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According to Gilbert Ryle, it is not the function of philosophy to furnish information about minds. Teachers, magistrates, historians, and plain people of all sorts already know the kinds of things that can be known about them, and knowing more is merely a matter of extending one’s experience. Philosophers have access to no special facts; however, if they ply their trade properly, they can help “rectify the logical geography of the knowledge which we already possess.”

As Ryle sees it, most people know how to make correct use of concepts that apply to mental situations but cannot state the “logical regulations governing their use.” Consequently, they do not know how to correlate such concepts with one another or with concepts that refer to matters other than mental facts. The philosopher has the task of clearing up confusions and correcting mistakes that have their source in this kind of ineptness.

It is particularly incumbent on philosophers to do this because, in Ryle’s opinion, most of the difficulties that occur in talking about these matters—for example, the mind-body problem, solipsism, and knowledge of “other minds”—have their origin in the errors of philosophers. In particular, modern European thinkers have great difficulty in throwing off the two-substance doctrine so forcibly stated by French philosopher René Descartes, according to which a person has immediate knowledge of his or her own mind by a kind of interior illumination, greatly superior to the kind of knowledge—never more than an inference—that the individual has of material things. According to this view, which Ryle calls “the official doctrine,” minds dwell in bodies but share none of the characteristics of material things. He frequently stigmatizes it as “the dogma of the ghost in the machine.”

The Logic and Meaning of Statements

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In attacking this dogma, Ryle carries over into epistemology the battle that the logical positivists previously waged against metaphysics. The lines of his attack, if not the weapons, are familiar. The first line of attack has to do with the logic of statements: whether the expressions are related to one another in a coherent fashion. The second has to do with the meaning of the statements: under which conditions they can be verified or confirmed. For the purpose of carrying through the former of these attacks, Ryle sets up a series of “categories,” deliberately reviving the Aristotelian term but relating the discovery of categories to linguistic analysis.

Ryle explains “the official doctrine” in terms of what he calls a “category mistake.” To suppose that “the university” is an entity in the same sense that its component colleges, libraries, laboratories, and so forth are entities, would be to make a category mistake. Another would be to suppose that “team spirit” has the same kind of reality that batters, fielders, and umpires do. These extreme examples to one side, the danger is ever present, Ryle says, that people who know how to apply terms correctly in familiar situations will fall victim to the fallacy of mixing up terms of different orders when they try to think in abstract ways. In his opinion, most mistakes in thinking about “mind” are of this sort.

The Nature of Mind

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The categories people use in describing the physical world are “thing,” “stuff,” “attribute,” “state,” “process,” “change,” “cause,” and “effect.” The error of philosophers, and of ordinary people when they try to theorize, consists of supposing that there are “things” called “minds” comparable to things called “bodies,” except for having different attributes, and that there are mental “events,” like physical ones, that have causes and effects. Ryle designates attempts to talk about minds in these terms as “paramechanical.” Mind is thought of as a ghost in the sense that it is regarded as immaterial, but it is believed to press levers, open windows, receive shocks, and exert reactions much as if it were material.

A special feature of “the official doctrine” that has impressed epistemologists is the teaching that mind knows itself in a peculiarly direct manner. Ryle supposes that this view reflects the strong influence upon seventeenth century European thought of the Protestant affirmation that people’s minds are “illuminated” by divine truth, a mode of thought that was reinforced by a preoccupation with optical phenomena on the part of Galilean science. As a result, the paramechanical hypothesis of the mind’s operation was supplemented by a paraoptical hypothesis of its self-knowledge.

Ryle, for his part, does not admit that there is any such thing as mind. It is, he says, a solecism to speak of the mind as knowing this or choosing that. The correct thing to say is that a person knows or chooses. Some actions of humans exhibit qualities of intellect and of character; Ryle says that the fact that a person knows or chooses can be classified as a “mental fact” about that person. He regards it as “an unfortunate linguistic fashion” that people then say that there are “mental acts” or “mental processes” comparable to “physical acts” and “physical processes.”

