A review of a review of our book on the Adam and smith of modern economics

Andreas Ortmann
7 min readApr 19


Update at the end (31 July 2023)

So, our book on Adam Smith just got another review, this time by a notorious curmudgeon who retired in 2014, without much of a notable record of scholarship. His review is behind a paywall which is probably for the better. Here’s a selection of things he had to say:

The authors want to offer a ‘new interpretation of Adam Smith’s system of thought’. Furthermore, they intend to prove the coherence of such a system by uncovering its ‘deep structure’ consisting of ‘three reasoning routines and a meta-reasoning routine’ which emerged ‘in Smith’s early research on the principles of the human mind’.

Let us start with chapter 2, the book’s better chapter. It develops persuasively the suggestion advanced by Pack and Fleischacker that WN is at once a ‘treatise and a tract’. that it includes parts where the author deployed didactic discourse and parts where he followed one of the two methods of oratorical persuasion: the Socratic method by which to lead a hostile audience step by step to undesired conclusions starting with premises shared by the audience, as far as possible from the main point the speaker wants to make. The chapter insists on the leading role of Book V, traditionally disparaged by commentators with an economics background … The point successfully argued is that the attack on the mercantile system is the main aim of the work, and the author placed on purpose the solution to the American colonies’ controversy at its very end. …

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 — on self-command, the rationale of incentives to work in higher education and the Church, and the role of government — are exercises in ‘rational reconstruction’, indeed high-quality exercises. … These chapters adopt game theory as a key to reconstructing Adam Smith’s argument. The result is quite convincing, for example, in chapter 3 on the emergence of self-command as a result of an individual rational choice exercised in games of varying complexity. …

Chapter 7, and Adam Smith’s reasoning routines, is the best after chapter 2. Let us review its valuable suggestions first. …. They set out to identify the presence in Adam Smith of an item studied by modern neurosciences, reasoning routines, or ‘the stable motoric, cognitive, and behavioural process we all develop.’ They argue that very early in his career, Smith developed reasoning routines that he employed as a moral philosopher and an economist. The reader may expect some exercise in psychohistory, … The authors instead set out to identify a sort of ‘methodology’ in Smith’s early writings and then try to identify its application, Smith’s ‘method‘ put to work in TMS and WN. …

They are, first, a meta-routine, the Wonder-Surprise-Admiration sequence; then the three following: i) the conceptualization of the world as a machine that followed specific laws of motion, the ‘Newtonian, or deductive view of the world’; ii) an understanding of the strategic nature of all things rhetorical, moral, physical, and economic; iii) a ‘belief in the evolutionary, or inductive, nature of many systems, be they social or other’ (171). Thus, having first constructed his ‘conceptual lens’ in his early writings, particularly the Considerations on languages he gradually discovered that he could fruitfully apply the same scheme to morality and the economic life … .

It seems that the reviewer skipped chapter 1 in which we laid out a roadmap and contextualized our work. He also misattributes the authorship of our cap-stone chapter, chapter 7. Which seems to reflect on the shoddiness of his research. Alas, it is what it is …

In related news:

Here is Spencer Pack (commenting on a draft of chapter 1):

Thanks for your intro chapter to your new book. It looks really good, important with much new material.

Here is Leonidas Montes (also commenting on a draft of chapter 1):

You will certainly contribute to a “unifying frame” that originally links modern economics with our dear Adam Smith.

Here is Tony Aspromourgos, in a review forthcoming at Journal of the History of Economic Thought:

This collection of essays offers an interpretation of Smith’s thought that is particularly informed by Smith’s conception of rhetoric and by game theory. It is undoubtedly the claim to show that Smith’s social science is better and more clearly understood via the vehicle of game theory that will attract attention and the authors believe this to be a key — perhaps it is the key — value-add of the book (20–21, 23). There are eight chapters, six bookended by a substantial “Introduction” and a “Conclusion”. Of the six intervening chapters, chapters 3, 4 and 6 are previously published and chapter 5 builds upon a 1995 book chapter. Aside from the merits or otherwise of the substantive arguments of the book, it is highly commendable for its extensive documentation of, and close engagement with, much extant Smith scholarship, with detailed citations (including specific page references) — in sharp contrast to all-too-prevalent lazy citation practices which involve only a cursory pretence of engagement with the existing literature.”

Here is what Gavin Kennedy (rip!), IMHO one of the most perceptive Adam Smith scholars, had to say about our related piece on Schumpeter’s misreading of Smith’s WN:

I was able to read your paper this morning and I consider it the most relevant (and remarkable) analytic paper correctly applying Smith’s ideas on rhetoric to his Works that demonstrates Smith’s life’s creative activity. <snip>

Generalising out from your excellent focus on Schumpeter, I would say it provides the basis for a complete revision of the works and ideas of Smith’s modern epigones and the fantasists who revel in the nonsense of the “invisible hand of the market”, so widespread among modern economics specialists (shame on them) and the popular media. <snip>

Knowledge of LRBL is absolutely essential to understanding Smith. I think your paper and co-author have done a great service to Smithian studies. <snip>.

