Friendship, Strangership, and the Social

In this section, I turn to Adam Smith’s work, where we will see more clearly the connections between friendship and solidarity between strangers. Smith focuses so strongly on the significance of social bonds between friends and strangers because The Theory of Moral Sentiments as a whole aims to uncover a social bond not immediately dependent on the political order of society. The result of this focus was Smith’s contribution to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discovery of the social.

The discovery or the emergence of the social refers to the development of the idea of society as a central concept for representing, interpreting, criticizing, and acting on collective life. Several aspects of the notion of the social are important. The first concerns the representation of order. Social thought involves the imputing of an (at least minimally) intelligible order which inheres in collective life, in the straightforward sense of what sociologists might call processes, dynamics, forces, institutions, or structures, which are the objectified forms of human action. On a more fundamental level, the discovery or the emergence of the social entails a new sociocentric representation of the collective where order can be deemed immanent to society and as cohering at a distance from, or independently of, the political (Singer 2013). The emergence of the social in this stronger sense corresponds to a new horizon of meaning which makes it possible to represent order as inherent within society and to a new epistemological stance which “provides a critique of the political will’s claim to constitute the collectivity” (Singer 2004, 41). Smith is a social theorist in this more radical sense of the term, and The Theory of Moral Sentiments is an attempt to delineate a social space with its own half-hidden motions not immediately dependent on either political will or human reason. In one particularly clear passage, Smith refers to the “arrogance” and “conceit” of political actors who imagine that they “can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chessboard” (1982, 234). In his view, the social is precisely the immanent, spontaneous “principles of motion” that exist in excess of, and form a limit to, political will. Today the discovery of the social as the epistemological condition of sociology is taken for granted, and so there is a value to explicating this moment in its discovery, particularly since some versions of the social such as Smith’s are too strong to be compatible with critical sociology.

Smith uncovers the social by a change of perspective away from that of the lawmaker or philosopher to that of the everyday social actor. Unlike lawmakers or philosophers, the social actor does not act with a vision of the whole society or according to a purely rational sense of the utility of any action for the functioning of the whole. Instead, the social actor is concretely situated and oriented to other socially situated actors who may be friends, acquaintances, strangers, or enemies. Furthermore, the everyday actor’s rational faculties are entwined with passions and sentiments that are formed and shaped through interaction with others. The Theory of Moral Sentiments is written from the pragmatic perspective of this everyday actor, which is why, when Smith discovers the social, he also discovers the theoretical significance of the social bond. For him, social bonds are formed through the communication of sentiments, and his term for this communication is sympathy. Sympathy is the most important concept of the work because it ultimately animates social life, gives it order and coherence, and forms its principles of motion.

Sympathy, for Smith, refers to the ability of bystanders to “bring home” to themselves the experiences of another and “enter into” his or her sentiments, passions, opinions, and tastes, as well as the circumstances that give rise to these and the actions that emerge from them. Smith (1982, 10) uses the term in a unique and unusually broad sense, whereby a person can sympathize with “every passion of which the mind of man is susceptible”, not just pain or misfortune. Ultimately, sympathy is a principle of communication that bridges, without eliminating, the irreducible subjective distance between oneself and another.

Smith (1982, 16-17) contends that sympathy is the basis of moral judgment. If, after bringing the case of others “home to ourselves”, we believe that we would think and act in the same manner as them, then we sympathize. If we think that we should feel and act differently, then we cannot sympathize with them, which is equivalent to moral disapproval. According to Smith, our capacities of imagination and moral judgment evolve directly from the tendency of social interaction to test and develop our capacity to enter into social life from others’ points of view. Thus, sympathy should be understood as a social practice that must be cultivated, rather than as an instinctive human quality. In this sense, sympathy in Smith is not like pity in Rousseau, instinctive and pre-rational (Forman- Barzilai 2005, 192). Instead, sympathy is a “demanding imaginative and critical exercise” (Phillipson 1983, 183). Smith (1982, 9) is clear that sympathy is a leap of the imagination rather than the transmission of sentiments from one agent to another. We can observe the circumstances and actions of others, but we can never in fact experience what they do. All one can do is read the external signs and use his or her imagination.

Mutual sympathy is pleasurable, according to Smith. We are pleased when others share our sentiments and pained by a lack of fellow-feeling when they do not (Smith 1982, 14-16). Smith is careful to state that this pleasure is unrelated to utility or self-interest, and that we desire to give and receive sympathy simply because it is pleasurable to be in harmony with others. As agents seek the pleasure and recognition of mutual sympathy, they each know that the other cannot feel what they feel with the same intensity. It follows that both the person who feels the original passion and the spectator must raise or lower the “pitch” of their sentiments, whether joy, grief, indignation, or other passions, to a level that the other can share. Through a mutual modulation of sentiments and passions, persons achieve not the unison of passions—which Smith believes is impossible—but a form of “harmony” or “concord” (Smith 1982, 22).

Finally, just as we judge others’ passions (and their consequent acts) as proper or improper, meretricious or blameworthy, through our ability to sympathize with them, we know that others are also judging our motives, passions, and acts. The repeated practice of imagining ourselves from the perspective of others gives rise to a mechanism of social control that Smith calls the impartial spectator. While there are real impartial spectators—anonymous strangers with no particular connection to us— Smith is interested in how the impartial spectator can be internalized within each person in the form of conscience or, following Mead (1967), what we might now call “the generalized other”. The impartial spectator “within” is the abstract representation of our imagined understanding of impartial strangers’ sympathetic reactions if those others were fully informed of all of our situations, motives, sentiments, and actions (Smith 1982, 109-113). The impartial spectator corrects our tendency to favor our own interests and, as such, guides moral action and sustains the social life of strangers.