Ryle’s book is an attempt to show how it is that, though there is no such thing as a mind, people sometimes talk as if there were. The fault derives both from people’s failure to distinguish different types of statements and from supposing that what is characteristic of words in one kind of sentence is also characteristic of words in other kinds of sentences.

Disposition-Words and Occurrence-Words

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Take, for example, words such as “know,” “believe,” “aspire,” “clever,” and “humorous.” These are, in Ryle’s terminology, disposition-words. Statements in which they occur do not assert matters of fact; they discuss capacities, tendencies, propensities, and so forth. To say of a sleeping man that he knows French is not to affirm an additional fact about him comparable to saying that he has gray eyes and is wearing a blue suit. Dispositional statements correspond, rather, to the hypothetical propositions of modern logic: They are indicative sentences and may be true or false in the sense that they are verifiable under certain conditions. A man knows French if, when he is spoken to in French, he responds appropriately in French. No one criterion of performance, however, is sufficient. A mistake arises when it is supposed that every true or false statement is categorical and either asserts or denies that there exists some object or set of objects possessing a specified attribute.

Occurrence-words apply to people’s higher-grade activities, referred to as “mental.” If, as suggested above, “knows” designates a disposition, “heeds” would seem to designate an occurrence, as, for example, when a person is said to heed what he is doing. A doubling process misleadingly suggests itself in this instance, with the bodily activity (say, driving a car) going on more or less by itself and an intermittent mental process trying to parallel what is going on in the body. According to Ryle, however, there are not two processes, but one. Driving a car is an occurrence; paying heed is a state of readiness, or a disposition. To say that people heed what they are doing while driving is to make a semihypothetical, or a “mongrel categorical,” statement. The heedful person drives differently, perhaps, in that he or she is alert to potholes and pedestrians, but the heeding is not itself an act in addition to the act of driving, and it presupposes no agent other than the one who is driving the car.

Causation and Laws of Nature

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Ryle suggests that the wide currency of “the official doctrine” results in great part from the “bogy of mechanism.” The successes of physical science since the days of Galileo have excited in many theorists the expectation that the world ultimately may be explicable in terms of the motions of bodies according to laws that can be mathematically demonstrated. In the interests of human freedom, moral and religious thinkers have countered this prospect by asserting the autonomy of mind. According to Ryle, however, the fear is baseless.

In the first place, “laws of nature” are not “fiats.” Law-statements are “open” hypothetical sentences, ones in which the conditional phrase contains a universal term such as “any” or “whenever.” Such sentences do not, like categorical sentences, affirm the existence of anything. Causal connections, in other words, do not exist in the same sense as, say, the existence of bacteria and the disease they are alleged to cause. To assume that they do is “to fall back into the old habit of assuming that all sorts of sentences do the same sort of job, the job, namely, of ascribing a predicate to a mentioned object.” Statements about physical laws do not “mention” anything. They are merely predictive of behavior.

In the second place, according to Ryle, the mechanistic account of nature is no threat to human freedom because many questions concerning human behavior cannot be answered in terms of physical law, and not all questions are physical questions. The same process, says Ryle, is often viewed in terms of two or more principles of explanation, neither of which can be reduced to the other, although one commonly presupposes the other. For example, if a child asks a chess player why he or she moves a certain piece (say, a knight) to a certain spot, the answer the child requires is a statement of the rules of the game, whereas if an experienced player asks the question, the answer required will be in terms of “tactical canons.” Another example is the rules of grammar, which apply equally to all books written in a particular language irrespective of style or content. In the same manner, says Ryle, the laws of physics apply to everything—animate as well as inanimate—but they do not explain everything. Even for describing a game of billiards, mechanical principles, though necessary, are not sufficient. The purpose of the game, its rules, and its tactics are equally important. These “appraisal concepts” are not in conflict with the law-statements; rather, they presuppose them.

