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William Mitchell

Professor of Philosophy, University of Adelaide
1861 to 1962

William Mitchell, born in the north of Scotland, Inveraveron, and now largely forgotten, was a prolific philosopher in his time. Although of Scottish decent, Mitchell spent much of his life in Australia. He was most notably connected with the city of Adelaide and Adelaide University in South Australia where he was highly regarded and held a number of distinguished positions.

Mitchell began his career at Adelaide in 1895, becoming Professor of English Language and Literature and Mental and Moral Philosophy in 1894, a chair he held until 1922. In 1916 he was made Vice Chancellor of the university. In 1927 he obtained a knighthood for services to southern Australia. He was named Chancellor at Adelaide University in 1942 and held the position until he retired six years later.

His Gifford Lectures, delivered in Aberdeen (1924–1926), were published as The Place of the Mind (1925) and The Power of the Mind (1926) and are the works he is best known for. His Structure and Growth of the Mind (1907) was his central work, a work in philosophical psychology, philosophy of mind and neuroscience. In 1933 Mitchell published a more extensive account of the contents of his first series of Gifford Lectures, ‘The Place of the Mind’. Plans were also made to publish The Power of the Mind as an extensive work, although to date this remains in manuscript format.

Mitchell was perhaps the first significant philosopher in Australia. His work in philosophy of mind and philosophical psychology is often referred to as Australian Idealism—with roots in Scottish Idealist thought and the school of ‘Common Sense’. Mitchellwill, however, considered himself an ardent realist. He was in many ways ahead of his time, and it is thought that his emphasis on subjective experience in particular has become noteworthy of relevance to philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Mitchell published widely. His first publication was in the reputed academic journal Mind when he was an undergraduate. He lived a long and fruitful life, remembered as an unpretentious character and first-rate philosopher. He died in 1962 at the age of 101.

Some of Mitchell’s published works include: ‘Reform in Education’, International Journal of Ethics (1895); Lectures on Materialism (1903); Structure and Growth of the Mind (1907); ‘Discussion: Structure and Growth of the Mind’, Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods (1908); Lecture on the Rate of Interest (1909), Christianity and the Industrial System (1912), Lecture on the Two Functions of the University and Their Cost (1917), ‘The Place of the Mind’, syllabus of the Gifford Lectures (1925), ‘The Power of the Mind’, syllabus of the Gifford Lectures (1926), Jubilee Celebrations, 1876–1926 (1927), Nature and Feeling (1929), ‘Letter on the University and Education to the Committee on Public Education’ (1931), The Place of Minds in the World (1933), ‘The Quality of Life’, Proceedings of the British Academy (1934).

  • Jon Cameron, University of Aberdeen