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Portrait of David Hume (detail) by Allan Ramsey (1754)

Norman Kemp Smith (1872-1958)


Norman Duncan Smith was born in Dundee on 5 May 1872. After graduating from the University of St Andrews in 1893, Smith’s first book, Studies in the Cartesian Philosophy (1902), was very well received, and earned him the DPhil from St Andrews. In 1906 Smith was awarded the Stuart Chair of Psychology at Princeton. He rose to Chairman of the Department of Philosophy and Psychology and then, in 1914, to the McCosh Chair in Philosophy. During a return visit to Scotland in 1910 he married long-time friend Amy Kemp, whose last name he substituted for his own neglected middle name. In 1919 he was elected to the prestigious Chair of Logic and Metaphysics at Edinburgh University, and occupied it for the remainder of his career. He died in Edinburgh on 3 September 1958.

The work for which he is most widely known, the masterful translation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, appeared in 1929. Kemp Smith subsequently turned his attention to his own country’s greatest philosopher, publishing an edition of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in 1935, and his influential The Philosophy of David Hume in 1941.

The Philosophy of David Hume righted an errant tendency in the scholarship of Kemp Smith’s time. The tendency was to read Hume as essentially a sceptic who had brought empiricism to its logical, and fundamentally negative, conclusion. For Kemp Smith, the sceptical arguments in Book I of the Treatise against rational justifications of induction, causality and the external world are meant to clear the way for the alternative naturalistic form of explanation exemplified in the moral theory of Books II and III (which he maintains were composed first). Although not all Hume scholars accept the notion that he ‘entered into his Philosophy through the Gateway of Morals’ (p. 12), Kemp Smith’s recovery of a positive, naturalistic programme in the Treatise is now more or less taken for granted. His other main contribution to Hume studies is a critical edition of the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which has a book-length Introduction discussing Hume’s relation to his native Calvinism, his treatment of religion in other works and of course the arguments of the Dialogues themselves. Kemp Smith defends the then unpopular view that, notwithstanding Pamphilus’s closing pronouncement in favour of the believer Cleanthes, Hume’s own position throughout is steadfastly that of the sceptic Philo. Far from a cautious rapprochement of sceptical philosophy and religion, the Dialogues are according to Kemp Smith a thoroughgoing and deliberate attack on ‘the religious hypothesis’.

Selected from Geoffrey Gorham, Continuum Encyclopedia of British Philosophy (2006), ed. A.C. Grayling, Naomi Goulder, and Andrew Pyle

Norman Kemp Smith’s The Philosophy of David Hume continues to be unsurpassed in its comprehensive coverage of the ideas and issues of Hume’s Treatise. Now, after years of waiting, this currently out-of-print and highly sought-after classic is being re-issued. This ground-breaking book has long been regarded as a classic study by scholars in the field, yet a new introduction by Don Garrett places the book in its contemporary context, showing Hume's continuing importance in the field.


Kemp Smith’s emphasis on Hume’s naturalism flies in the face of the skeptical interpretation of Hume that has been popular for more than two hundred years. Kemp Smith has given a strong provocative statement of his case. . . . In spite of the disagreement of many scholars with Kemp Smith’s interpretation, it remains perhaps the major commentary on Hume in this century.

–Masterpieces of World Philosophy (1990), ed. Frank N. Magill


Naturalism versus scepticism. Feeling versus reason. These dichotomies, descending from Norman Kemp Smith, have framed the terms of debate in the study of Hume for sixty-plus years. Almost every significant piece of work on Hume has Kemp Smith in the rear-view mirror.

–Louis E. Loeb, “What is Worth Preserving in the Kemp Smith Interpretation of Hume?” British Journal for the History of Philosophy (2009)


Norman Kemp Smith University of Edinburgh

Norman Kemp Smith International Association for Scottish Philosophy

First article published in Hume Studies:
“Hume, The Causal Principle, and Kemp Smith”
David C. Stove, Hume Studies (April, 1975)

“Kemp Smith, Hume and the Parallelism Between Reason and Morality”
Houghton Dalrymple, Hume Studies (April, 1986)

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