Summary and Review of The Thought of Sir William Mitchell 1861-1962: A Mind’s Own Place

W. Martin Davies; Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002;
ISBN 0-7734-6733-5 (HB)


This was my second PhD thesis. The subject of this work is the work of Scottish-born Sir William Mitchell, the Hughes Professor of Philosophy and Vice Chancellor of the University of Adelaide, and the first major philosopher who lived in South Australia. Mitchell worked at Adelaide University during the years 1895-1940 and died in 1962. 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.


A Mind’s Own Place has been reviewed in the following places:

  • Australian Book Review, Thomas Patiki
  • Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Chris Mortensen


Complete Writings of Sir William Mitchell


Part I: Life and Thought

1.    Sir William Mitchell, Philosopher
2.    Science and the World

Part II:  Truth and Reality

3.    Realism and Idealism

Part III:  Mind and Content

4.    ‘Taking for Granted’
5.    Mind and Content

Part IV:  The Direct Explanation

6.    The Structure of Experience
7.    The Course of Experience

Part V:  The Growth of the Mind

8.    The Growth of Experience: Sensory Intelligence
9.    The Growth of Experience: Perceptual Intelligence
10.  The Growth of Experience: Conceptual Intelligence
20.  Ethics and Practical Reasoning

Part VI:  The Indirect Explanation

Conclusion, Neuroscience and Mind

Glossary of Terms


Review 1: Chris Mortensen

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 had given up his Adelaide chair (1924) to become Vice-Chancellor even before Anderson arrived in Sydney (1927). Mitchell was Vice-Chancellor then Chancellor until retirement in 1950. During this period he presided over a large expansion of the University of Adelaide, recruiting many eminent professors and instituting a major building program to house the rapidly-increasing student body. As Vice-Chancellor he refused a room, working from the Registrar’s room when necessary, and preferring to discuss administration with his staff in their rooms. His influence in Adelaide outside the University was considerable also, though it was not in the anti-establishment style of Anderson. For example, he was active in educational circles, and is credited with the introduction of programs into The Adelaide Teachers College. He was knighted in 1927. He died in 1962 at the age of 101.

This would be of only minor historical interest were it not for the fact that 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. He is often described as an idealist (Blanshard, Passmore, Grave, Kennedy, Franklin). That might explain the neglect if it were true, but in this book Marty Davies buries it once and for all. There are simply too many places where Mitchell avows a robust realism. For example, Davies (p29) usefully quotes Mitchell: “No object is made mental, nor altered, by being felt, imagined, or known in any way…When your ideas quarrel with mine, and when they agree, it is because they… grasp the same object as mine, and to find it independent of our grasp…The room is…not affected by my perceiving it”. Similarly, his realism seems to have been materialist, as in “When you try to picture the structure and the action of the mind, remember you are trying to picture the structure and action of the nervous system. In this way you will avoid the usual confusion of trying to picture a hybrid process consisting partly of visible movements and partly of invisible feelings.” (Davies p29)

A late ninetheenth-century Scottish philosophical immigrant to Australia who was both a realist and a materialist is interesting enough. More, his realism was of a complicated sort. Davies describes him as an epistemic subjectivist (in that we know the world only through subjective experience) and also a pragmatist in justification. The former expresses a certain perspectivalism about our sensory knowledge: the perspective is ineliminable, which leads Davies to describe him as a “non-doctrinaire” materialist (p108) having affinities with Nagel and McGinn. The latter connects with his theory of representation: a thing is successfully represented if the mind has expectations about it (Mitchell’s word was “prophecies”) which are fulfilled. That is, intentionality and justification are lived, they are processes in the world. This dynamic approach is characteristic. Mitchell’s approach is to account for the taxonomy of the various aspects of mentality in terms of their growth, one might even say their various causal histories. More Australianism! Perhaps there really is something to that speculation about the bright sunlight down here. Davies is uncompromising in seeing Mitchell as a forerunner of current cognitive science. He aimed to give “a psychology which is in turn an introduction to philosophy” (Passmore, cited by Davies p30): “Indeed, for Mitchell, philosophy was a kind of psychology” (Davies p30).

