Miscellany — January 2010

Adam Smith: flexible and complete . . .

The first complete critical edition of the letters of Adam Smith was The Correspondence of Adam Smith, edited by E. C. Mossner and Ian Simpson Ross (Oxford: OUP, 1976):

 . . . John Rae's Life of Adam Smith (1895, reprinted 1965) and W. R. Scott's Adam Smith as Student and Professor (1937) presented the letters known to the respective authors. A few other letters had appeared in periodicals. ("Preface" [dated 1974], The Correspondence of Adam Smith. Oxford: OUP, 1976).

At the time, the total number of known letters (including known but missing) amounted to 397: 232 from Smith and 165 to him. Without access to the missing 93 letters, that left the editors with a total of 304. Eleven years later, in the second edition of the correspondence, the editors report the addition of "the missing part of one letter . . . and eighteen entirely new letters" ("Preface to the Second Edition", Oxford: OUP, 1987), bringing the published total to 322 documents. "Appendix E: New letters" actually includes 20 letters not the stated 18: the extras being letters "a." and "g. (i)". Letter "a." is "the missing part of one letter" mentioned in the Preface. It supplies a complete version of Letter no. 78, which still appears in an incomplete form in the main body of the edition (at page 98). Letter "g. (i)" does not get counted in the total since it is the only letter in the Appendix neither to nor from Adam Smith. Unlike many "correspondence" editions, like those of Voltaire or Rousseau, the Smith edition does not include what we might call "about" letters: letters about the eponymous figure, which provide context for the main person and the to and from letters.

Five years after publication of the second edition, Ian Ross and two new editorial collaborators published an epistolary record of Smith's "awkward" involvement in the controversy over a pension for Adam Ferguson ("'This very awkward affair': an entanglement of Scottish professors with English lords", ed. D. D. Raphael, D. R. Raynor, I. S. Ross. SVEC 278 (1990): 419–463). Thirteen letters between Smith, Lord and Lady Stanhope, James Chalmer, Alexander Wedderburn and Lord Mahon were included with permission from the OUP edition, while a "few minor inaccuracies in that version of the letters have been corrected here" (SVEC 278: 425 n. 8).

It took print publication somewhere between three and five years for inaccuracies (albeit "minor" ones) to be corrected; we are not told what the inaccuracies were, nor how they were corrected. The editors were probably sparing the reader arguably trivial detail, although no doubt it came down — in part — to the contingencies of space, as a physical asset controlled by the publisher.

In principle, corrections and changes to an existing edition constitute a new edition of the amended text. One cannot judge how changes may alter readings by other eyes, in other places, at other times; nor can one determine how significant those altered readings might be. That begs the question: if these 13 previously published Smith letters needed corrections, what of the remaining 309? How many of those have "minor inaccuracies" (or worse)?

Given the context of this Miscellany, I am of course making an implicit comparison between print and digital publication. This is no criticism of the scholars who created the editions, nor of the print publishers who made accessible the scholarship we value. It is simply to note how much easier it is to provide updates and to enrich a collection of letters in an advanced full-text digital system like EE than it is in print. This also holds true if we were to compare a digital resource like EE with the conservative (and already rather old-fashioned) digital publication of page images or PDFs, which are not so much new forms of the text as new ways of distributing print. Not only is it easier to update a resource like EE, but the update is easier to make sense of, since the documents flow back into something like their historical context. At the very least, in a digital resource like EE, the documents appear in the order they were actually written, no matter when they are added to the collection.

Now that I've flown my colours, let's take a brief, closer look at the relationship of the two print collections I've been referring to: the second edition of The Correspondence of Adam Smith (OUP, 1987) and the ". . . entanglement of Scottish professors with English lords" (SVEC, 1990), which should suggest the advantages of their inclusion in a digital resource of the kind you are looking at here.

As already noted, the 13 Smith letters in the 1990 SVEC volume all previously appeared in the OUP volume. But now they are not only "corrected", they are chronologically interleaved with 20 related letters, mainly to or from Adam Ferguson, which contextualize these specific Smith letters in a more complex and intimate web of communication than one finds in the OUP edition.

