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Theorising commercial society: Rousseau, Smith and Hont

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

Robin Douglass

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages11
Early online date20 Jun 2018
Accepted/In press20 May 2018
E-pub ahead of print20 Jun 2018


King's Authors


In his posthumously published lectures, Politics in Commercial Society, István Hont argues that Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith should be understood as theorists of commercial society. This article challenges Hont’s interpretation of both thinkers and shows that some of his key claims depend on conflating the terms ‘commercial society’ and ‘commercial sociability’. I argue that, for Smith, commercial society should not be defined in terms of the moral psychology of commercial sociability, before questioning Hont’s Epicurean interpretation of Smith’s theory of sociability. I then turn to Rousseau and outline some of the difficulties involved with classifying him as a theorist of commercial society, the most important of which is that he often appeared to be more deeply opposed to commercial progress than Hont suggests. I conclude by highlighting some of the most salient differences between Rousseau’s and Smith’s views of the politics of eighteenth-century Europe.

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