From beginner-friendly introductions to classic books by Adam Smith, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s important to note that there is no single best book on Smith. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive introduction or read Adam Smith for yourself.
It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best books on or by Adam 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….
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….
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….
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….
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….
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.
The following sources were used to build this list:
- Adam Smith: Philosophy, Politics, and Economics – Brown University
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Adam Smith
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Adam Smith
You might also be interested in the following reading lists:
- The Best Introductory Philosophy Books
- The Best Books on the History of Philosophy
- The Best Books on the Philosophy of Economics
Or browse this collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists to find more philosophy book recommendations.
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