Adam Smith on Savages

Sergio Cremaschi

Table of Contents


In Adam Smith’s work there is a tension between a positive appraisal of the savage’s mental processes and morality and characterization of the first stage as a state of want and isolation to which the primitive society’s failure to evolve toward following stages is ascribed. I illustrate how Smith’s post-scepticism puts him in a position to better understand savages than most of his contemporaries and I reconstruct his view of the savage in terms of his own theory of the human mind. I explore the tensions in civilized society where the virtues of self-command are lost and those of humanity are widespread among groups different from those in power and where pointless search for wealth dominates. Finally, I discuss a tension between Smith’s view of the savage as proto-philosopher and his alternative view of the savage as proto-merchant.


  • Adam Smith
  • the other
  • the savage
  • economic anthropology
  • poverty


  1. An overview
  2. The background: the new world controversy
  3. Savages and philosophers
    1. Language and inventions of imagination
    2. Virtues of self-command and virtues of humanity
  4. Savages and merchants
    1. Unchanging human nature
    2. The disposition to truck and barter and the division of labour among savages
    3. The origins of money
  5. Two views of the rude and early stage
  6. Conclusions

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