Adam Smith and Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the Origin of Languages


One can hardly read Rousseau and Adam Smith without being struck by similarities in some of their central interests, as well as by seemingly profound differences in several of their most important conclusions. The differences are especially prominent with respect to the costs and benefits of commercial societies. One of Smith’s earliest publications included disparaging comments about Rousseau’s treatment of sociability and civilization in the Discourse on Inequality. That fact makes it tempting to see Smith’s later works as a response to Rousseau’s critique of civilized life, especially in its modern commercial form. The evidence, however, is entirely speculative because Smith never again commented directly on Rousseau’s treatment of this topic. Whether Smith disregarded Rousseau or sought to correct or refute him, their books do invite us to regard them as rival teachings. The most worthwhile questions about those teachings concern how true and useful they are, and we can profitably compare them without determining the extent of Rousseau’s influence on Smith.

One topic to which both philosophers gave serious attention is the origin of human languages. As it happens, this is also the only topic on which Smith published an explicit substantive criticism of Rousseau. There is no evidence that Rousseau was aware of this criticism, which appeared in Smith’s “Considerations Concerning the First Formation of Languages.” For his part, Smith could not have been influenced by Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages, which first appeared twenty years after Smith published “Considerations.” At least on this matter, their thoughts matured independently.

There is, however, an important link. In the Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau expressly ties his discussion of the origin of languages to that of the Abbé de Condillac’s Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge. This book, which was published a decade before Rousseau’s Discourse, presents a hypothetical history of the development of language that also has a lot in common with Smith’s “Considerations.” Smith obviously knew Rousseau’s Discourse well, and he owned Condillac’s Human Knowledge. Smith likely took careful account of Condillac’s speculations, as Rousseau certainly did. Yet each of these three thinkers put similarly conjectural histories to markedly different uses. Without prejudging the merits of the different roads that Smith and Rousseau took, I suggest that a close examination of what they wrote on this topic may help to prepare for a serious comparative study of their greatest works, Emile and The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

This article analyzes the relevant parts of six texts: Condillac’s Human Knowledge; Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality; Smith’s early letter to the Edinburgh Review; Smith’s “Considerations”; Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages; and Smith’s essay on the imitative arts. This analysis will show that Rousseau was more daring and philosophically ambitious than Smith, who repeatedly declined, possibly for prudential reasons, to come to grips with Rousseau’s arguments.