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Basil Mitchell (academic)

Basil George Mitchell, D.D., FBA (9 April 1917 – 23 June 2011) was a British philosopher and one-time Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at the University of Oxford. Mitchell argued strongly for the place of religious belief in public debate and was a prominent critic of liberal humanism.


  • Background 1
  • Influence 2
  • Festschrift 3
  • External links 4
  • References 5


Mitchell was the son of George William Mitchell and Mary Mitchell (née Loxston). He was educated at King Edward VI School, Southampton and The Queen's College, Oxford. He served in the Royal Navy in 1940–46, primarily as an instructor in the Mediterranean. In 1950 he married Margaret Eleanor Collin. They had one son, three daughters, and seven grandchildren.[1]


Mitchell embarked on an academic career in 1947 as a tutor in philosophy at Keble College, Oxford. He moved to Oriel College, Oxford in 1968 to take up a university chair. His inaugural lecture, "Neutrality and Commitment", attracted much favourable comment at the time. Later, Mitchell was instrumental in creating a new Oxford honours school devoted to philosophy and theology.

Mitchell delivered the 1974–76 Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow, entitled Morality, Religious and Secular. Among his other important publications in the philosophy of law and of religion include the edited anthology Faith and Logic (1957), Law, Morality and Religion in a Secular Society (1966). which was a contribution to the debate over law and morality between H. L. A. Hart and Patrick Devlin, The Justification of Religious Belief (1981), and his Sarum Lectures, Faith and Criticism (1992). There is also a collection of essays, How to Play Theological Ping-Pong (1993). Mitchell edited the widely used "Oxford Reading in Philosophy" anthology, The Philosophy of Religion. Finally. Mitchell wrote a pamphlet entitled Can Social Policy Be Morally Neutral?, published by The Social Affairs Unit. Mitchell was a prominent figure in the Church of England and a member of several of its doctrinal commissions on faith and morals.

Two of his noteworthy contributions to the philosophy of religion were his short essay in the "Theology and Falsification" debate between Antony Flew, R. M. Hare and himself, in which he tried to counter Flew's parable of the "invisible gardener" with his own "parable of the partisan" and his development of the "cumulative-case" method of justifying religious belief, notably in his book The Justification of Religious Belief. Mitchell was one of those who devoted attention to the philosophy of John Henry Newman, notably in casting "doubt upon the credentials of science itself as an avenue to truth." He added: "The paradigm instance of factual knowledge, by comparison with which the claims of religion were thought to be problematic, can no longer be made to serve this purpose." He noted an analogy with "the situation in which Newman found himself as he struggled to analyse the nature of reason and its relation to Christian Faith."[2]


Further contributions include an essay on "The Christian Conscience" to the Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity. In addition, he wrote an autobiographical essay, "War and Friendship", for the Kelly James Clark anthology, Philosophers Who Believe. An Engagement with Plato's Republic, co-written with his Oxford friend and fellow philosopher J. R. Lucas, appeared in 2003. Steven Holtzer and William Abraham co-edited a Festschrift for him, The Rationality of Religious Belief, which includes an appreciation of his thought and character by Oliver O'Donovan, and an essay on the Eucharist by Michael Dummett.[3] He published latterly a memoir, Looking Back: on Faith, Philosophy and Friends in Oxford.[4]

External links

  • Personal homepage at Oxford University (includes a curriculum vitae and complete list of publications).
  • Record on the British Academy website.
  • Basil George Mitchell, notes and biography by Dr Brannon Hancock, plus full text of his Morality, Religious and Secular on the Gifford Lectures website.
  • Obituary of Basil Mitchell, The Daily Telegraph, 14 July 2011


  1. ^ Mitchell's university home page. Retrieved 29 April 2013.
  2. ^ "Newman as a philosopher". In: I. Ker and A. G. Hill, eds., Newman after a hundred years (1990), pp. 237 and 238. Quoted in the ODNB entry for Newman: Pay-walled. Retrieved 29 April 2013.
  3. ^ The Rationality of Religious Belief: Essays in honour of Basil Mitchell, ed.William J. Abraham and Steven W. Holtzer (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987) ISBN 0198266758
  4. ^ Ongar, Essex: Memoir Club, [2009]. ISBN 978-1-84104-203-9.
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