This page contains a list of the six best books on or by Adam Smith. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on Smith” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works by Smith. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on Smith. This list was created by compiling recommendations from across the internet and is not a list of personal recommendations. More information about this process is at the end of the post. Here are the best books on or by Smith in no particular order:
Adam Smith: A Very Short Introduction – Christopher J. Berry
Publisher description: In 1776 Adam Smith (1723-90) wrote The Wealth of Nations, a book so foundational that it has led to him being called the “father of economics.” Today he is associated with the promotion of self-interest, a defense of greed and a criticism of any governmental ‘interference’ in market transactions which, if left to the ‘invisible hand’, will produce prosperity and liberty. Yet if Smith is actually read these associations are more a caricature than a faithful portrait.
In this Very Short Introduction, Christopher Berry offers a balanced and nuanced view of this seminal thinker, embedding his fierce defense of free trade, competition, and assault on special interests in contemporary European history, politics, and philosophy. As Berry explores, Smith was more than an economist. His book The Theory of Moral Sentiment, offered a complex account of ethics in the context of human social behavior. His scope as a professor at the University of Glasgow, a major center of the Scottish Enlightenment, was extensive. Beyond courses in philosophy and jurisprudence he also gave classes covering history, literature, and language. In addition to his two major works he also wrote a pioneering study of the history of astronomy as an illustration of the motivations that drive humans to seek answers to questions. He produced, again derived from his Glasgow classroom, an analysis of the development of grammar and language. As Christopher Berry shows, Adam Smith was no narrow thinker, but rather one who produced not only one of the greatest books in the history of social science, but also a wide-ranging body of work that remains significant today.
Adam Smith: His Life, Thought, and Legacy – Ryan Patrick Hanley
Publisher description: Adam Smith (1723–90) is perhaps best known as one of the first champions of the free market and is widely regarded as the founding father of capitalism. From his ideas about the promise and pitfalls of globalization to his steadfast belief in the preservation of human dignity, his work is as relevant today as it was in the eighteenth century. Here, Ryan Hanley brings together some of the world’s finest scholars from across a variety of disciplines to offer new perspectives on Smith’s life, thought, and enduring legacy.
Contributors provide succinct and accessible discussions of Smith’s landmark works and the historical context in which he wrote them, the core concepts of Smith’s social vision, and the lasting impact of Smith’s ideas in both academia and the broader world. They reveal other sides of Smith beyond the familiar portrayal of him as the author of the invisible hand, emphasizing his deep interests in such fields as rhetoric, ethics, and jurisprudence. Smith emerges not just as a champion of free markets but also as a thinker whose unique perspective encompasses broader commitments to virtue, justice, equality, and freedom.
An essential introduction to Adam Smith’s life and work, this incisive and thought-provoking book features contributions from leading figures such as Nicholas Phillipson, Amartya Sen, and John C. Bogle. It demonstrates how Smith’s timeless insights speak to contemporary concerns such as growth in the developing world and the future of free trade, and how his influence extends to fields ranging from literature and philosophy to religion and law.
The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith – Christopher J. Berry et al.
Publisher description: Adam Smith (1723-90) is a thinker with a distinctive perspective on human behaviour and social institutions. He is best known as the author of the An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Yet his work is name-checked more often than it is read and then typically it is of an uninformed nature; that he is an apologist for capitalism, a forceful promoter of self-interest, a defender of greed and a critic of any ‘interference’ in market transactions. To offset this caricature, this Handbook provides an informed portrait. Drawing on the expertise of leading Smith scholars from around the world, it reflects the depth and breadth of Smith’s intellectual interests. After an introductory outline chapter on Smith’s life and times, the volume comprises 28 new essays divided into seven parts. Five sections are devoted to particular themes in Smith’s corpus – his views on Language, Art and Culture; his Moral Philosophy; his Economic thought, his discussions of History and Politics and his analyses of Social Relations. These five parts are framed by one that focuses on the immediate and proximate sources of his thought and the final one that recognizes Smith’s status as a thinker of world-historical significance – indicating both his posthumous impact and influence and his contemporary resonance. While each chapter is a discrete contribution to scholarship, the Handbook comprises a composite whole to enable the full range of Smith’s work to be appreciated.
