(17/02/1953 – 28/07/2017)
“Every scholarly book … reflects a soul that has become crooked”, Nietzsche once claimed in The Gay Science. The philosopher David Smith, author of three exceptional scholarly books, proved him wrong. Smith was a deeply serious scholar whose impressive philosophical knowledge ranged from Aristotle up to the present day. But he was also a great socialiser – witty, deep and provocatively opinionated in conversation. He was a well-informed lover of food and drink and pubs, an excellent cook (except when his cooking became a little too ‘experimental’, his wife Lucy said), and an expert pool player. And he was drawn to art of all kinds. He was well-read in literature and very interested in painting and architecture. He was particularly passionate about music. He had a prodigious knowledge of classical music, spanning the whole European art music tradition – baroque, classical, romantic and modern – and he was a great pianist and a gifted improviser. Smith, Essex and later Warwick colleague Tom Sorell said, “was not a rule-follower or a believer in moderation”. He showed us how scholarliness can be an essential part of a flourishing life.
Smith grew up in Stretford near Manchester. After having been educated at the University of Oxford, his philosophical career started in the 1980s with a lectureship at the University of Essex. In 2003, he jumped from being a lecturer at Essex to a chair at the University of Sussex. In 2007, he moved on to the University of Warwick where he stayed until he took early retirement in 2014. It was during his time at Essex that Smith developed an interest in continental philosophy, and in phenomenology, in particular. Smith’s philosophical abilities were at first showcased in a series of papers published in leading philosophy journals, including an article in Philosophical Review on Locke and primary and secondary qualities (1990). It was only fairly late in his career that he published the books that he is now well known for.
Smith is probably best known for The Problem of Perception (2004). Bill Brewer, Smith’s former colleague at Warwick, said that the book “presents a truly original solution to the problem of how to combine commonsense Direct Realism - the view that in normal perception we are immediately aware of mind-independent objects and their properties - with the undeniable existence of illusion and hallucination. The discussion of our awareness of intentional objects in hallucination, and their role in distinguishing qualitatively distinct such hallucinations is genuinely path-breaking and makes a major contribution to the area.” Part of the richness of this book, which will continue to be essential reading in the philosophy of perception for many years to come, is how it carefully develops the main view by drawing with great subtlety and ingenuity on a range of historical antecedents from both the analytical and continental traditions.
Smith is also well known for his book on Husserl and the Cartesian Meditations (2003). According to Warwick colleague Peter Poellner, it “is one of the most accomplished, nuanced and ambitious advanced introductions to the work of Husserl, one of the pivotal figures of 20th century philosophy and often considered the founder of the phenomenological tradition. It displays a profound grasp both of Husserl’s massive and complex oeuvre, including many as yet untranslated or indeed unpublished manuscripts, and of the terrain of contemporary philosophy of mind.” The book, written as a guidebook for students and scholars, opened up the subtlety of Husserl’s philosophy to many Anglophone readers and contributed to a new surge of interest in Husserlian phenomenology.
As a teacher, Smith was well-respected by his students for his clarity and his authoritativeness, his Essex colleague Peter Dews said. No doubt, he also impressed them with his ability to hold his drink and with his cooking skills. Every year during his time at Essex, his colleague Béatrice Han-Pile said, “he would buy a turkey the size of a pony (more or less) and invite all the graduate students to his house for a meal, with much beer and wine”. He taught on a wide range of subjects, including on Aristotle, the history of early modern and modern philosophy, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, phenomenology, and the philosophy of religion. According to Han-Pile, Smith exceled at the white board. She said: “I attended his Husserl classes for a term and he would literally walk at least a mile each time, back and forth, back and forth, fast enough to work out a sweat. He needed to move in order to think. He would write on the board seemingly at random and somehow never have too much or too little space: his boards were works of art. Everything was in the right place, clearly written, aesthetically arranged. His boards would have made one believe in pre-established harmony!”
Smith did not often mention that he had a degree in theology. But one of his first published articles was on “God's Death” (Theology, 1977) and his last book, Anselm’s Other Argument, was on the philosophy of religion. The book grew out of an interest in substance, with a particular focus on Spinoza, that Smith developed while at Sussex. The book is another testament to Smith’s subtlety and breadth, both as philosopher and as a historian of the field. It presents a reading of Anselm that uncovers an ontological argument for God’s existence that Smith took to be more powerful than those that are commonly considered. As Warwick colleague Guy Longworth explains: “the argument takes off from the premise that God’s existence could not depend on anything else. On the (large) assumption that God’s existence is possible, it follows from the opening premise that God’s failure actually to exist would be inexplicable, since it couldn’t be explained by the absence of anything on which God’s existence depended. Hence (given the further assumption that God’s non-existence couldn’t be inexplicable), God actually exists.”
Around the time when he left Essex, when he was in his fifties, Smith started a family and this marked a new turn in his life. While he was still at Essex, Smith was known for spending long hours in the pubs in Colchester, drinking beer and playing pool. Later in the evening, his Essex colleague Peter Dews said, he would listen to classical music at high volume at home until the early hours of the morning. After he married Lucy, he became a doting father to their daughter Eleanor. As a family, they liked exploring the cultural and culinary highlights of Europe. Smith had always enjoyed this, Lucy said, but sharing this with his family brought to these expeditions a new element of light-heartedness and fun.
Smith was driven by an extraordinary intellectual energy. As his Sussex colleague Michael Morris put it, this was manifest whether Smith was “giving a talk (with almost no notes) at a Philosophy Society meeting, or asking deep and penetrating questions when someone else spoke, or in discussion in the pub or over a meal: he never seemed to stop.”
Sadly, he has now stopped. Smith died on 28 July 2017, aged 64. He is survived by his wife Lucy Huskinson and his daughter Eleanor.