Smith thus develops his account of social and moral life from the interactions of individuals who are social because they can imagine social life from the perspective of others. Ultimately, the communication of sentiments is the source of all social and political institutions. It would be possible and useful to address this in detail by considering the different passions, their corresponding virtues, and their connection to institutional structures. However, for my purposes, the details are less significant than the general point that Smith provides us with an interpretation of the social as fully sustained and animated by its own immanent processes (Singer 2004). While these processes may, in Smith’s view, have been set into motion by a divine will, they operate spontaneously and independently of human will and reason.

Theorizing the social through sympathy, Smith discovers the theoretical significance of social relations between both friends and strangers. Indeed, Smith elaborates an important account of personal relationships. Here he develops an important distinction between the strong sympathies that we develop for those closest to us—our families, colleagues, and neighbors—which he claims are involuntary because they are “imposed by the necessity of the situation” (Smith 1982, 224), and a form of genuine friendship that he calls “sacred and venerable”. Genuine friendship, for Smith, is different from the “habitual sympathy” of relations imposed by the necessity of the situation (Smith 1982, 225), whether the demands of an external environment that requires mutual accommodation or the exigencies of family, neighborhood, or profession (Silver 1997). Instead, friendship involves affection and respect on the basis of the other’s “personal qualities” (Smith 1982, 225). Furthermore, friendship, as a bond of affection and respect, is valued for its own sake, independently of the utility or advantage that the friends may receive. For friends, the moral value of friendship is not the exchange of “good offices” but the “harmony of their hearts” (Smith 1982, 39).

We should not, however, exaggerate Smith’s enthusiasm for friendship. Because friendship is mediated by the imaginative work of the internalized impartial spectator within each socialized person (Smith 1982, 40, 214), his depiction is more moderate and less emotionally intense than representations of friendship in other writers. Nowhere does Smith speak of friends as “one soul in two bodies”, as Montaigne does (1958, 99). Nor do we “communicate our whole self” in friendship as Kant suggests (1991, 241). Further, friendship in Smith is not based on a demanding form of inter-subjective transparency as in Rousseau (Starobinski 1988, 5). Smith may speak of the harmony of hearts but never of their transparency or communion. As well, Smith may limit the purest friendships to “men of virtue” but virtue for him is social. The virtuous individual is the socialized individual, the one who can control his or her passions and their expressions so as to achieve concord with others. In other words, the virtuous friend is not the “beautiful soul” required by Rousseau but the friend with exceptional skill in what Goffman (1959) calls impression management (Smith 1982, 23-25). This is why we can have confidence in the “conduct and behaviour” of the friend (Smith 1982, 225). The friend meets our social expectations and, as such, we can have confidence in her character and feel that we know her. Friendship is a particular, affectionate, maybe even an intimate bond, and yet it is structured and interpreted through the eyes of that more impersonal other, the impartial spectator, who is necessarily present within any person virtuous enough to be capable of friendship.

Smith is highly original in linking friendship not with transparency but with impression management, because he can decouple it from intimacy and locate it in the public world of strangers. Indeed, Smith only values friendship to the extent that it opens up the friends to the wider world of strangers. To retreat into one’s own home, with one’s friends and family, is to lose touch with the moral quality of the world of strangers and to lose the connection to social reality (Smith 1982, 22-23, 154-156, 230-234). Absent in Smith is the more common and contemporary contrast between the warmth and trust of pure friendship in private vis-a-vis a supposed indifferent and lonely public world where civil and political bonds are based on contracts and interests, a view which has received its clearest critique in Richard Sennett’s (1976) The Fall of Public Man. Instead, Smith describes a meaningful public world where one moves and acts with strangers qua strangers, which, while impersonal, is nonetheless animated by friendship and sympathy. Actions may be scripted and ritualized and impressions and sentiments may be managed, but they are still deeply meaningful and not false or dissimulated. The public world of strangers, for Smith, is not a veneer, as in Rousseau, that masks a deeper, more authentic underlying reality, but is a space of appearance where moral and social life are enacted and produced through interactions with others.

This pragmatist and interactionist vision of a deeply meaningful public space has attracted the interest of recent theorists of friendship and stranger relations (Hill 2011; Silver 1997). The social distance between strangers in Smith’s interpretation does not weaken the moral order but instead facilitates a general and impersonal sympathy that permeates society and gives rise to a universal form of sociability (Silver 1997, 54). The result, as Silver argues, is that sympathy becomes the new regulating principle of civil society. Sympathy “generates a kind of social lubrication throughout civil society, and is key to a deinstitutionalized moral order no longer authoritatively sustained by religious, economic, and political institutions” (Silver 1997, 55). “Strangership”, then, indicates the specific way in which Smith believed stranger relations are enacted in the new universal space of commercial civil society. Indeed, strangership in Smith can best be understood as a form of friendship, one which is much less intense than the rarer “sacred and venerable” form but which can be extended, as Hill (2011, 113) notes, “to almost anybody whom one has contact with in the course of the business day”. This newly dominant mode of stranger relations in commercial civil society is imbued with a generalized atmosphere of goodwill, generosity, and trust in a space where interactions are predictable, civil, calm, and friendly. Unlike what we may expect from an early liberal theorist of commercial society, at the foundation of civil society is not the autonomous, calculating, selfinterested individual but friendship, sympathy, and the social bond. Nonetheless, if we stopped here, our view of Smith would be one-sided and devolve into a form of liberal Aristotelianism that would confine political friendship to a certain privileged class. If we want an interpretation of Smith apposite to critical sociology, we must look deeper into the contradictions of his work. One way to do so is to ask what and who is excluded from this ideal interpretation of public space and consider a second form of strangership in his work, one based on inequality and the denial of sympathy.

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