Ryle safeguards the meaning of purpose in human activity by distinguishing between questions about the causes of a person’s acts and the reasons for it. Suppose the event to be explained is a man passing the salt to his neighbor at the table. The question about causes demands to be answered in factual or categorical sentences such as “He heard his neighbor ask for it” or “He saw his neighbor’s eye wandering over the table.” “Seeing” and “hearing” are events that may stand in the chain of causal explanations. The question about reasons does not admit of categorical answers. One might say, “He passed the salt out of politeness” or “He did it out of friendliness.” These are reasons and not causes. They refer to motives or dispositional states, and they are expressed in lawlike or hypothetical propositions. That people constantly appeal to them in explaining human behavior testifies to the incompleteness of “causal” explanations. Moreover, according to Ryle, they express all that people actually intend when speaking of human acts as being free or voluntary.

The Pronoun “I”

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Ryle finds that there is good sense in saying “I know that I am free.” To infer, however, that the pronoun “I” must be the name of a distinct entity is to misunderstand the true function of pronouns. They do not function like proper names but instead are “index” words that point to different things at different times. Because of the complexity of human experience, the pronoun “I” (with “me” and “myself”) is used in a variety of ways. Sometimes, a speaker uses “I” to refer to his or her body, as when a man says, “I was cut in the collision.” He may even use “I” to refer to his mechanical auxiliaries, such as his car, as in the sentence, “I collided with the police car.” These cases offer no particular difficulty. It is different, however, when one says, “I am warming myself before the fire.” Here, “myself” could be replaced by “my body,” but not “I.” Even more complex are such statements as “I was ashamed of myself” and “I caught myself beginning to dream.” Ryle’s explanation is that the pronouns are “used in different senses in different sorts of contexts.” Human behavior frequently involves what Ryle calls “higher order actions,” ones in which the second agent is concerned with actions of a first agent, as in spying or applauding. A person’s higher order acts may be directed upon his or her own lower order acts, as in self-criticism. This, according to Ryle, is what people ordinarily mean by “self-consciousness.” There is nothing here to support the view that one looks into one’s own mind and discovers its workings. What is known as “introspection” is in fact “retrospection.” The attempt to glimpse oneself in the act of thinking is hopeless.

Ryle therefore rejects the much-touted claims of introspective psychology, founded on the paraoptical model of knowledge. He does not deny that people know their feelings immediately; however, he is careful to distinguish feelings, which are agitations, from moods and tendencies, which are dispositions. Of the latter, people have no immediate knowledge. Only as they eventuate in actions can people form any estimate of them. One’s knowledge of oneself, therefore, comes from observing one’s own behavior and is in principle no different from one’s knowledge of other persons. Ryle recognizes many grades of self-knowledge: One may know that one is whistling “Tipperary” and not know that one is doing so to keep up one’s courage, or one may be aware that one is trying to keep up one’s courage without realizing that what makes one afraid is a guilty conscience. In no case, however, does one have “privileged access” to one’s own mental states.

Ryle continues:No metaphysical Iron Curtain exists compelling us to be forever absolute strangers to one another, though ordinary circumstances, together with some deliberate management, serve to maintain a reasonable aloofness. Similarly, no metaphysical looking-glass exists compelling us to be forever completely disclosed and explained to ourselves, though from the everyday conduct of our sociable and unsociable lives we learn to be reasonably conversant with ourselves.

Ryle’s treatment of sensation and observation is refreshing in that he candidly admits that his analysis is not satisfactory to him. He attributes his difficulty to contamination by sophisticated language. In ordinary language, the words “sensation” and “feel” signify perceptions, but in philosophical language, they refer to presumed bases for perceptual inference. Words like “hurt” and “itch” are not the names of moods, nor are they the names of certain kinds of perceptions, nor are they terms by which achievements are reported. Ryle confesses, “I do not know what more is to be said about the logical grammar of such words, save that there is much more to be said.”

