It’s been three hundred years since the birth of Adam Smith, but as Shinji Nohara, a 2022–23 HOPE Center visiting scholar reminds us, we still know a lot less than we’d like about Smith’s intellectual background.
Shinji spent most of March at Duke, working in part on a project to construct the context in which Smith wrote his first great work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which first appeared in 1759.
“The project is challenging because Smith burned most of his papers before he died,” says Shinji, a historian of economics at the University of Tokyo. “But we can get a good sense of what he might have read from his private library, which, thankfully, remains intact.”
One of the sources that Shinji is focusing on is an address by the French Catholic bishop Jean Baptiste Massillon. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith quotes almost two dozen lines from the address, which upbraids a certain group of soldiers for making sacrifices only to themselves and not to God, comparing them unfavorably to monks. But as Smith writes, “To compare, in this manner, the futile mortifications of a monastery, to the ennobling hardships and hazards of war; to suppose that one day, or one hour, employed in the former should, in the eye of the great Judge of the world, have more merit than a whole life spent honourably in the latter, is surely contrary to all our moral sentiments.”
The author of a 2018 book on the role of strangers in Smith’s system of commerce, Shinji is currently working with a small team of scholars to produce a new translation of Smith’s most famous work, The Wealth of Nations, first published almost 250 years ago, in 1776.
He says the experience is forcing him to understand Smith on a whole new level.
“When I used to read The Wealth of Nations, I might skip chapters here and there. But in translating it, I have to read it, and understand it, sentence by sentence, even word by word.”
In addition to his work on Smith, Shinji spent some time sifting through the papers of the Noble Prize winner Kenneth Arrow for correspondence between Arrow and the Japanese economist Hirofumi Uzawa, who spent several years of his career at Berkeley, Stanford, and Chicago. Shinji is especially interested in how Uzawa received and transformed Western economic ideas.
Uzawa worked with not only Arrow but with two other Nobel Prize winners, Joseph Stiglitz and George Akerlof.
“When Uzawa returned to Japan in the late 1960s, he got involved in the environmental movement,” Shinji explains. “He was against the appropriation of farmland for what would become Narita Airport.”
For his efforts, in 2009, Uzawa was awarded the Blue Planet Prize.
More generally, Shinji used his time at Duke to interact with English-speaking colleagues, to engage with Western scholars and to better learn what Westerners regard as good academic writing.
“It’s good to visit new places and see how scholars who come from a different pedagogical tradition view writing in general and scholarly writing in particular. It can help both my writing in Japanese and my writing in English.”