Enigmatic, Australian philosopher William Mitchell presented two series of Gifford lectures in Aberdeen between 1924–1926. In 1933, Mitchell reworked, expanded, and reorganised his initial series of lectures, publishing them as The Place of Minds in the World. He intended to expand and adapt his second series of lectures, entitled The Power of the Mind, but this never came to fruition, and the initial manuscript has since been lost. For this reason, The Place of Minds in the World ends mid-argument, and assessment of the argument as a whole is challenging.
In the preface, Mitchell argues that an examination of mind and consciousness must begin with ‘the surface’, examining stimuli as causes of events in the brain. From this starting point, one proceeds, understanding objects as causally connected to our mental states and the living growth of our mind. To a degree, the rest of the volume will seek to establish the validity of such an approach to the mind’s relation to the world.
In the introduction, Mitchell argues that the mind as feeling, living consciousness cannot be exhaustively understood through the application of scientific, causal tools of examination. Consciousness refuses to be reduced to pure ‘means’. Mitchell insists that our perception of an object not be conflated with the object itself. This gulf between knowing and known is termed the ‘living line’. Instead of being conflated with our ideas, objects, through the processes of our mental life, prove themselves to our consciousness. In Part I, Mitchell introduces a number of gulfs involved with the mind’s relation to the world. In discussing the ‘surface gulfs’, Mitchell asserts that though changes in consciousness are tied and grounded in ‘brain-change’, a full analysis of the brain’s physical processes, though valuable, would not be able to bridge that chasm between this sort of knowledge, and experience (These type of assertions lend credence to W. Martin Davies recent work presenting Mitchell as a precursor to the ‘new mysterians’). Mitchell insists that an analysis of the mind requires both an analysis of the collection of feeling-qualities which determine the self, and a study of the physical structure of the brain which is the necessary correlate to the feelings of the consciousness.
In Part II, Mitchell further explicates the relation between ideas and objects. Objects prove themselves to the mind, and ideas gesture toward objects. Even our doubts about truth, failures of memory, and imprecise knowledge of objects, serve not to question, but to further establish the distinction between thought and object of thought. He finishes this section discussing the ‘mental surface’, giving an account of how the self grows through it’s living interaction with the world.
In the final section, Mitchell assesses the relation between phenomena and scientific theories. He provides a sweeping historical account of the search for a fundamental substance, and engages in detailed dialogue with the ground-breaking advances in physics taking place in his early Twentieth-Century context. The breadth of this discussion renders simple summary difficult, but I will note three salient themes. Firstly, Mitchell contends that any discovery of realities which are beyond the level of our sensible experience cannot serve to delegitimise sensible experience. Secondly, Mitchell’s survey of the development of scientific theories warns that through the use of theories, the complexity of the whole has often been reductionistically over-simplified on the basis of a single part. Thirdly, Mitchell is eager to stress the distinction between theories and the phenomena they seek to describe. The boundlessness and irreducibility of nature finally serves to establish our mental life as a dynamic, growing consciousness in relation to the world as a whole.