value of the Scottish Enlightenment was the belief that humans have the capacity for individual and social improvement through a better understanding of the ways we are linked to one another in increasingly complex networks, something that Smith explored in his most famous work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, published in 1776.  

The Wealth of Nations is seen as a landmark in thinking about economics and society. While Smith was not the first to write about economic themes, he was the first to do so in a self-consciously scientific and systematic way. His analysis of the new commercial society that he saw developing in eighteenth century Glasgow helped to shape the modern discipline of economics, giving us many of the core concepts that we still use to make sense of the economic world. But Smith’s intellectual innovations while a professor at the University of Glasgow went well beyond the discipline of economics. 

Smith’s lectures and writings at Glasgow changed the way core concepts were understood in a variety of academic disciplines over 250 years ago. His Scottish Enlightenment colleagues were struggling to better understand the fast-changing world around them and the role played by individual and social relationships in these changes.  

In his first book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759, he re-calibrated the discipline of moral philosophy through a modern understanding of the psychology of relationships in society. His Lectures on Jurisprudence, given at the University in 1762-3, helped to map the fundamental developmental stages of human cultures in becoming modern commercial societies, and also changed the way his peers conceived of the role of law, government and politics in their emerging modern societies. His Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at Glasgow in the early 1750s were the first at any university in the world to set out key principles for the study of contemporary literature in a modern social context. Smith even developed a modern philosophy of science and the scientific method, through his History of Astronomy essays. Smith’s Wealth of Nations, as well as being the foundational text for modern economics, also helped to establish key concepts for what would become the field of sociology. 

So when we celebrate Adam Smith’s 300th birthday we are also marking both his, and the University of Glasgow’s, key innovations in pushing forward the boundaries of academic knowledge to better respond to the needs of a changing society. 

To mark this legacy of this great University of Glasgow worldchanger we asked a range of current Glasgow academics how Adam Smith’s scholarship about economy and society in the 18th century changed their discipline, and if his ideas still have relevance for their disciplines in helping us to understand 21st century Scotland and the world beyond.

Adam Smith and My Discipline