If we consider just the first of the Smith letters in the SVEC volume for the sake of illustration — "Adam Smith to Lord Stanhope, London 24 June 1775" — we get a sense of the real limitations of traditional print and digital publication for correspondence.

1. Such texts are always potentially fluid: by that I mean there is almost always some further annotation that could be made, some further correction to the reading of a difficult hand that should be established, some other version of the document that might be discovered and compared. And even when the text is determined to general satisfaction, it is still "afloat" on a sea of contextualizing documents of indeterminate location and number.

2. Smith's letter to Lord Stanhope does not appear in the general chronological sequence of the rest of the OUP edition, which would have placed it on page 182 and almost precisely in the centre of the volume: it appears on pages 416–417, grouped with new letters in "Appendix E", some 230 pages out of sequence. In print, the letters cannot be read chronologically without flipping forward and back, though this is in itself only a minor irritation.

3. Reading Smith's letter to Stanhope we find a note attached to the end of the following passage: ". . . would oblige My Lord Chesterfield4 to indemnify your Lordship for what you had undertaken as a Guardian for the Education of your Pupil.5" Note 4 provides a brief biographical sketch of "Philip Stanhope (1755–1815), 5th Earl of Chesterfield . . .", while note 5 reads:

Stanhope, together with Sir George Savile and John Hewitt, was guardian of the 5th Earl of Chesterfield [nephew of the recipient of the current letter], on whose behalf he had agreed to provide Ferguson with an annuity of £200 when his ward reached his majority, as a benefit for Ferguson's services as tutor: see Letter g. (i). (OUP, 1987: p. 417)

Ferguson's name first appears in the opening sentence of the letter, but no descriptive annotation is provided for him on that or neighbouring pages. And no location is given for "Letter g. (i)", Lord Stanhope to Adam Ferguson. As it turns out, this letter is out of sequence even in terms of the Appendix. Dated "Paris, 6 April 1774", it is inserted five pages after Smith's letter to Stanhope, though written 14 months earlier and providing essential context for that letter. Indeed, three other letters also making reference to this document appear on intervening pages.

More page flipping is required; but it's getting a bit more tedious, and understanding who is saying what, to whom, when and why, now requires considerably more concentration, perhaps even a more specialized readership. All this primarily because of the inflexibility and limitations of print publication.

4. It is not simply physical presentation, however, that causes problems for the reader. We can face problems understanding the details, references and significances of an epistolary exchange. In the specific Smith–Stanhope exchange we are looking at, the larger OUP edition doesn't provide the contextualizing "about" documents which we find interleaved with the Smith and Stanhope letters in the SVEC volume. So the OUP edition is important as the first critical edition of the complete correspondence of Adam Smith, but the SVEC edition is also important both in its own terms and as an example — imperfectly implemented because in print — of how further information and documents deepen and enrich our understanding of such people and events.

How much better, though, to have the ability to fit all these publications together — and any other primary Smith letters or contextualizing documents as they come along — within a chronological sequence that can be easily rearranged by author, recipient, geographical detail, or content to suit the needs of each individual reader!

At the Electronic Enlightenment Project, this is precisely the kind of resource we are creating: an inclusive, historical sequence that continuously moves towards flexibility and completeness. We already present the single most comprehensive and integrated collection of Adam Smith correspondence available anywhere, in print or digital format. In addition to the letters of the OUP edition and SVEC 1990, we also include another SVEC collection ("Adam Smith and Count Windisch-Grätz: new letters", ed. Ian Ross & David Raynor. SVEC 358 (1998): 171–187), as well as letters published in Germany ("Adam Smith an Thomas Cadell: Zwei neue Briefe", ed. Heiner Klemme. Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 73 (1991): 277–280) and Scotland ("An unpublished letter from Adam Smith to Sir John Macpherson", ed. F. P. Lock. The Scottish Historical Review 85 (2006): 135–137) — all available in something closer to their original context and chronological sequence. And there is so much more to come . . . .

— Robert V. McNamee
Director, Electronic Enlightenment Project
© 2010 University of Oxford

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