My very best wishes and congratulations.

And here is Vernon L. Smith (on our book):

Love your great theme.


This book comes highly commended, by its author, as a work that “sheds new light on Ricardian economics,” offers an interpretation based on “a solid reading of texts,” pays attention to “context,” and is sensitive to the nature and role of “speech utterances” (172–73). How far others will agree with this glowing assessment is another matter. What we are dealing with is a work of incontinent speculation, the construction of a world of “may-believe,” whereby the author convinces himself of the plausibility of ideas and influences that may have held sway over Ricardo, the paucity of supporting evidence regardless or, in cases where the evidence is disobliging, dismissed as “speech utterances” that cannot be taken literally. For this reviewer, the Ricardo who emerges is one who resides more in the author’s imagination than the surviving historical record. …

Here, as elsewhere, Cremaschi has fallen victim to his own febrile misconceptions.


Terry Peach in HOPE on Cremaschi’s David Ricardo: An Intellectual Biography.

Update on 31 July 2023:

A kind review of our book, forthcoming in the best HET journal (EJHET).

Adam Smith’s System. A re-Interpretation inspired by Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric, Game Theory, and Conjectural History.

By Andreas Ortmann and Benoît Walraevens, Palgrave Macmillan, 2022, ISBN 978–3–030–99703–8.


The search for an overall coherence in Adam Smith’s work has inspired many researchers. In this book, Andreas Ortmann and Benoît Walraevens offer a very innovative re-interpretation. As it takes seriously the notions of rhetoric and conjectural history, it is of great importance for all scholars interested in the history of economic thoughts.

The book regroups a number of articles and chapters already published by the two authors and their colleagues, as well as several new chapters. As opposed to take The Wealth of Nations or Theory of Moral Sentiments as points of departure, the authors give a central place to his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. These lectures were given by Smith before he composed his two famous books, and he lectured on this subject during all his academic life.

Replacing these lectures in the larger context of the conjectural history introduced by Smith and his colleagues of the Scottish enlightenment (Pauchant, 2017), the authors suggest that Smith grew more pessimistic about the consequences of the rise of commercial society. He thus provided a « very violent attack against the commercial system of Great Britain » (p. 33), criticizing the mercantilist mentality and politics. However, in an attempt to temper the rebuttal of manufacturers, merchants and their allies, he often used in The Wealth of Nations a softer rhetoric, derived from Socrates. According to Smith, this type of rhetoric leads gently the readers to accept the views of the writer while an Aristotelian rhetoric is more confrontational. This critical view of the commercial society, embraced by the authors, documenting Smith’s opposition to the growth of national debt, the rise of inequalities or the corruption of moral sentiments, echo the ones recently embraced by other researchers on Smith’s views, such as Ryan Hanley (2019), Nicholas Phillipson (2010) or Glory Liu (2022).


Adam Smith’s System is an important book. It is an attempt to provide an overall coherence to Smith’s system of natural liberty. Drawing on his conjunctural history, it posits that « Smith believed that human capacities like language or moral sentiments, as well as institutions like property rights, cultures, governments, philosophic systems, etc., evolve over time » (p. 182). In addition, the authors insist that Smith believed that this evolution can be denatured by powerful interests, requiring correction, and they do not associate Smith’s views on evolution with the works of Frederick Hayek.

While the book has some repetitions, due to the republishing of existing articles and chapters, his scholarship is excellent. The authors are knowledgeable of existing literature, use copious notes and provide extensive references. It is also a very innovative book, and its readers are well rewarded by its multiple insights.


Thierry C. Pauchant, Professor of organisational ethics

HEC Montréal Business School, Montréal, Québec, Canada


Hanley, R. (2019). Our Great Purpose: Adam Smith on Living a Better Life, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Liu, G.M. (2022). Adam Smith’s America. How a Scottish Philosopher Became and Icon of American Capitalism, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Pauchant, T.C. (2017). Adam Smith’s four stages theory of socio-cultural evolution: new insights from his 1749 lecture, The Adam Smith Review, 9, 49–74.

Phillipson, N. (2010). Adam Smith: An Enlighted Life, New Haven, Yale University Press.

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Andreas Ortmann

EconProf: I post occasionally on whatever tickles my fancy: Science, evidence production, the Econ tribe, Oz politics, etc. Y’all r entitled to my opinions …