[Report] 8th EAIHN Online Seminar


East Asian Intellectual History Network (東アジア思想史ネットワーク)
Sponsored by EAA, University of Tokyo (東アジア藝文書院)

December 6th (Mon), 2021. 7pm – 9pm (JST)

Speaker: Craig Smith (University of Glasgow, UK)
“Adam Ferguson on Trade and Empire”

Discussants: Reinhard Schumacher (Universität Potsdam, Germany)
       Hiroki UENO 上野大樹 (Keio University, Japan)

Opening Remarks: Shinji NOHARA 野原慎司 (University of Tokyo, Japan)

Chair: Maria Pia Paganelli (Trinity University, USA)



On 6th December 2021, the East Asian Intellectual History Network (EAIHN) hosted a talk by Dr Craig Smith, Adam Smith Senior Lecturer in the Scottish Enlightenment at the University of Glasgow. In his opening remarks, Dr Shinji Nohara underlined how significant it is to study Western thought in order to deepen the historical understanding of East Asian modernization and the varied responses to cultural transformation caused by it. Dr Smith then proceeded to explicate his paper entitled “Adam Ferguson on Trade and Empire”, before the two discussants added comments and raised several questions in order to enhance open discussion.

Craig Smith’s paper extensively investigated Adam Ferguson’s political thought in comparison with Adam Smith, with a particular focus on their respective views of empire, including the British Empire and its international and imperial trade. The importance of comparative argument of ancient and modern empires in Ferguson’s thought has recently been discussed, for instance, by Iain McDaniel (in his monograph entitled “Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment” from Harvard University Press), who demonstrates “how Ferguson’s analysis of the likely course of the French Revolution is grounded in a fear of Caesarism arising from the lessons of Rome” (p. 1). Meanwhile, this paper’s focus is rather on “what Ferguson says about another empire, the British Empire in North America, an empire that he acknowledges is grounded in commerce” and “how his study of Rome impacts on his understanding of British trade and imperialism” (pp. 1-2). Dr Smith does not accept the commonplace understanding of Ferguson as a republican opponent of modern commercial society, suggesting instead that he shares much in common with Adam Smith regarding the civilising effects of commerce and luxury. On the other hand, Dr Smith’s paper acknowledges what differentiates Ferguson’s framing of civilization from that of Adam Smith elsewhere, namely that Ferguson tends to emphasise the political rather than economic dimension of the historical progress of societies. In particular, according to Ferguson’s view, “the key feature of political and civil association is the recognition and acceptance of the monopoly of force held by the magistrate” (p. 8), and “commerce and artistic achievement are the result of civilisation rather than constitutive of it” with civilisation meaning not so much commercial activities themselves as “regular government and law” (p. 10). While Adam Smith tends to assess ancient and modern empires and colonial policy in terms of economic necessity and welfare, with strong (but conditional) criticism of the contemporary British Empire (pp. 18-21), Ferguson focuses more on the political and constitutional issues of modern Britain and ancient Rome, paying particular attention to the (in)stability and transformation of class structure between the two case studies (pp. 22-3). According to Dr Smith’s analysis, while Ferguson assuredly acknowledges the importance of a certain type of factious conflicts or internal tensions (i.e. healthy and well-regulated factionalism) in order to tackle the danger of civic “inaction” (p. 24) or apathy, he was no less wary of class struggles observed, for example, during the last stage of the Roman Republic transforming into the Empire, which were accompanied by corrupted relationships between mobs and military commanders. Ferguson’s ideal constitution is one wherein citizens become ambitious, being motivated not only by the acquisition of wealth but also by honour through public contribution, making it far from a total opposition to luxury and commercial society. His first priority was to avoid civil wars, with his comparative historical framework allowing him to be cautious of radical changes to the British constitution caused by American independence, while nevertheless sceptical of empires in general at the same time. This judgement on Ferguson’s part is entirely compatible with incrementalist attitudes toward reforming the political constitution of the British Empire.

Craig Smith’s paper can be understood as a valuable contribution to bridging recent studies in the history of international political thought with stock studies of Scottish and other European Enlightenment thought. Some global intellectual historians, such as Jennifer Pitts, seem to describe Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment history, relying on a dichotomy between Enlightenment scepticism of the colonial Empires and nineteenth-century imperialism that is somewhat too simplistic. But we may need to pay more careful attention to the ambivalent attitude of Enlightenment thinkers toward the question of Empire. Even with respect to Adam Smith, for example, he should not be interpreted as an unconditional advocate of American independence. Indeed, perhaps more focus should be invested in the balances put to the both utilitarian and right-based perspectives by Adam Smith and other Enlightenment figures, including even Immanuel Kant. From this point of view, it is intriguing how this paper deals with several important figures of the Scottish Enlightenment from a comparative perspective, and Adam Ferguson is certainly worthy of extensive investigation as a key thinker in seeking to understand the Scottish link to American independence. Among those recent intellectual historians who discuss Ferguson in relation to the eighteenth-century revolutions is Jonathan Israel, whose interpretation of Ferguson is, nevertheless, often cast into doubt. Israel’s view sometimes appears a little too one-sided, based on that dichotomy of the radical and moderate Enlightenments, with this dichotomous lens making it difficult to understand the core of Ferguson’s political thinking. It is the complexity and integrity of Ferguson’s thought that are demonstrated by this paper’s nuanced reading of his wider body of work.

We are editing a special issue in the Revue d’études benthamiennes with the theme of “International and Colonial Thought of the British Empire”, and inviting Dr Craig Smith to contribute a paper for the issue. Anyone who is interested in the British Empire and its attendant Enlightenment thought is still welcome to submit a paper abstract for inclusion by the end of April, 2022. Full details available via the following link:


Reported by Hiroki Ueno (Keio University)