Imagination and Intellect

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Ryle’s discussion of imagination is perhaps the most provocative part of the book. The ordinary myth-view of imagination is that in the private box or theater of people’s minds, they view private pictures. The logic of discourse involving the word “imagination,” however, does not entail any such fanciful assumption. To imagine is to lie, to play at being an animal, to write a story, or to invent a machine. There is no need to suppose some internal, private operation to which the word “imagine” calls attention; in fact, the word does no such thing—it calls attention to publicly observable behavior.

In his discussion of “intellect,” Ryle rejects, as by now one might expect, any analysis describing intellect as an organ, an internal lecturer, or a private thinker. As a result of producing various kinds of things—such as sums, books, or theories—people are said to have been engaged in intellectual processes. Confusing the grammar of intellect with the grammar of production, and working out an erroneous analogy, people tend to regard intellect as a hidden faculty of mind. Ryle’s analyses discredit such a notion. He makes the interesting suggestion that such words as “judgment” and “deduction” belong to “the classification of the products of pondering and are misrendered when taken as denoting acts of which pondering consists.” Such words, he argues, are “referees’ nouns, not biographers’ nouns”—that is, they are properly used to describe the products people have produced but are misleadingly used to talk about some hidden performances within the mind.


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Additional Reading

Addis, Laird, and Douglas Lewis. Moore and Ryle: Two Ontologists. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1965. A somewhat technical comparison of the thoughts of Ryle and G. E. Moore, a leading philosopher at Cambridge University.

Ayer, A. J. Language, Truth and Logic. London: Gollancz, 1936. 2d ed., with a new introduction, 1946. This influential book is a classic in logical positivism and did the most to take that particular strain of thought from Vienna to England. Although Ryle himself was not a logical positivist, he had suggested to Ayer that he go to Vienna and learn at first hand about the new philosophical developments there. This book, the result of that journey, serves as one more testament to the way in which Ryle—unlike many at Oxford—was open to philosophical input from abroad.

Flew, Anthony G. N., ed. Logic and Language: First and Second Series. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1965. Originally published by Blackwell in Oxford as two volumes in 1951 and 1953, the American volume comprises both collections (or series) of philosophical articles. Ryle has articles in both series, and Flew provides useful introductions to both series. Ryle is shown in action and in his historical context. The articles are all drawn from the years 1931 to 1953.

Lyons, William. Gilbert Ryle: An Introduction to His Philosophy. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1980. Lyons provides a biography of Ryle and a thorough and detailed account of his philosophical thought. This introductory book is accessible and reliable.

Quinton, A. M. “Contemporary British Philosophy.” In A Critical History of Philosophy, edited by D. J. O’Connor. New York: Free Press, 1964. This essay contains a good exposition of (pre-1964) twentieth century British philosophy and Ryle’s place in its development.

Rao, B. Narahari. A Semiotic Reconstruction of Ryle’s Critique of Cartesianism. New York: W. de Gruyter, 1994. As its title suggests, this book presents Ryle’s critique of Cartesianism and explains Ryle’s definition of philosophy.

Urmson, J. O. Philosophical Analysis: Its Development Between the Two World Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956. This book traces the development of British analytical philosophy from World War I to World War II. Although Ryle is rarely mentioned by name, this brief volume reviews the analytic philosophy with which Ryle is so closely associated.

Warnock, Geoffrey J. English Philosophy Since 1900. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. The seventh chapter of this brief book specifically focuses on Ryle.

Wood, Oscar P., and George Pitcher, eds. Ryle: A Collection of Critical Essays. New York: Doubleday, 1970. This anthology contains an autobiographical article by Ryle, many articles that discuss specific points about Ryle’s philosophy, and a bibliography of Ryle’s writings from 1927 to 1968.