Soft Dualism in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments: The Body, the Person and the non-Egoistic Personal Body

Please cite the paper as:
Nizar HARIRI, (2017), Soft Dualism in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments: The Body, the Person and the non-Egoistic Personal Body, World Economics Association (WEA) Conferences, No. 2 2017, Economic Philosophy, Complexities in Economics


In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith defended a mind-body dualism, through a metaphor that considered the body as “home”: sympathy is bringing, through imagination, and only through imagination, other people’s emotions back home, to one’s personal body. In this article, I argue that Smith offered an unexplored theory of the human body that could shed new light on the mind-body problem. According to this reading, sympathy or “fellow-feeling” would be best defined as a faculty engaging one person to feel with others, sharing their sufferings and their joys, by imagining what a neutral impartial observer may feel in their place, in their body, and bringing these emotions back home, to the personal body. Therefore, I argue that Smith defended a soft-dualistic approach that is radically opposed to Locke’s possessive individualism as well as to Descartes substance-dualism. Smith’s dualism does not elevate the person to a disembodied entity (a pure mind) or a transcendental subject, nor reduce the body to a mere mechanism or an object that one may own. Thus, Smith did not reduce the body to a machine that hosts a metaphysical subject or a pure consciousness (the non-Cartesian moment) nor to an “object”, a “thing” or a “property” that could be owned by a person (the non-Lockean moment). The point of view of the sympathetic and impartial spectator is only supposing (at least at the level of imagination) that the moral agent is capable of being in a different body, and that every human person is both body and mind that could feel, judge and act from different spots, and not only from the specific coordinates in space that constitute the personal body.

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  • João Victor Souza da Silva says:

    Congratulations for your paper.

    Reading your text, I remember to the studies of emotions and how Adam Smith was so Injustified and misinterpreted with the interpretation of his agent as purely selfish and isolated from collective interests. The nonperception of dualism was central to the sectarian advances of the neoclassical strand insofar as they ignored the complexity of the psychological foundations underlying human behavior.
    The incorporation of the Newtonian perspective of apprehension of the elements of the world with sufficient material attachment gave consistency to the Smithian view of subject, material and immaterial, in the figure of his mind and body, being fully realized when put into society.
    The individual, when assumed unidimensional and synthetic, the neoclassical, is understood as the center of a system that reproduces it in a larger, deductive and logical plane. However, when understood in its multiple dimensions, one assumes the emergent repercussion of his individual acts, but in a complex world that attenuates its multiplicity and can not be reduced to a simple linear and deductive plane.

    I appreciate your work in an attempt to take up fundamental elements raised by Adam Smith in the questioning of fundamental points today. I would like to contact you and maybe work together.