Academic Life in the 18th Century

As a bit of variety today I will make some notes on academic life but look back to the 18th century. The source is a book on the friendship between two of the great figures of the enlightenment, David Hume and Adam Smith. Dennis Rasmussen outlines their friendship. It is clearly remarkable that such great thinkers were such close friends. (Jean-Jacques Rosseau even ended up joining Hume for a while but that didn’t go very well.)

Adam Smith was, as one might suspect, a professor but he ended up doing many more things. More surprisingly David Hume, despite being one of the world’s great philosophers, was never given an academic post. He tried twice to get an academic job. “…despite his earlier failure to attain a professorship at Edinburgh Hume allowed his name to be put forward…” (Rasmussen, 2017, page 52). Rather than recruit one of the brightest minds of his generation the university chose a man who “could be counted on to fill Scotland’s impressionable young minds with the ‘right’ principles” . Neither of the men who beat Hume to academic posts “seems to have ever published a scholarly work of any kind” (Rasmussen, 2017, page 54). However bad some academic decisions are nowadays we can take comfort that the appointment committees at least aren’t getting any worse.

Later Hume tried to get Smith to move to the Scottish capital (from Glasgow) and wanted the philosopher/economist to buy out the current occupant of the Chair of the Law of Nature and Nations in Edinburgh. “This was one of the best endowed chairs in all of Scotland so the move would eventually have become a financial boon to Smith” (Rasmussen, 2017, page 84). It didn’t happen but is interesting the way the plan was supposed to take place. Nowadays I have seen universities pay professors to retire but I never a prospective candidate doing it. I guess Smith probably learnt something about economic principles from the whole business.

Read: Dennis C. Rasmussen (2017) The infidel and the professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the friendship that shaped modern thought. Princeton University Press, 2017.