John Alexander Smith

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John Alexander Smith (21 April 1863 – 19 December 1939) was an Idealist philosopher, who was the Jowett Lecturer of philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford from 1896 to 1910, and Waynflete Professor of Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy, carrying a Fellowship at Magdalen College in the same university, from 1910 to 1936. He was born in Dingwall and died in Oxford.

Smith was educated at Inverness Academy, at the collegiate school, Edinburgh, at Edinburgh University (where he was Ferguson classical scholar in 1884), and at Balliol College, Oxford, to which he was admitted as Warner exhibitioner and honorary scholar in Hilary term 1884. His most visible accomplishments were his work with William David Ross on a 12-volume commentary on Aristotle, and his Gifford Lectures for 1929-1931 on the Heritage of Idealism, which were never published.

The 'Moral' tag in his Professorial title disappeared with R.G. Collingwood's appointment in 1936. Smith expressed some unease about the combination of 'moral' and 'metaphysical' in his inaugural lecture Knowing and Acting, Oxford: OUP, 1910: 4-5): The framer of the Chair's regulations, he remarks, describes the Professor's duties 'in a way which rather sets a problem than furnishes guidance. The Professor, he says, 'shall lecture and give instruction on the principles and history of Mental Philosophy, and on its connexion with Ethics.' He distinguishes two great departments of philosophical thought — so recognizedly different as already to be assigned for separate treatment to two other Professors in the University — and he enjoins that they shall be afresh discussed in their connexion with one another, yet with respect to their distinction. It can scarcely be his meaning that his Professor should attempt the invidious task of harmonizing the possibly divergent accounts given of Logic by the Wykeham Professor and of Ethics by Whyte's Professor, of performing in public the higher synthesis of his colleagues' several contributions to philosophic truth, or — less arrogantly — of indicating or reinforcing their latent consonance. Such a task, had it been required or suggested, I could not have undertaken.'

Smith interpreted the requirements of his professorship as metaphysical, though he is often referred to as simply a Professor of Moral Philosophy as in Alastair Horne's biography of Harold Macmillan (1894-1986): '... he [Macmillan] recalled the words with which his Professor of Moral Philosophy, J.A. Smith, had opened a lecture course in 1914: 'Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life — save only this — if you work hard and diligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education. (A. Horne, Macmillan, London: Macmillan, 1988, I: 27)

Smith's early and perhaps predominant interests were literary and philological, as he makes clear in Contemporary British Philosophy, Second Series, ed. J.H. Muirhead, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1925:228. At the turn of the twentieth-century he espoused a form of realism but by the time of his appointment to the Waynflete Professorship had come strongly under the sway of the Italian philosopher, Benedetto Croce (1866-1952). The philosophy of Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944) later exerted a powerful influence.

There is a good account of Smith's life and career in Sir David Ross' entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, 1931-40 (Oxford: OUP). See also J.D. Mabbott, Oxford Memories, Oxford: Thornton, 1986: 74; and A.J. Ayer, Part of My Life, London: Collins, 1977: 77, 144, 152. A.N. Wilson's biography of C.S. Lewis, a colleague of Smith's at Magdalen, makes reference to Smith (A.N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis: A Life, New York: W. W. Norton, 1990) as does Lewis' voluminous published correspondence. For personal glimpses: John Buchan, Memory Hold-the-Door, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1940: 49; L. E. Jones, An Edwardian Youth, London: Macmillan, 1956; D. Scott, A.D. Lindsay, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971: 41, 43, 45, 51, 52, 113; Sir Ernest Barker, Age and Youth, London: OUP, 1953: 319; P.E. Matheson, The Life of Hastings Rashdall, London: OUP, 1928: 127, 221; Sir Henry Jones & J.H. Muirhead, The Life and Philosophy of Edward Caird, Bristol: Thoemmes, 1991: 156-7; J. Joliffe, Raymond Asquith: Life and Letters, London: Collins, 1980: 90.

For philosophical assessments, see Adrian Coates, A Sceptical Examination of Contemporary British Philosophy, London: Brentano's, 1929: 163-87; and James Patrick, The Magdalen Metaphysicals, USA: Mercer University Press, 47-75. In Sir Roy Harrod's The Prof, London: Macmillan, 1959: 18-21, there is a sharply observed if unsympathetic account of Smith's contribution to a debate on relativity theory with F.A. Lindemann, then Dr Lee's Professor in Experimental Philosophy [Physics] at Oxford, shortly after the First World War.

Publications[edit]

  • Knowing and Acting, Oxford, 1910.
  • 'On Feeling', Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, XIV, 1913–14, 49-75.
  • 'General Relative Clauses in Greek', The Classical Review, 31, 1917, 69-71.
  • Review of T.L. Heath, A History of Greek Mathematics, The Classical Review, 37, 1923, 69-71.
  • The Nature of Art, Oxford, 1924.
  • 'Philosophy As the Development of the Notion and Reality of Self-Consciousness', Contemporary British Philosophy: Second Series, ed. J.H. Muirhead, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1925, 227-244.
  • Foreword, S.Z. Hasan, Realism, Cambridge, 1928. On Hasan, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syed_Zafarul_Hasan.
  • 'Artificial Languages', Society for Pure English, Tract XXXIV, Oxford, 1930, 469-77.
  • Translation of Aristotle, de Anima, The Works of Aristotle, vol. III, ed. W.D. Ross, Oxford, 1931.

Attributed authorship[edit]

  • Wanted ! A New School at Oxford, Oxford, 1909. Robert Currie tentatively attributes to Smith this pamphlet, which proposes 'a modern-side Greats, based on philosophy' similar in the event to the school of Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) founded in 1920. (R. Currie, 'The Arts and Social Studies, 1914-1939', The History of the University of Oxford, v. VIII, The Twentieth Century, ed. B. Harrison, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995, 112.

External links[edit]

  • Biography of Smith by Dr Michael W. DeLashmutt for Templeton Press' site for the Gifford Lectures.