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A Note in Memory of John Edwin Smith

JESmith.jpgIt is impossible to put the rich complexity of a unique human life into words, but sometimes, the articulation of a single idea can capture something of a life that might otherwise escape notice. 

I did not know John Smith personally, nor do I have a deep familiarity with the breadth of his scholarship, but a single essay of his has had an important impact on me: “Being, Immediacy, and Articulation,” The Review of Metaphysics 24, no. 4 (1971): 593-613. 

Professor Smith died earlier this month; but it is only now, as I submit the final manuscript of my book on Aristotle and pause to reflect on the many sources from which that project grew and ultimately blossomed, that an insistent sense of responsibility compels me to articulate something of the influence Smith’s essay has had on my thinking in that book.

In his essay, given originally as the Presidential Address to the 22nd annual meeting of the Metaphysical Society of America on March 19, 1971, Smith argues for this basic idea:

“articulation is not alien to Being, but, on the contrary, belongs to it essentially such that there is no a priori ground for the belief that articulation and distortion go hand in hand” (Smith, 594).

The recognition that articulation belongs to being, that what is lends itself to articulation, is central to my book, which attempts to argue for an understanding of truth as the ability to respond to and with the ways things express themselves.  On the basis of this, I try to suggest that truth must be understood in terms of justice, namely, as the capacity to do justice to things by attempting to articulate them according to the way they express themselves.

Smith develops the idea that articulation is not alien to Being by distinguishing between: 1) insistence, which names the “primordial thereness” of things (597); 2) persistence: the character of lastingness – the fact that, as he so poignantly puts it, “every discriminable object has a career” (598) and 3) expression, which “involves relations among many individuals forming … community” (598).

On the basis of these distinctions, Smith goes on to specify the meaning of articulation that allows us to understand the idea that “Being is not alien to articulation” in a way that does not reduce it to a naive optimism.  Smith suggests that there are two dimensions to articulation:

  1. “Articulation means the making of something distinct so that it stands out as an identifiable unit with its parts arranged in significant patterns.”
  2. “On the other hand, articulation means that the manner of making something distinct requires its being set in precise relations to other things” (602).

To put this in terms I develop in the book, there is always an insistent unicity expressed in articulation that requires us to recognize that although articulation belongs to being, something elusive is always also announced in articulation itself.  Further, however, by emphasizing that articulation is relational at its root, Smith invites us to think the possibilities articulation opens for community without denying the insistent elusiveness endemic to our encounters with things.

In a certain sense, this is the invitation I take up in the book on truth in Aristotle, but more importantly here, it is what has animated this attempt to articulate something of the life of John Smith, even if it is a but a very small contribution to a much larger endeavor in which he and we participate.


  • Vincent Colapietro says:

    It would be impossible for me to imagine a more fitting recollection of this singular philosopher than recalling quite specifically the eloquent manner in which John Smith articulated such a pivotal idea as the one on which you focus in this entry. For John, the experiential and the philosophical are inextricably intertwined. This implies that the personal and the philosophical are likewise knit together. By implication, your reflections make this evident. By explication, you allow John’s own voice, in its tempered yet emphatic insistence upon intelligibility through articulation, to be audible to those far removed from the original occasion of his presidential address to the MSA. From my conversations with him, he knew of your receptivity to his ideas and was very grateful to know that they had secured such an afterlife. Thank you.

  • Christopher P. Long says:

    Vincent, your comment here means a lot to me.
    What I did not say in the body of the post, but what must be said here, is that it was you who brought this essay and John Smith’s work to my attention when I first arrived at Penn State in 2004.
    In many ways, the book I have just completed is an attempt to come to terms with the continental tradition in which I was educated at the New School and the American tradition into which I was born. Your work and the work of John Smith stand as models for me as I continue to bring these two traditions into genuine philosophical dialogue.
    My thinking and my life, ineluctably knit together as you rightly emphasize, are enriched by the ongoing dialogue in which we have long been engaged. The spirit of Smith’s thinking can be heard in it and I look forward, as ever, to continuing it in the years to come.

  • Theodore BaBa Loder says:

    Even for someone more involved in theological thought than in philosophical, I am
    impressed by your presentation of Smith’s work and influence on your own. It has
    significant possible connections with Christian views individuality within community and the emphasis on the compelling notion of justice as essential to the creation, definition and sustenance of life itself. Articulation is clearly a factor of justice.
    Thanks for this, Chris

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