Smith, ever the philosopher

John Edwin Smith, philosophy professor emeritus and the former president of the American Philosophical Association, died of a stroke while visiting his daughter in Arlington, Va., on Dec. 7. He was 88.

During his time at Yale, from 1952 to 1991, Smith focused his research on the role of religion in the American consciousness. He wrote several books, including, “Experience and God” and “America’s Philosophical Vision.”

Thomas P. Kasulis, a former student of Smith’s who co-edited the 1997 book “The Recovery of Philosophy in America: Essays in Honor of John Edwin Smith,” said in his introduction to the book that he admired Smith both as a scholar and as a person.

“If I could become someone like John Smith,” Kasulis recalled thinking as a student, “that would not be a bad thing.”

Smith served as chair of the philosophy department for three years in the 1960s.

Smith focused his interests on American pragmatism and idealism and the philosophy of religion. Recently, the courses he taught at Yale included “Peirce’s Evolutionary Philosophy” and “The Essentials of Pragmatism.”

Smith revived interest in American philosophers like pragmatists Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey, and idealist Josiah Royce. In addition to writing several works, Smith co-edited of the multivolume series “The Works of Jonathan Edwards,” in which he collected the writings of the Yale graduate and prominent colonial theologian.

Among his many honors, Smith was President of the American Philosophical Association in 1981.

Smith was born in Brooklyn on May 27, 1921. He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Columbia University in 1942, a master’s of divinity from Union Theological Seminary in 1945 and a doctorate from Columbia in 1948. Prior to his tenure at Yale, Smith taught at Vassar and Barnard colleges.

After retiring from teaching, Smith continued to live in New Haven. His wife of 55 years, Marilyn Schulhof Smith, taught philosophy at the University of Hartford before her death in 2006 at age 75. John Smith is survived by two daughters, Diana Smith and Robin Smith Swanberg, and one grandchild, Tyler William Swanberg.


  • Robert Schneider

    Though I’m happy to be the first one to post a comment, it’s also ashame that no one else has commented. Prof. Smith was a very important philosopher in his generation and an important teacher at Yale. By way of his former students and the force of his own work, he continues to have influence on those working in the general area of American philosophy, Jonathan Edwards, and the field of philosophical theology. I appreciate John Smith for sparking my interest in Josiah Royce. As to his person, this man had one of the most congenial academic personalities I’ve ever seen. We’re all human and all must pass on at some point, but when people like Prof. Smith go, we’re all much poorer for the loss. Rest in peace.