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Tyler Cowen on Adam Smith and the autism spectrum

July 28, 2009

…reading “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” was a revelation…I was stunned by how many elements of Smith’s discourse seemed relevant to the autism spectrum…Smith’s life does fit some of the patterns…He never married, he worked very diligently on focused intellectual problems, and his contemporaries described him as eccentric and absentminded. According to reports he frequently swayed his head side to side and he commonly would blurt out exactly what he thought…Smith very often talked to himself…Smith rarely initiated a topic of conversation but had a remarkably accurate memory for “trifling particulars”..”a mind crowded with all manner of subjects”…”his voice seems to have been harsh, his utterance often stammering, and his manner, especially among strangers, often embarrassed…” “he was somewhat apt to convey his own ideas in the form of a lecture”.


The sections on sympathy strike me as written by a brilliant man who could only understand the concept…by observing and classifying it in every manner possible. I often felt… that Smith had no typical understanding of sympathy but rather came to terms with the concept through a very careful observation of others. It’s an outsider’s view and that is why it is so perceptive.


Smith is not interested in sympathy alone but rather he also stresses how interactions with strangers bring about more objective forms of behavior and move society toward a greater emphasis on rules…Modern commercial society, in Smith’s view, is well-suited for helping to create this necessary sense of distance among people.


The bigger specific lesson is that you don’t have to see people on the autism spectrum as “the other”. The more general lesson is to read texts…with a sensitivity to the uniqueness of the individual…whether or not Smith has a relationship to the autism spectrum, that ambiguity, and the accompanying need for embrace and tolerance, is more important than whatever judgment you might end up passing on his neurology.

From → Adam Smith

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