Adam Smith on Savages

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.