Lewko's blog

Adam Smith on mathematicians (circa 1759)

Posted in Uncategorized by Mark Lewko on January 29, 2011

I recently came across the following passage regarding the mathematical profession from Adam Smith’s  influential work The Theory of Moral Sentiments that I thought others might find interesting:

   Mathematicians, on the contrary, who may have the most perfect assurance, both of the truth and of the importance of their discoveries, are frequently very indifferent about the reception which they may meet with from the public. The two greatest mathematicians that I ever have had the honour to be known to, and, I believe, the two greatest that have lived in my time, Dr Robert Simpson of Glasgow, and Dr Matthew Stewart of Edinburgh, never seemed to feel even the slightest uneasiness from the neglect with which the ignorance of the public received some of their most valuable works. The great work of Sir Isaac Newton, his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, I have been told, was for several years neglected by the public. The tranquillity of that great man, it is probable, never suffered, upon that account, the interruption of a single quarter of an hour. Natural philosophers, in their independency upon the public opinion, approach nearly to mathematicians, and, in their judgments concerning the merit of their own discoveries and observations, enjoy some degree of the same security and tranquillity.

   The morals of those different classes of men of letters are, perhaps, sometimes somewhat affected by this very great difference in their situation with regard to the public.

   Mathematicians and natural philosophers, from their independency upon the public opinion, have little temptation to form themselves into factions and cabals, either for the support of their own reputation, or for the depression of that of their rivals. They are almost always men of the most amiable simplicity of manners, who live in good harmony with one another, are the friends of one another’s reputation, enter into no intrigue in order to secure the public applause, but are pleased when their works are approved of, without being either much vexed or very angry when they are neglected.

The entire text is available here.

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2 Responses

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  1. […] got this strange and interesting passage from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments from Mark Lewko’s blog, which seems to be quiet at the moment but I hope it comes […]

  2. Ot said, on January 30, 2014 at 11:49 am

    It is curious that the name of Simson appears misspelled. See

    http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Biographies/Simson.html

    and also

    http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Biographies/Stewart.html.


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