The man within the breast, the supreme impartial spectator, and other impartial spectators in Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments

History of European Ideas 44 (8):1153-1168 (2018)


ABSTRACTAdam Smith infused the expression ‘impartial spectator’ with a plexus of related meanings, one of which is a super-being, which bears parallels to monotheistic ideas of God. As for any genuine, identified, human spectator, he can be deemed impartial only presumptively. Such presumptive impartiality as regards the incident does not of itself carry extensive implications about his intelligence, nor about his being aligned with benevolence towards any larger whole. We may posit, however, a being who is impartial and who holds higher levels of intelligence and of benevolence, and then converse over what her sentiments would be about the matter under discussion. It is natural to conceive of a being who is unsurpassable in such qualities, who is morally supreme, and who naturally takes the definite article the without having been definitized by the writer. Signal passages, new to edition 6, suggest that Smith formulates the man within the breast as a representative of the always present and everywhere morally supreme impartial spectator. When Smith speaks of the man within the breast as ‘the supposed impartial spectator’, we interpret ‘supposed’ as sup-pos-ed, not sup-pos’d.

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Erik Matson
George Mason University

References found in this work

Adam Smith.Samuel Fleischacker - 2021 - Routledge.
Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer.Roderick Firth - 1951 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 12 (3):317-345.
Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer.Roderick Firth - 1997 - In Thomas L. Carson & Paul K. Moser (eds.), Morality and the Good Life. Oup Usa.

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Citations of this work

The Role of Conscience in Smith’s Revised Sentimentalism.Massimo Reichlin - forthcoming - Intellectual History Review:1-18.
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