Gilbert Ryle

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2369

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.

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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 there are meanings and that philosophy should investigate these entities. Similarly, there is no problem when one ordinary person tells another that Mr. Pickwick is fictional, but if philosophers think of fictional people as a certain kind of person—like tall ones or short ones—Ryle would want to apply Ockham’s razor.

A second Rylean move is the use of what are called reductio ad absurdum (literally, “reduction to absurdity”) arguments. Such arguments draw out conclusions from assumed premises such that the conclusion conflicts with well-grounded beliefs that people already hold, or it even conflicts with the given premises themselves. For example, if one assumes as a premise that (the fictional) Mr. Pickwick is indeed a certain kind of person, then, because every person was born in a certain year, it follows that Mr. Pickwick was born in a certain year. This conclusion conflicts with the original idea that Mr. Pickwick is a fictional character.

Behind these arguments is Ryle’s attempt to articulate the particular task of philosophy. This is not one of investigating shadowy entities such as meanings, but of helping people to think more clearly. At least in the early 1930’s, Ryle thought that this required penetrating to the real logical structure of the facts that language records.

When Ryle returned to Oxford in 1945, following his service in the Welsh Guards in World War II, he was chosen as the Waynflete Professor in Metaphysical Philosophy. The title was traditional, but it was in many ways ironic that Ryle assumed this title, because he was particularly interested in uncovering mistakes that lay at the base of much traditional metaphysics; moreover, he was interested not in producing a new metaphysical system that would avoid those mistakes but in showing that philosophy itself was a matter of making clear “the logical geography of concepts.” In Ryle’s view, philosophy was not a matter of metaphysical system building at all.

In 1949, Ryle published his most famous work, The Concept of Mind. In it, he coined two phrases that have become part of the general philosophical lexicon: “category mistake” and “the ghost in the machine.” Philosophical mind-body dualism regards the body as something like a machine and the mind as something like a ghost that inhabits that machine. This dualism, however, is a myth, and the “ghostly” conception of the mind, says Ryle, is largely the result of treating mental concepts as some sort of unusual physical concepts. Mind-body dualism is largely the result of applying ideas that fit one sort of thing to a different sort of thing, but to apply ideas in this way is to commit what Ryle calls a category mistake.

It was Ryle’s general belief not only that philosophical problems are distinct from scientific ones but also that scientific facts (and metaphysical speculations) can make no contribution to philosophical investigation. Ryle was confident that everything a person needs to know to come to grips with philosophical problems is already a matter of common knowledge. The problem is that of reminding oneself of these facts and of resisting being misled.

In 1947, Ryle succeeded G. E. Moore as editor of Mind, the leading philosophy journal of Great Britain and one of the most prestigious philosophy journals in the world. In 1953, he was invited to give the Tarner Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge. These lectures were published as Dilemmas. In them, Ryle turned his attention to several specific dilemmas, such as those concerning freedom and fatalism or the everyday world and the world of science, and he aimed to untangle thinking about such things. Again, what was needed was a proper understanding of concepts, to be achieved by careful attention to language and the world; there was no call for technical or scientific facts or for metaphysical speculations.


Ryle had an immense impact on the development of philosophy at Oxford University, and through Oxford, on the development of philosophy in the English-speaking world. Ryle had great influence in opening up Oxford University to philosophical developments elsewhere, especially in Vienna and Cambridge. This was important for a number of reasons. Prior to Ryle, Oxford was philosophically insular, but in the early part of the twentieth century, philosophically revolutionary events were taking place in Vienna and Cambridge. Ryle was largely responsible for bringing Oxford into the revolution. He also was instrumental in establishment of the bachelor of philosophy degree at Oxford, involving a formal program of advanced philosophical study that attracted students from around the world. In addition, Ryle was one of a number of Oxford philosophers (such as J. L. Austin and those who practiced “ordinary language” philosophy) to whom the rest of the world looked for philosophical guidance and authority. Moreover, as editor of Mind, the premier philosophy journal in Great Britain and one that is highly respected around the world, Ryle had an enormous impact on the direction of philosophy in the twentieth century.

A foe of sects, denominations, and limited schools of thought, which he referred to as “isms,” Ryle was a force for philosophical ecumenism rather than exclusivity. He was a firm believer in (and practitioner of) the use of ordinary (rather than technical or pseudo-scientific) language in philosophy. This was not because he believed that ordinary language held some authoritative position from which it could determine the solutions to philosophical problems but because he believed that philosophy required that people understand concepts and that the concepts that give people the most trouble are those of ordinary language—for example, the concept of mind. Generally, the concepts of specialists are carefully constructed and cause little or no trouble (and if they do cause problems, they do so mainly for specialists).

Ryle thought of philosophy as a serious and academic discipline, but, without being a popularizer, he wrote in such a way as to be understood by ordinary people who were not academic philosophers. Ryle detested the use of showy technicalities and obscure writing. The point of philosophy was to examine the “logical geography of our conceptual system,” and philosophy that is not clearly written is not likely to achieve that goal.

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.

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