Selected Philosophical Writings – Adam Smith
Publisher description: Adam Smith (1723–90) studied under Francis Hutcheson at the University of Glasgow, befriended David Hume while lecturing on rhetoric and jurisprudence in Edinburgh, was elected Professor of Logic, Professor of Moral Philosophy, Vice-rector, and eventually Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow, and, along with Hutcheson, Hume, and a few others, went on to become one of the chief figures of the astonishing period of learning known as the Scottish Enlightenment. He is the author of two books: The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). TMS brought Smith considerable acclaim during his lifetime and was quickly considered one of the great works of moral theory. It deeply impressed Immanuel Kant, for example, who called Smith his ‘ Liebling ‘ or ‘favourite’, and Charles Darwin, who in his Descent of Man (1871) endorsed and accepted several of Smith’s ‘striking’ conclusions. TMS went through fully six revised editions during Smith’s lifetime. Since the nineteenth century, Smith’s fame has largely rested on his Wealth of Nations, which must be considered one of the most important works of the millennium: its argument for free trade, its explanation of the price mechanism and the division of labor, its qualified defense of market economies, and its powerful criticisms of mercantilist economic theories are now standard fare in economics courses, not to mention the basis of a large portion of today’s worldwide economic policy. And its account of human nature is now classic. Both The Theory of Moral Sentiments and the Wealth of Nations reveal Smith’s impressively broad learning, but he wrote and lectured on a number of other subjects as well. This anthology collects, for the first time in one volume, not only generous selections from each of Smith’s books but also substantial selections from his other work, including his lectures on jurisprudence, his history and philosophy of science, his criticism and belles lettres, and his philosophy of language. It also includes two important letters from Hume, as well as Smith’s account of Hume’s death.
The Wealth of Nations – Adam Smith
Publisher description: First published in 1776, The Wealth of Nations is generally regarded as the foundation of contemporary economic thought. Adam Smith, a Scottish professor of moral philosophy, expounded the then-revolutionary doctrine of economic liberalism. The book’s importance was immediately recognized by Smith’s peers, and later economists have shown an unusual consensus in their admiration for his ideas.
Combining economics, political theory, history, philosophy, and practical programs, Smith assumes that human self-interest is the basic psychological drive behind economics and that a natural order in the universe makes all the individual, self-interested strivings add up to the social good. His conclusion, that the best program is to leave the economic process alone and that government is useful only as an agent to preserve order and to perform routine functions, is now known as laissez-faire economics or noninterventionism.
In noting for the first time the significance of the division of labor and by stating the hypothesis that a commodity’s value correlates to its labor input, Smith anticipated the writings of Karl Marx. Like Marx’s Das Capital and Machiavelli’s The Prince, his great book marked the dawning of a new historical epoch.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith
Publisher description: Best known for his revolutionary free-market economics treatise The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith was first and foremost a moral philosopher. In his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he investigated the flip side of economic self-interest: the interest of the greater good. Smith’s classic work advances ideas about conscience, moral judgement and virtue that have taken on renewed importance in business and politics.
This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:
- browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
- searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
- browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- searching for recommendations on philosophy forums
The following sources were used to build this list:
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Adam Smith
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Adam Smith
If you’d like to get more philosophy in your life, follow us on Facebook or Twitter or enter your email below to get a quote/passage from a classic work of philosophy delivered to your inbox each day. They include key passages from Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, and many more. Each passage is paired with a link to a beginner friendly article, video, or podcast, so you can easily learn more about that day’s idea. The goal is to make it easier for everyone to get a little bit more philosophy into their life.