The Theory of Primate Sentiments: Part Three

Here is the last post on primate sentiments – and as I said at the end of the last post, it’s really a postscript. It doesn’t further develop the points made in the last two posts, but tidies up some loose ends.

Smith himself cooked up a theory of the evolution of language at around the time he was working on the Theory of Moral Sentiments. But as befitting someone whose first academic post was in rhetoric and someone for whom rhetoric was always important (The Theory of Moral Sentiments is a very self consciously rhetorical work – more so than the Wealth of Nations) his focus is strongly on the development of grammar and syntax and less on the time when some critical break is made between animal ‘proto-language’ and human language.

Smith’s theory is an interesting one, but his Theory of Moral Sentiments is the central text in the context of Dunbar’s theory of the evolution of language.

A very quick summary of Smith’s theory of language is this.

1. Language is, like morals and markets, another example of order without design. People don’t design language, they are trying to attend to their needs and communication is therefore at a premium.

2. The words that denote the most common and least abstract things emerge first and following this there is what you might call a ‘ladder of abstraction’. From proper nouns (‘tree’ originally means ‘this tree’) comes common nouns. When another tree is seen, people naturally use and understand the analogy with the prototypical tree that is being made by using the same word.

3. Then come more abstract words again in order of abstraction so adjectives are more abstract than nouns and verbs because they are embodied in other things. Then prepositions and some prepositions are more abstract than others ‘of’ is much more abstract than ‘above’.

4. Another interesting idea of Smith’s is that inflected languages with fancy declensions are an earlier and purer form of language. The idea is one of cultural homogeneity giving way to heterogeneity. Thus Greek is a prototypical inflected language which as it is transformed into Latin becomes a little simpler. Then as Latin becomes the European languages, a process of mixing and matching between languages undermines the way in which cases are structurally embedded in words as they are with inflected languages. Instead prepositions and word order sort out the relationships between words so that ‘mixing and matching’ between languages can proceed apace as ethnic mixing proceeds.

He draws the analogy with machinery, which, when it is first invented it can be very complex but is later simplified in its further development. But whereas this is a bonus with languages, it’s both a blessing and a curse with language. With language the blessing is that modern languages are simpler than ancient languages English and French are simpler in construction than Greek and Latin. The curse is that they’re much more prolix and so they are worse for poetry and elegance of expression more generally.

The unity of Smith’s thought

In my homo dialecticus posts on Smith I tried to show how there were deep similarities in structure between Smith’s idea of the way markets and the way morals developed. This is as good a place as any to raise the suggestion of James Otteson that in fact his theory of language conforms to the same design as explained in this table (available here – pdf).

1. Motivating Desire:
(i) TMS: the “pleasure of mutual sympathy” of sentiments (TMS, 13 and passim).
(ii) WN: the “natural effort of every individual to better his own condition” (WN, 540;
cp. 2627, 341, and 343).
(iii) “Languages”: the desire to make “mutual wants intelligible to each other” (LRBL,
2. Rules Developed:
(i) TMS: standards of moral judgment and rules determining propriety and merit;
(ii) WN: protocols protecting private property, contractual agreements, and voluntary
(iii) “Languages”: rules of grammar, pronunciation, etc.
3. Currency (i.e., what gets exchanged):
(i) TMS: personal sentiments and moral judgments;
(ii) WN: private goods and services;
(iii) “Languages”: words, ideas, and wants.
4. Resulting “Unintended System of Order”:
(i) TMS: commonly shared standards of morality and moral judgment;
(ii) WN: economy (i.e., large-scale network of exchanges of goods and services);
(iii) “Languages”: language.

One final postscript. I was recently reading Smith on the French Encyclopedie and came across this bit of Rousseau.

‘Man,’ says he 1 afterwards, p. 179. ‘in his savage, and man in his civilized state, differ so essentially in their passions and inclinations, that what makes the supreme happiness of the one, would reduce the other to despair. The savage breathes nothing but liberty and repose; he desires only to live and to be at leisure; and the ataraxia 2 of the Stoic does not approach to his profound indifference for every other object. The citizen, on the contrary, toils, bestirs and torments himself without end, to obtain employments which are still more laborious; he labours on till his death, he even hastens it, in order to put himself in a condition to live, or renounces life to acquire immortality. He makes his court to the great whom he hates, and to the rich whom he despises; he spares nothing to obtain the honour of serving them; he vainly boasts of his own meanness and their protection, and, proud of his slavery, speaks with disdain of those who have not the honour to share it. What a spectacle to a Caraib would be the painful and envied labours of a European minister of state? how many cruel deaths would not that indolent savage prefer to the horror of such a life, which is often not even sweetened by the pleasure of doing well? but to see the end of so many cares, it is necessary that the words, power and reputation, should have an intelligible meaning in his understanding; that he should be made to comprehend that there is a species of men who count for something the looks of the rest of the universe; who can be happy and contented with themselves upon the testimony of another, rather than upon their own. For such in reality is the true cause of all those differences: the savage lives in himself; the man of society, always out of himself; cannot live but in the opinion of others, and it is, if I may say so, from their judgment alone that he derives the sentiment of his own existence. It belongs not to my subject to show, how from such a disposition arises so much real indifference for good and evil, with so many fine discourses of morality; how every thing being reduced to appearances, every thing becomes factitious and acted; honour, friendship, virtue, and often even vice itself, of which we have at last found out the secret of being vain; how in one word always demanding of others what we are, and never daring to ask ourselves the question, in the midst of so much philosophy, so much humanity, so much politeness, and so many sublime maxims we have nothing but a deceitful and frivolous exterior; honour without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness.’

Regarding the bit about “the savage lives in himself; the man of society, always out of himself; cannot live but in the opinion of others, and it is, if I may say so, from their judgment alone that he derives the sentiment of his own existence.” this could easily be Smith. But the idea of deception being central to civilisation and to systems of morality is Rousseau not Smith – though Smith does mention it as an issue. However in Dunbar’s book and more generally in what he presents as the state of the art in the primatology of the 1980s and 90s, dealing with what the literature calls “Machiavellian intelligence” is a central story in the evolution of humanity not least its language.

  1. ie Rousseau[]
  2. peace of mind[]
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Andrew Norton
17 years ago

Incidentally, Nick, good to see your Smith paper in Best Australian Essays 2006.


[…] the next exciting instalment – a postscript really – we learn about Adam Smith’s own theory of the evolution of […]


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