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Memorial Remarks for John Edwin Smith

from the “Sermons and Services” collection

On Saturday, June 8, 1963, John Smith flew with a friend in a Piper Cub from New Haven to a small airport at Athens, New York, on the west side of the Hudson River. He was met by a relative of mine who drove him at a high rate of speed to the nearest bridge, the Rip Van Winkle, over to the east side of the river and up to Claverack, New York, where, ten minutes later, he married me to Beth Egan and then dashed back to the plane to fly home. That was a very tight, if swiftly tied, knot because our 47th anniversary is coming up in a few weeks. You can see a picture of him with us that day. The previous Monday, June 3rd, I had received my Ph.D. from Yale, mentored through graduate and undergraduate work by John Smith. Dick Bernstein was also an important part of my education those years, and was on the dissertation committee; but it was John who led me through. Some few months afterward I flew to my family home in Missouri to be ordained in the Methodist Church, which would not have been remotely conceivable if John Smith had not demonstrated to me that it is possible to be thoroughly philosophical and also seriously religious. Perhaps you get an inkling of how important he has been for me.

As to the academic side, from my sophomore through senior years at Yale I was assigned to be John’s “bursary boy.” Although that term is politically incorrect now, the job was one of the best things in my life. I earned my scholarship by working for him two hours a day, five days a week. Each day we talked philosophy for an hour and three quarters and I took his dictation on his Smith-Corona portable typewriter for 15 minutes. At the end of that time I had the equivalent of about twelve semesters of tutorials with one of the smartest philosophers alive, and could type 120 words a minute. The philosophy we talked about included the figures I was reading in my classes, especially Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Peirce, Dewey, Royce, and Whitehead. His undergraduate seminar on Royce and Dewey shaped my intellectual life forever after. Some of you remember how he often used the phrase, “to break a lance for Royce (or someone)” to indicate how to extract an important truth from a thinker we all know to be largely mistaken. What a lesson that was in generosity of philosophical spirit: to understand a thinker to be mistaken by examining what is nevertheless right and valuable in the philosophy! That’s how he taught me and so many others, including both of my daughters, how to read great philosophers, not as positions to be refuted but to be mined for great ideas.

Coming to Yale as the most junior faculty member in the Philosophy Department, John was assigned to teach German philosophy, which he did with great effectiveness. I had four seminars with him on Kant’s First Critique and three on Hegel’s Lesser Logic over my years here. With each repetition John showed new depths I had missed before. But his great love was American philosophy which he interpreted with zest and originality. As an intellectual historian he made his mark with Jonathan Edwards, eventually becoming general editor of the Edwards Works. Some of you have read his long, highly original, introductory essay in the volume on Edwards’ Religious Affections, relating Edwards to Cambridge Platonism; well, I typed that. John saw far more deeply than Perry Miller the significance of Edwards as a philosopher for the subsequent history of American philosophy, especially with regard to experience and aesthetics. His main focus, however, was on the classical American philosophers about whom he wrote several books, most notably Purpose and Thought: The Meaning of Pragmatism. Through his books and many students, the gospel of Smith’s pragmatism has spread far and wide.

At the heart of his thought, however, was what, for the sake of professional propriety, can be called philosophy of religion. This was the side he found most interesting in the American philosophers, starting with Edwards and including Royce. And it is what taught me about the possibility to be seriously philosophical and religious at once. His arguments in print have to do with the pragmatic sense of experience as religious experience, and how this squares with the ontological questions that have been posed in German philosophy down through his teacher, Paul Tillich. The deeper arguments, however, are those I heard during all those bursary hours spent in 1562 Timothy Dwight College where the existential meanings of the great philosophical ideas were engaged. Although I had only the swarmy existential problems of any weird undergraduate, John faced the choice of whether to move to Columbia and Union to take up Paul Tillich’s vacated chair. He decided to stay at Yale because investment in the care of the institution is more important than career-hopping, and while I was still his secretary he became chair of the Yale Philosophy Department. That role was not unalloyed joy, given the politics of philosophy at the time. Subsequently John was the first “pluralist” to be elected president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in an election where the chief opposition was a member of his own department. Nevertheless, in his later years I think John was ultimately satisfied that he had done right to put down roots and take his stand for philosophy and institutional integrity here. There is true religion in that groundedness, a serious meaning of what he called the “depth dimension” of experience, the “Ground of Being,” in Tillich’s terms.

I’ve spoken briefly here about how John was a philosophical mentor and a religious inspiration for me. But he also performed my marriage, which is to say, he had a very important part in making me whole. I had come to him as a wholly untutored young man from a downscale public high school in St. Louis that had never before sent a graduate out of state to college, smart enough to be dangerous but clueless enough to be very dangerous. Like a father he nurtured me. I met Robyn when she was a babe in arms and Diana when she was in utero. Babysitting for them I developed a horrendous allergy to their cats that lasted twenty five years, imbibing the family germs as it were. John and Marilyn entertained my parents when they came for graduation. In later years John and I worked together to expand the professional life of philosophy, being the original officers of SOPHIA. For the last two decades or so we have collaborated on the board of the Hocking-Cabot trust, which is dedicated to the promotion of systematic philosophy in America. Through that trust runs a great living philosophical tradition from the classical pragmatists to William Ernest Hocking, to Richard Hocking, founder of the trust, to John Smith and now to the students of my students as well as many other collaborators. On his last afternoon he and I were emailing back and forth about Trust business, and Diana informed me of his death by responding to my last message. What a privilege it is to have been with John Smith so long, a great spirit who was “breaking lances” for life until the very end.

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