Basil Mitchell (1917-2011) RIP with note by Richard Swinburne
September 12, 2011 — 10:31

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 6

I learned only recently that Basil Mitchell died this summer. It is not too strong to say that he was one of my heroes. He edited a volume Philosophy of Religion that came out the year I was born and which was a watershed for philosophy of religion (the book, not my birth :-). A few years after that, he wrote The Justification of Religious Belief which, as it happens, I re-read at my lunchtimes last semester. It is still a remarkable work. He was the pioneer of the cumulative case argument for God’s existence. As all the biographies note, he was doing this at a time when it was extremely unpopular. This was all happening at a time with the Society of Christian Philosophers was just a glimmer.
His spiritual story kicks off Kelly Clark’s collection Philosophers Who Believe and Mitchell recently wrote a memoir, Looking Back on Faith: philosophy and friends in Oxford, which I have just ordered.
Mitchell succeeded C.S. Lewis as President of the Oxford Socratic Club, and preceded Richard Swinburne in the Nolloth Chair in Christian Philosophy.
As far as I can tell, the Times of London barely noticed (I had to pay two pounds 50 to even see it), but there is a longer recognition in the Telegraph here. The wiki page has a link to a short biography on the Gifford Lecture page. The best online item I’ve found is a touching and inspiring remembrance (by whom I cannot tell) on his personal home page here. Even if you didn’t know much about Mitchell, I recommend you read this short piece, for it portrays an ideal for which we should all strive. I’ve also ordered a copy of this detailed article by Brian Hebblethwaite for Theology, which I will gladly send a copy of to anyone who asks.
Richard Swinburne was kind enough to write a nice note as well, which I paste below the fold.

Basil was a man of old fashioned courtesy, who looked after his pupils, always thought the best of people, and therefore sought to understand their intellectual position in as sympathetic way as possible, weighed arguments carefully and came down in support of a balance of probability conclusion.
He wrote in an era when almost all British philosophers wrote continuous prose (no symbols), gave arguments which didn’t presuppose anything (no referring to details of the latest journal articles, only to the writings of canonical authors to illustrate positions) and in an atmosphere to where appeal to the usage of ordinary language was very important. He was defending the rationality of religious belief in an era when most philosophers didn’t just think theism false on a balance of probability, but regarded it as not something to be discussed by rational people. He did a very good job ‘holding the fort’ in that situation, showing that the contemporary philosophers had far too narrow a criterion of what constitutes ‘rational belief’, and that on a wider criterion religious belief, understood as involving both credal beliefs and commitment, could turn out to be rational. That was the most that almost anyone tried to show in the 1950’s and 1960’s; virtually none tried to give positive arguments for the existence of God. But Basil Mitchell, John Lucas and Ian Crombie (and, by their Catholic faith, rather than by any written work, Elizabeth Anscombe and Michael Dummett) together made religious belief not entirely a lost cause among Oxford philosophers of the 1950’s and 1960’s. In consequence Basil managed to get the Oxford Joint B.A in philosophy and theology established; and as a result after his retirement ‘philosophy of religion’ became an optional subject for all philosophy degrees. Although most philosphers at Oxford and elsewhere in the English-speaking world are atheists, Basil played a significant role in making rational argument about religion the more acceptable enterprise for philosophers which it has now become. Basil didn’t write an enormous amount; and was much involved in university and college business as well as with his local community. He was a committed Anglican, with a secure family life.
That’s about all I can tell you. If you publish it on the web, please put it as an addition to some obit which lists and comments on his individual books, such as the Times one, since I’m simply amplifying the assessment of his work there.
Brian and I were part of a large congregation at the funeral; and there is to be a memorial service in the University Church at the beginning of November.

  • Kevin T

    Trent, send me a copy when you get it please.

    September 12, 2011 — 12:15
  • Thank you for this, Trent. Roger Trigg is going to give a speech in memory of Basil Mitchell at the BSPR conference on Wednesday this week (

    September 12, 2011 — 15:18
  • Please do send a copy of the Brian Hebblethwaite for Theology article.
    Sincere thanks for surfacing again this fine Philosopher of religion.

    September 13, 2011 — 23:48
  • David

    May I ask where you ordered Basil Mitchell’s memoir from? I couldn’t find it available. Thanks.

    September 14, 2011 — 10:03
  • brian leftow

    copies of Mitchell’s memoir are available from The Woodstock bookshop, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, UK. I believe it is otherwise out of print and unavailable.

    September 20, 2011 — 5:17
  • Brodie Bortignon

    The mysterious remembrance is by the Oxford philosopher J.R. Lucas. They were close friends and pretty recently wrote an excellent and eminently readable book together, ‘An Engagement with Plato’s Republic’.

    October 5, 2011 — 21:05