|Born||19 August 1900
|Died||6 October 1976
|Main interests||Language, Ordinary language philosophy, Philosophy of mind, Behaviourism, Meaning, Cognition|
|Notable ideas||Ryle's Regress, ordinary language philosophy, ghost in the machine|
Gilbert Ryle (19 August 1900 – 6 October 1976) was a British philosopher. He was a representative of the generation of British ordinary language philosophers who shared Wittgenstein's approach to philosophical problems, and is principally known for his critique of Cartesian dualism, for which he coined the phrase "the ghost in the machine." Some of his ideas in the philosophy of mind have been referred to as "behaviourist." Ryle's best known book is The Concept of Mind (1949), in which he writes that the "general trend of this book will undoubtedly, and harmlessly, be stigmatised as 'behaviourist'." Ryle, having engaged in detailed study of the key works of Bernard Bolzano, Franz Brentano, Alexius Meinong, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger, himself suggested instead that the book "could be described as a sustained essay in phenomenology, if you are at home with that label."
Ryle was born in Brighton, England, in 1900, and grew up in an environment of learning. His father was a Brighton doctor, a generalist who had interests in philosophy and astronomy, and passed on to his children an impressive library. Ryle was educated at Brighton College, and in 1919, he went up to Queen's College at Oxford, initially to study Classics but was quickly drawn to Philosophy. He would graduate with first class honours in 1924 and was appointed to a lectureship in Philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford. A year later, he was to become a tutor. Ryle remained at Christ Church until World War II.
A capable linguist, he was recruited to intelligence work during World War II. He was commissioned in the Welsh Guards, serving in intelligence, and by the end of the War had been promoted to the rank of Major. After the war he returned to Oxford and was elected Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy and Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. He published his principal work, The Concept of Mind in 1949. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1945 to 1946, and editor of the philosophical journal Mind from 1947 to 1971. Ryle died on 6 October 1976 at Whitby, North Yorkshire.
His brothers John Alfred (1889–1950) and George Bodley (1902–1978), both educated at Brighton College as well, also had eminent careers. John became Regius Professor of Physic at the University of Cambridge 1935-45 and physician to King George V. George, after serving as Director of Forestry first for Wales and then England, was Deputy-Director of the Forestry Commission 1963-65 and awarded the CBE.
Philosophy as cartography
|“||The philosophical arguments which constitute this book are intended not to increase what we know about minds but to rectify the logical geography of the knowledge we already possess.||”|
Ryle believed it was no longer possible for a philosopher to believe that it was the task of a philosopher to study mental as opposed to physical objects. However, in its place, Ryle saw the tendency of philosophers to search for objects whose nature was neither physical nor mental. Ryle believed, instead, that “[p]hilosophical problems are problems of a certain sort; they are not problems of an ordinary sort about special entities.”
Ryle offers the analogy of philosophy as being like cartography. Competent speakers of a language, Ryle believes, are to a philosopher what ordinary villagers are to a mapmaker. The ordinary villager has a competent grasp of his village, and is familiar with its inhabitants and geography. However, when asked to interpret a map for the same knowledge he has practically, the villager will have difficulty until he is able to translate his practical knowledge into universal cartographal terms. The villager thinks of the village in personal and practical terms while the mapmaker thinks of the village in neutral, public, cartographical terms.
By "mapping" the words and phrases of a particular statement, philosophers are able to generate what Ryle calls "implication threads." In other words, each word or phrase of a statement contributes to the statement in that, if the words or phrases were changed, the statement would have a different implication. The philosopher must show the directions and limits of different implication threads that a "concept contributes to the statements in which it occurs." To show this, he must be "tugging" at neighbouring threads, which, in turn, must also be "tugging." Philosophy, then, searches for the meaning of these implication threads in the statements in which they are used.
The Concept of Mind
In The Concept of Mind (1949), Ryle admits to having been taken in by the body-mind dualism which permeates Western philosophy, and claims that the idea of Mind as an independent entity, inhabiting and governing the body, should be rejected as a redundant piece of literalism carried over from the era before the biological sciences became established. The proper function of Mind-body language, he suggests, is to describe how higher organisms such as humans demonstrate resourcefulness, strategy, the ability to abstract and hypothesize and so on from the evidences of their behaviour.
He attacks the idea of 17th and 18th century thinkers (such as Descartes) that nature is a complex machine, and that human nature is a smaller machine with a "ghost" in it to account for intelligence, spontaneity, and other such human qualities. While mental vocabulary plays an important role in describing and explaining human behavior, neither are humans analogous to machines nor do philosophers need a "hidden" principle to explain their super-mechanical capacities.
Ryle asserted that the workings of the mind are not distinct from the actions of the body. They are one and the same. Mental vocabulary is, he insists, merely a different manner of describing action. He also claimed that the nature of a person's motives is defined by that person's dispositions to act in certain situations. There are no overt feelings, pains, or twinges of vanity. There is instead a set of actions and feelings that are subsumed under a general behavior-trend or propensity to act, which we term "vanity."
