Born in 1872 in Dundee, Norman Kemp Smith was plain Norman Smith until his marriage to Amy Kemp in 1910. His father was a cabinet-maker, and he was the only one of the six children in his family to go to university: to St Andrews, from whence he graduated with a First in Mental Philosophy in 1893. This was followed by a period as an Assistant at the University of Glasgow, where he remained until 1906, except for a break of eighteen months spent studying at the Universities of Zurich, Berlin and Paris. His first book, Studies in the Cartesian Philosophy, was published in 1902, and on the strength of it he was awarded a Doctorate from St Andrews. He also started serious work on Hume, completing the two seminal Mind articles that first outlined his naturalistic interpretation (1905).
In 1906 Kemp Smith was interviewed by Woodrow Wilson, then President of Princeton University, for the Chair of Psychology there. (The inteview took place in the North British Hotel in Edinburgh, now the Balmoral.) He was appointed, and spent the period from 1906 to 1916 at Princeton, coming to be Chairman of the department of Philosophy and Psychology in 1913, and McCosh Professor of Philosophy in 1914. (For some discussion of the Scottish influence on Princeton philosophy, see James Ward Smith's brief History of the Princeton Philosophy Department.) During this period he wrote his Commentary to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1918), and completed about a third of his translation of the Critique. In 1916 he returned to Britain to contribute to the war effort; finding himself too old to join the army, he worked for various government departments in London.
In 1919, just before he was due to return to Princeton, Kemp Smith was appointed to the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinbugh. He succeeded Pringle-Pattison, who had previously taught him at St Andrews. In his early years at Edinburgh he worked on his own version of idealism, resulting in a book Prolegomena to an Idealist Theory of Knowledge (1924), three articles on 'The Nature of Universals' in Mind (1927), and one on 'The Fruitfulness of the Abstract' in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1928). He resumed work on his translation of the Critique in 1927, and this was published in 1929. It immediately assumed the position of the standard translation, a position which it has maintained ever since. His subsequent work was mainly historical: a new edition, with a lengthy introduction, of Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1935), and then The Philosophy of David Hume (1941). Here Kemp Smith developed the naturalist interpretation of Hume that was first outlined in his Mind articles, and that has since provided much of the inspiration for the sceptical realist interpretation developed by philosophers such as John Wright, Galen Strawson, Edward Craig and Peter Kail.
In 1938 Kemp Smith moved into a modern house (14 Kilgraston Road) that was designed for him by Robert Matthew who went on to design the Royal Festival Hall, and many of the Edinburgh University buildings in George Square, including the David Hume Tower. He retired from the Chair of Logic and Metaphysics in 1945, but continued philosophical work. His New Studies in the Philosophy of Descartes (1951) was published when he was 79. He died in 1958. The majority of his philosophical papers were collected in (1967).
Kemp Smith's portrait by Adam Bruce Thomson (1885-1976), a detail of which is shown above, is one of a pair commissioned in 1945 on his retirement. It now hangs in the Kemp Smith Room, the Edinburgh philosophy department's seminar room and common room, in the tower that was designed by the man who designed his house, and that bears the name of the man on whom he did so much of his work.