James Ward Smith

James Ward Smith

James Ward Smith (1917-1999) was a member of the Department of Philosophy at Princeton University 1947-1987.

A member of Princeton's Class of 1938, Smith was a teaching fellow at Harvard University for one year, and was awarded his Ph.D. in philosophy at Princeton in 1942. After 4 years of wartime service in the U.S. Navy, returned to teach philosophy at Princeton until he retired in 1987. Virtually everyone in the Philosophy Department attended his last lecture to show respect and affection for their colleague at the end of his long career.

Smith's naval career in the Pacific during the Second World War was an important phase of his life. He was a beachmaster in the landings at Kwajelein, Guam (where he earned a Bronze Star for valor), Peleliu, Leyte Gulf, Moratai, Lingayen Gulf, and Iwo Jima. He was under orders to be a beachmaster during the planned invasion of Japan, but he was saved from this perilous assignment when President Truman ordered the dropping of the atomic bombs. Smith was a charismatic leader: the 50 men under his command loved and respected him for courageously leading them and caring deeply about their welfare through months of harrowing, extremely dangerous operations.

Smith's philosophical work predominantly concerned American philosophy and meta-ethics. His book Theme for Reason was published by the Princeton University Press in 1957 and in 1961 he co-edited with A. Leland Jamison a four-volume work entitled Religion in American Life. During the years from 1955 to 1961 he was chair of the Interdepartmental Program in American Civilization.

Jim Smith was an undergraduate teacher of extraordinary reputation. In his famous course "Philosophy and the Modern Mind," which he taught for thirty years, he brought legions of young students to a living awareness of important philosophical issues through examining the works of Descartes, Berkeley, Hume, Kant and Peirce. Using skills acquired as an actor in undergraduate theatrical productions for instance, he starred in Eugene O'Neill's "The Great God Brown" -- he transfixed his students as he vividly wrestled with the huge issues raised by these great thinkers. As one of his former students remarked, "His love of the dramatic [infused] his lectures and preceptorials with both gusto and idealism .... His enthusiasm spread everywhere, like sunlight." Standing ovations were regular occurrences at the packed lectures: students typically left the last lecture of the course in a state of teary exultation.

For many years Smith lived in bachelor apartments on campus. He was the first master of Wilson College, guiding it through its formative period in the 60's. His door was always open, and undergraduates would drop in to discuss philosophy, current campus events, personal problems, and much else. Several of these students became devoted lifelong friends.

Over the years, many of the graduate students in the Philosophy Department had their first teaching experience in Smith's renowned course. He cared intensely about educating them as teachers of the young, and was a constant source of inspiration and sage advice.

Near the end of his life, Smith, thinking of his wartime experiences and his career as a teacher, wrote to a friend: "I have helped and been helped by more wonderful human beings than I can count. It HAS been a wonderful life!"