Novelists, historians and journalists, Ryle points out, have no trouble in ascribing motives, moral values and individuality to people's actions. It is only when philosophers try to attribute these qualities to a separate realm of mind or soul that the problem arises. Ryle also created the classic argument against cognitivist theories of explanation, Ryle's Regress.
One theme of The Concept of Mind is that dualism involves category mistakes and philosophical nonsense. Category mistakes and nonsense as philosophical topics continued to inform Ryle's work. Students in his 1967-8 Oxford audience would be asked rhetorically what was wrong with saying that there are three things in a field - two cows and a pair of cows. They were also invited to ponder whether the bung-hole of a beer barrel is part of the barrel or not.
A distinction deployed in The Concept of Mind, between knowing-how and knowing-that (e.g., knowing how to tie a reef knot and knowing that Queen Victoria died in 1901), has attracted independent interest. See, for example, Jason Stanley & Timothy Williamson, 'Knowing How', Journal of Philosophy, 98 : 8, 2001. This distinction is also the origin of procedural (knowing-how) and declarative (knowing-that) models of long term memory.
Ryle took a narrow view of the scope of philosophy. Philosophy, for Ryle, did not extend beyond the philosophy of mind, philosophical logic, and the philosophy of language. Ethics, political philosophy, and aesthetics were 'philosophy' only by a strained courtesy and a burdensome historical tradition.
Legacy and reputation
Ryle's notion of thick description, from "The Thinking of Thoughts: What is 'Le Penseur' Doing?" and "Thinking and Reflecting", has been an important influence on cultural anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz.
The Concept of Mind was recognized on its appearance as an important contribution to philosophical psychology, and an important work in the ordinary language philosophy movement. However, in the 1960s and 1970s the rising influence of the cognitivist theories of Noam Chomsky, Herbert A. Simon, Jerry Fodor and others in the neo-Cartesian school became predominant. Chomsky even wrote a book entitled Cartesian Linguistics. In philosophy the two major post-war schools in the philosophy of mind, the representationalism of Jerry Fodor and the functionalism of Wilfrid Sellars posited precisely the 'internal' cognitive states that Ryle had argued against. However as influential modern philosopher and former student Daniel Dennett has pointed out, recent trends in psychology such as embodied cognition, discursive psychology, situated cognition and others in the post-cognitivist tradition have provoked a renewed interest in Ryle's work. Dennett has provided a sympathetic foreword to the 2000 edition of The Concept of Mind. Ryle remains a significant defender of the possibility of lucid and meaningful interpretation of higher-level human activities without recourse to an abstracted soul.
Richard Webster endorsed Ryle's arguments against mentalist philosophies, suggesting that they implied that "theories of human nature which repudiate the evidence of behaviour and refer solely or primarily to invisible mental events will never in themselves be able to unlock the most significant mysteries of human nature."
- The Concept of Mind (1949)
- Dilemmas (1954), a collection of shorter pieces
- Plato's Progress (1966)
- On Thinking (1979)
Notes and references
- A. C. Grayling (Wittgenstein, Oxford University Press, (Oxford), 1988, p.114) is certain that, despite the fact that Wittgenstein’s work might have possibly played some "second or third-hand [part in the promotion of] the philosophical concern for language which was dominant in the mid-century", neither Gilbert Ryle nor any of those in the so-called "Ordinary language philosophy" school that is chiefly associated with J. L. Austin (and, according to Grayling, G. E. Moore, C. D. Broad, Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer) were Wittgensteinians. Grayling asserts that "most of them were largely unaffected by Wittgenstein’s later ideas, and some were actively hostile to them"
- Ryle, Gilbert.The Concept of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Pp. 327.
- Tanney, Julia (Winter 2003). "Gilbert Ryle". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford, CA: The Metaphysics Research Lab. Retrieved 2008-03-05.
- Concept of Mind p 1
- Ryle, Gilbert (1971). "Abstractions". Collected Papers (London: Hutchinson) 2: 440–442.
- Ryle, Gilbert (1971). "Abstractions". Collected Papers (London: Hutchinson) 2: 444–445.
- Ryle, Gilbert (1968). "The Thinking of Thoughts: What is 'Le Penseur' Doing?". University Lectures, (18) (The University of Saskatchewan). Retrieved 2008-06-25.. Reprinted in his Collected Papers 2. London: Hutchinson. 1971. pp. 480–496., and (linked) in Studies in Anthropology 11 (Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing). 1996-08-21. ISSN 1363-1098.
- Geertz, Clifford (1973). "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture". The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New-York: Basic Books. pp. 3–30. Retrieved 2008-06-25.
- Dennett, Daniel C. (2002). "Re-Introducing The Concept of Mind". Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy (7). Retrieved 2007-12-20.
- Webster, Richard (2005). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: The Orwell Press. pp. vii, 483. ISBN 0951592254.
- Gilbert Ryle in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Gilbert Ryle at PhilosophyPages.com
- About Ryle's Concept of Mind
- Ordinary Language, the Philosophical Review LXII (1953)
- Symposium: Use, Usage and Meaning. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 35 (1961): 223-242. (with J. N. Findlay)
- The Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy - Issue dedicated to Ryle
- Profile at UXL Newsmakers[dead link]