Basil Mitchell (academic)

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Basil George Mitchell FBA (9 April 1917 – 23 June 2011) was an English philosopher and at one time Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at the University of Oxford. Mitchell argued for the place of religious belief in public debate and criticized liberal humanism.


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. His father was a disciple of the Sufi mystic Inayat Khan, and in 1940 Basil's family put up Khan's widow and children, including the future SOE agent Noor Inayat Khan, in their house in Southampton after the Khans arrived in England fleeing the German occupation of France. Basil was instrumental in introducing Jean Overton Fuller, Noor Inayat Khan's friend and biographer, to Noor.[1]

He served in the Royal Navy in 1940–1946, primarily as an instructor, in the Mediterranean. In 1950 he married Margaret Eleanor Collin. They had one son, three daughters, and seven grandchildren.[2]


Mitchell embarked on an academic career in 1947 as a tutor in philosophy at Keble College, Oxford. In 1955 he was elected president of the Oxford Socratic Club, a position he held until 1972 when the club was dissolved. Later, Mitchell was instrumental in creating a new Oxford honours school devoted to philosophy and theology.[citation needed]

Early books on the philosophy of religion and of law include Faith and Logic (1957) and the edited anthology 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.

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 1974–1976 Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow entitled Morality, Religious and Secular. The Justification of Religious Belief (1981), his Sarum Lectures Faith and Criticism (1992), and a collection of essays called How to Play Theological Ping-Pong (1993). Mitchell edited a widely used "Oxford Reading in Philosophy" anthology: The Philosophy of Religion. Finally, Mitchell's pamphlet entitled Can Social Policy Be Morally Neutral? was published by The Social Affairs Unit. He was prominent in the Church of England and on several of its doctrinal commissions on faith and morals. In 2013, David Brown (2013) memorialized him in the Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the British Academy, XII 303–321.

Two notable 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 a "cumulative-case" method of justifying religious belief, notably in his book The Justification of Religious Belief. Mitchell drew 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 saw 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."[3]


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.[4] 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.[5] He published latterly a memoir, Looking Back: on Faith, Philosophy and Friends in Oxford.[6]


  1. ^ Jean Overton Fuller, Born For Sacrifice (Pan Books, 1957), pp. 43, 56-7.
  2. ^ Mitchell's Retrieved 29 April 2013.
  3. ^ "Newman as a philosopher", I. Ker and A. G. Hill, eds., Newman after a hundred years (1990), pp. 237 and 238. Quoted in the ODNB entry on Newman: Pay-walled. Retrieved 29 April 2013.
  4. ^ Philosophers who believe : the spiritual journeys of 11 leading thinkers. Clark, Kelly James, 1956-. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press. 1993. ISBN 9780830815432. OCLC 28926479.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  5. ^ The Rationality of Religious Belief: Essays in honour of Basil Mitchell, William J. Abraham and Steven W. Holtzer, eds, Oxford: Clarendon, 1987 ISBN 0198266758
  6. ^ Ongar, Essex: Memoir Club, [2009]. ISBN 978-1-84104-203-9.

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by Nolloth Professor of the
Philosophy of the Christian Religion

Succeeded by