Adam Smith’s life, work and legacy at the Adam Smith Business School

Adam Smith is known as the founder of modern economics. He is the University of Glasgow’s most famous alumn and one of its first world changers. 

Smith was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife. His father, a customs officer, died before he was born and Smith was raised by his mother. 

He came to the University of Glasgow in 1737 at the age of 14 and studied under the famous philosopher Francis Hutcheson. Smith was a gifted student and won a scholarship to continue his studies at Oxford (1740-46).  

Returning to Scotland, Smith became a teacher in Edinburgh, where he gave popular classes on philosophy and literature. He joined the clubs and societies of the Scottish Enlightenment along with friends like the philosopher David Hume.  

The Scottish Enlightenment believed that science, learning and education would help banish superstition, ignorance and bigotry. They believed that the light of learning would improve society and help us lead happier and more fulfilled lives. 

Smith teaching

University of Glasgow, 1751-1764

  • The success of these classes led to his appointment as Professor of Logic and then Professor of Moral Philosophy at The University of Glasgow where he taught from 1751-1764. Smith saw first-hand the rapid economic development taking place in Glasgow at this time and became fascinated by economic and social change. 
  • At Glasgow, Smith was a popular lecturer, teaching classes in philosophy, politics, law, and literature. At this time, he wrote the book that established his reputation: The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  

Theory of Moral Sentiments

First published in 1759

  • Smith’s first major published major work, the Theory of Moral Sentiments, was heavily influenced by the lectures he gave at the University. It was first published in 1759.
  • In it Smith lays out the wider context on which the Wealth of Nations rests. Smith argued that economic behaviour does not exist within a vacuum and is heavily influenced by social and moral norms.  
  • As many Enlightenment scholars before him, Smith sought to identify the source of our ability to form moral judgements. To put it simply, how we decide what is right, and what is wrong. Smith traced this to our sentiments and argued morality was influenced by the social nature of humans, namely our need for approval and desire for social cohesion. We wish to be viewed as morally responsible, so we behave in a socially acceptable way. Through experience we develop an understanding of what works and does not work, what people approve of and do not approve of. 

wealth of nations

And the birth of economics

  • In 1776, Smith published the first edition of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The work sought to explore, through historical and contemporary examples, what made or caused national to be wealthy. Much of this discussion investigated the influence of commerce upon contemporary society, for better and for worse.  

 

  • His enquiry was both analytical study and a historical narrative, an approach which was innovative for the time. So innovative in fact that Smith is credited with giving rise to a new scientific discipline - economics. Smith found order in the chaotic and unpredictable market, identifying key principles or set patterns of behaviours that governed trade and influenced the wealth of nations.  
  • Social behaviour and morality continue to be central themes, as introduced in his earlier work, the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith argued that wealth of a nation was directly related to the well-being of its citizens. 

LATER LIFE AND LEGACY

SMITH'S LATER LIFE

The Wealth of Nations made Smith famous and wealthy. He spent his retirement serving as a commissioner of customs in Edinburgh. Smith died in 1790 and is buried in the Canongate Kirkyard near his home in Edinburgh. 

Adam Smith’s ideas changed the way we think about the world and are as relevant today as they were 300 years ago. 

SMITH'S LEGACY AT THE BUSINESS SCHOOL

Adam Smith remembered his time at the University of Glasgow as:

'by far the most useful and therefore as by far the happiest and most honourable period of my life.'

We want students and academics to feel inspired and motivated by Smith’s legacy and seek out opportunities to positively impact the way we work, think and exist in society today.'

Smith and the School’s tercentenary celebrations

Wall mural sketch of the Adam Smith statue at the University of Glasgow and famous Glasgow landmarks in the background