This is a long book as philosophy books go. As well as Mitchell, we get a lot of Davies in it. There are many discussions of contemporary themes which are obviously intended to show where Mitchell fits in, but which are interesting in their own right. To take an example, there is an extended discussion of varieties of internalism and externalism from Putnam onward. He interprets Putnam’s internal realism as ontological realism (there can be serious dispute with this interpretation), as a pragmatic theory of truth, as coherentist about justification, and as anti-objectivist about knowledge-seeking. He then credits Mitchell with all these views, though understandably in a less-well-worked-out way. This makes reading the book of greater contemporary interest than you might expect.

Is it too good to be true, that Davies has re-discovered a forgotten genius of Australian philosophy? Davies is cautious, pointing out that by now history has passed Mitchell by. True, but people have been revived from obscurity before. Why then has he been neglected? Davies offers several reasons. There were his isolation, the overshadowing presence of Anderson in Sydney, and the even greater presence of Wittgenstein on the world stage. To these we might add the salient fact of his obscure philosophical style. Structure and Growth of the Mind is almost entirely innocent of logical signposting. No professional philosopher these days reading for a publishing house (except perhaps for those wallowing in the slough of postmodernism) would let Mitchell get away with it. Similarly, Mitchell develops a formidable technical vocabulary which is, unfortunately, rather ill-chosen. This should be a lesson to young philosophers: if you want to be understood and remembered, choose your defined terms felicitously and euphoniously, so as to carry your meaning with ease. Davies has usefully provided us with a glossary, which must have taken a great deal of work to figure out. It certainly aids comprehension but also highlights Mitchell’s eccentric choice of terminology. To choose just one fairly typical example, there is Mitchell’s distinction between fixed and floating capital. Fixed capital is the innate ability of a creature to recognise a stimulus, whereas floating capital is “the ability to take interest in things which are not fixed or instinctual… for example the ability to notice the corked character of wine” (p. 432). One trouble is that these terms come from economics, which will tend to mislead those who know the economics. But even for the student who is not so educated, the absence of an obvious meaning only adds to the cognitive load. Multiply this by fifty and you can see that reading Mitchell takes effort.

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, University of Adelaide,
Australasian Journal of Philosophy, (2005), 83 (2): pp. 298-300.

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Review 2: Thomas Patiki

There is no shortage of argument in W. Martin Davies’ The Philosophy of Sir William Mitchell. Mitchell was a remarkable figure whose life spanned 101 years (he died in 1962) and progressed from professor of philosophy at the University of Adelaide to vice-chancellor and chancellor. He is little known as a philosopher: his writing was not always lucid, and he was overshadowed by Anderson and the developments in linguistic philosophy mentioned above. That obscurity Davies has set himself to remedy, in a long, detailed and carefully argued study. It is a book for specialists. Sensitive to idealist concerns, deeply interested in science, Mitchell is as remarkable for the range of influences he absorbed as for an originality that in many ways is discernable only now against a backdrop of contemporary developments. Davies exposes no only Mitchell’s views but also those of important contemporaries he anticipated, particularly in cognitive science, developmental psychology and philosophy of mind. Mitchell has been neglected as an idealist from whom our scientifically minded contemporaries have nothing to learn. Davies succeeds admirably in showing that to be an error, and in doing so, recasts the historical landscape of Australian philosophy.”

Dr Thomas Patiki
Australian Book Review

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“I was very impressedby this thesis. 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 and organising the strong and weak points, and explaining it in very readable prose. The thesis is equally strong on philosophy and history. It demonstrates Mitchell is a thinker of considerable interest, one of the best independent thinkers in the history of Australian ideas”.

Professor James Franklin, University of New South Wales

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