Gilbert Ryle Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Ryle was a leader in what became known as “linguistic analysis.” From 1947 to 1971, he edited Mind, the premier philosophical journal of Great Britain.

Early Life

Gilbert Ryle, one of ten children of a physician whose interests were quite broad (ranging from astronomy to philosophy), read avidly in the philosophical works that were contained in his father’s extensive library. As a boy, Ryle was educated locally, attending Brighton College. In 1919, he went to Queen’s College, Oxford University, where he read Classic Honour Moderations and “Greats”—the first and second part of the undergraduate Literae Humaniores curriculum, comprising primarily classics, ancient and modern philosophy, and ancient history. While an undergraduate at Oxford, Ryle participated in the Jowett Society, a philosophical society; he was captain of the Queen’s College Boat Club; and he earned First Class honors in examinations in both parts of the Literae Humaniores program. Ryle went on to study in what was then a new program—the school of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. Again, his examinations yielded First Class honors. In 1924, Ryle became a lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford University.

During the time that Ryle was an undergraduate and a beginning lecturer, Oxford was in a state of change, though the change was gradual. The old guard—including neo-Hegelian idealists and historians of philosophy—was fading, but analytic Oxford philosophy, much of which Ryle himself was instrumental in establishing, was yet in the future. Oxford had lost some of its former glory, but the new British philosophy (emanating from Cambridge) and the new continental philosophy were only then coming into being. Ryle, like many at Oxford, had pursued study of historical figures in philosophy, especially Plato and Aristotle, but unlike many, he had also studied philosophers on the European continent, especially German, Austrian, and Italian writers. In addition, and also unlike many of the philosophers at Oxford, Ryle was interested in the new and revolutionary movements then beginning to get under way at Cambridge University.

At Oxford itself, there was a generation gap between the relatively older philosophers, who were too old to have fought in World War I, and the relatively younger philosophers, who were too young to have fought. While the more senior philosophers held weekly meetings called “The Philosophers’ Teas” (to which junior philosophers were also invited, but at which they were always outranked), Ryle and a few junior philosophers organized weekly “Wee Teas,” at which the discussions belonged to the newer generation, and the ideas that were expressed charted new directions for Oxford philosophy.

Life’s Work

One early sign of change was Ryle’s famous paper “Systematically Misleading Expressions,” published in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1931-1932), in which he argues that many statements, as they occur in ordinary language, are misleading indicators of the underlying logical structure of the facts that they represent. (Ryle makes it clear that ordinary people are not misled by the statements, but that philosophers often are.) For example, the statement “Mr. Pickwick is a fiction,” although bearing a superficial grammatical resemblance to statements such as “Charles Dickens is a writer” or “Pickwick Papers is a novel,” is really not about Mr. Pickwick at all, because there is no Mr. Pickwick: He is a fictional character. Rather, such a statement is really about the writer Dickens or the novel Pickwick Papers (1836-1837). According to Ryle’s position in this article, it is the task of philosophy to disclose the correct logical structure of statements. In fulfilling this task, however, some philosophers are misled by superficial grammatical features into thinking that statements that actually must be analyzed very differently from each other—like “Mr. Pickwick is a fiction” and “Charles Dickens is a writer”—are in fact similar. A statement such as “Mr. Pickwick is a fiction” is an example of what Ryle calls a “systematically misleading expression.” In fact, the world simply does not contain people who are fictions along with people who are writers. In this case, however, and in a host of others, philosophers are often misled. As a result of being misled, they often assert the existence of entities and qualities that do not really exist. To take one more example from Ryle, alleged murderers are not really a subset of murderers. Although in these simple cases, people have little or no difficulty in avoiding being misled, in other cases, in which people speak of “the meaning of x,” for example, they may think that the world contains meanings as well as x’s.

Even at this early stage of Ryle’s philosophical development, certain characteristic Rylean moves can be discerned. One is the use of “Ockham’s razor”—roughly, the principle that of two competing theories that perform equally well, the simpler one is better. (William of Ockham was a philosopher and theologian who studied and taught at Oxford in the early fourteenth century.) Ryle himself later spoke of his “Ockhamizing zeal” in his early writings. In this particular case, he uses Ockham’s razor to cut away the idea that the world contains fictional people, or that there are entities such as word meanings. Again, in the ordinary sense in which it can be said that words mean something, or in which it can be said that language learners are learning the meanings of words, or that they are looking up the meanings in a dictionary, there is no problem. Problems can arise, however, when a philosopher asserts that...

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