Philosophy of Sir William Mitchell (1861-1962)

Author: Davies, W. Martin
This study argues that Mitchell’s work is surprisingly relevant to current concerns among cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind. He wrote on issues that are only today being discussed by philosophers and psychologists under the auspices of ‘cognitive science.’ His major work Structure and Growth of the Mind (MacMillan, 1907) is a major treatise on philosophical psychology. Most worthy of note, Mitchell seems to have anticipated the claims of the ‘new mysterians’ and their emphasis on subjective experience. He also seemed to have prefigured themes associated with perceptual plasticity, developmental accounts of modularity, and connectionism.


“The subject is difficult, in view of the notorious obscurity of Mitchell’s thought, but Davies has done an excellent job of straightening it out, understanding and organizing its strong and weak points, and explaining it in very readable prose…. Also good is the choice of quotes from Mitchell; the great man seems to have been clearer in (carefully chosen) bites than in the mass.” – Dr. James Franklin, University of New South Wales

"Before John Anderson there was William Mitchell. Mitchell was a Scot, like Anderson and many other early Australian philosophers (Francis Anderson, Henry Laurie, down to Jack Smart). In the early part of his career he published several papers in Mind, including one as an undergraduate. Mitchell arrived in Adelaide in 1894 to take up the Hughes Chair of English Language and Literature and Mental and Moral Philosophy. He had two predecessors, Davidson and Boulger, but Mitchell was the first real philosopher. He taught philosophy at Adelaide for thirty years. In the course of that, he wrote his major work Structure and Growth of the Mind (1907). He was eventually invited to give two series of The Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen (1925 and 1926), which is certainly evidence of an international reputation. The lectures were written up as The Place of Minds in the World (1933). A following book on The Power of Minds has been lost. The themes of these books might be best described briefly as a diachronic approach to philosophical psychology ... Mitchell was an excellent philosopher who is now all but forgotten. His works are neither taught nor read, and the few historians of Australian philosophy mention him briefly and rather incomprehendingly ... Is there, then, anything new to be learned from Mitchell? Read Davies’ book before reading Mitchell, but don’t read either in the expectation that you will find that Mitchell is as strikingly different as, say, Hegel, or Popper, or Wittgenstein. Mitchell didn’t produce a New Grand Theory, so much as solid psycho-philosophical work in the service of the realist-materialist paradigm, conditioned by traces of the ninetheenth century idealism which he was escaping. In bringing him to our attention in such detail and with such clarity, Davies has done Australian philosophy, and Adelaide in particular, a fine service. He is to be thanked for it." - Professor Chris Mortensen, The University of Adelaide

Table of Contents

Preface; Foreword; Complete Writings of Sir William Mitchell
1. Life and Thought (Sir William Mitchell, Philosopher; Science and the World)
2. Truth and Reality (Realism and Idealism)
3. Mind and Content (‘Taking for Granted’; Mind and Content)
4. The Direct Explanation (The Structure of Experience; The Course of Experience)
5. The Growth of the Mind (Sensory Intelligence; Perceptual Intelligence; Conceptual Intelligence)
6. The Indirect Explanation (Conclusion, Neuroscience and Mind)
Bibliography; Index