John Alexander Smith was born in Dingwall, Ross-shire on 21 April 1863, the second son of Andrew Smith and Jane Eliza Fraser. His father was the solicitor and county clerk of Ross. John attended the University of Edinburgh where in 1884 he was the Ferguson classical scholar. Later, he was admitted to Balliol College, Oxford, where he obtained a first class in classics (1885) and literae humaniores (1887). In 1891 he was elected a fellow of Balliol and later in 1896 he was appointed Jowett Lecturer in Philosophy. In 1910 Smith was elected Waynflete Professor of Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford, becoming a fellow of Magdalen College.
Smith’s most substantial academic work was his twelve-volume commentary on and translation of the works of Aristotle, composed with his colleague William D. Ross. Though he was neither a systematician nor a prolific writer, the closest thing to a system of philosophy that Smith provides is a series of ‘suppositions’ which argue that reality is in constant flux, history is essentially spiritual, and the most-real reality is the self-conscious mind. This was presumably the content of his unpublished Glasgow Gifford Lectures, entitled ‘The Heritage of Idealism’, given in the academic years of 1929-1931. Smith retired from his chair in 1936 and died a bachelor at Oxford on 19 December 1939.
In addition to his translation of Aristotle, Smith’s two other publications are: Knowing and Acting (1910) and The Nature of Art (1924).