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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


RYLE

(1900 — 1976)

 

'ORDINARY LANGUAGE' ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHY

Gilbert Ryle was born in Brighton, the son of a doctor, and was educated at Brighton College and Queen's College, Oxford, where he read both Greats and P.P.E. In 1924 he was appointed lecturer in philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford. In 1945 he was elected Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy and a Fellow of Magdalen. He succeeded Moore as editor of Mind in 1947.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE AND LOGIC

[1] Throughout his writings Ryle was concerned with what he sees as our tendency to be seduced into making errors by the grammatical form of many of the expressions of 'ordinary' or everyday language which we use when we begin to philosophize. In his early writings he argued that it is the philosopher's job to detect such mistakes and to reformulate the offending expressions so that we are no longer misled [a]. He is thinking of, for example, "quasi ontological statements" such as 'Mr Pickwick is a fiction', which may encourage us to suppose the world contains fictions in the way that it contains statesmen (as recorded by, say, 'Mr Baldwin is a statesman') [see "Systematically Misleading Expressions"]. The proposition is really about Dickens or the Pickwick Papers. Similar considerations apply to quasi-Platonic statements (or statements about universals) such as 'Virtue is its own reward'. We might think the meaning of this is analogous to that of 'Smith has given himself the prize' and conclude that the world contains two kinds of objects, namely, particulars (like Smith) and universals (like Virtue). We should therefore reformulate the expression as something like 'Whoever is good, gains something by being good'. It is not literally true that Virtue is a recipient of rewards. Ryle goes on to apply his analysis to quasi-descriptions and quasi-referential 'the'-phrases.

He develops his thesis in later writings. Thus [in 'Categories'] he introduces a notion similar to what he was later to call a 'category mistake'. Incomplete expressions such as '...is in bed' can be completed if we insert a word into the gap. But while some words (for example, 'Socrates') are appropriate, others (for example, 'Saturday') are not. 'Socrates' and 'Saturday' belong to different categories. It is the using of words of the wrong category that gives rise to contradictions. To distinguish categories we must engage in philosophical argumentation or ratiocination and in particular make use of reductiones ad absurdum as a means of discovering the limits of applicability of our expressions. The job of philosophy is thus "to determine and rectify the logical geography of our concepts" [The Concept of Mind, Introduction] — in effect to show that our theories often give an incorrect account of the way we our concepts are ordinarily used and to remedy this situation. He suggests [Dilemmas, I] that many problems in philosophy take the form of dilemmas; and again the role of philosophy is to show that apparent conflicts between pairs of conclusions — each seemingly correct and validly drawn — have arisen as a result of conceptual confusion [b]. Thus, for example, in our everyday lives we suppose reality to consist of objects such as tables and chairs, which are coloured, have a particular shape, and so on. The physicist, on the other hand, tells us they are but collections of particles in space and do not really possess colour, solidity, and so on. But there is no genuine conflict, says Ryle, because the scientist and the layman are engaged in different activities. The scientist's aims are narrower; he is interested only in particular aspects of the world. Its descriptions are thus incomplete. We might say the ordinary person, however, is less interested in the physical nature and structure of a table than in whether it is suitable for the dinner party he is holding next week.

Different travellers use vehicles of highly intricate constructions and of very different makes for all the varying purposes of their very dissimilar journeys, and yet are alike in using the same public roads and the same signposts as one another. Somewhat so, thinkers may use all sorts of specially designed concepts for their several purposes, but still have also to use the same highway concepts [Dilemmas I].

There is no incomptibility between the truths of physical theory and the truths of daily life [ibid. V]. And similarly with the apparent conflicts between, for example, common sense and fatalism, formal and informal logic, or common sense and Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise [c] — which turns out to be a conflict between factual questions about the length and duration of a race (decided by measurement) and arithmetical questions (decided by calculation). "Two separate skills do not, in the beginning, intertwine into one conjoint skill" [ibid. III].

[2] Meaning. Ryle rejected denotation theories of meaning, according to which the meaning of a word or expression is "the thing, process, person or entity of which the expression is the proper name", in much the same way as 'Fido' stands to the dog Fido (Ryle called this the "'Fido' — Fido" theory) [see Review of Carnap and 'Theory of Meaning']. For him knowing what an expression means is to know how to use it. But it does not follow that the meaning of a sentence consists in its use. [See 'Use, Usage and Meaning'.] This is because he thinks of sentences as the units of speech, whereas words are the 'atoms' of a language. To master a language we have to learn words and constructions; and strictly speaking it is words which are bearers of meaning. Sentences are what we have to produce in saying something: indeed they are our saying it. Some philosophers, he says, have confused this distinction and have assimilated their accounts of what sentences mean to their account of what words mean, and therefore have continued to cause philosophical difficulties [a].

 

KNOWLEDGE/ PHILOSOPHY OF MIND

[3] Ryle's theory of knowledge is best understood in the context of his wider considerations of 'mental concepts' in general [see The Concept of Mind]. To produce a 'map' of these concepts — to determine their geographical boundaries, as it were — he must first destroy a 'myth', what he calls the dogma of the "ghost in the machine". According to this (approximately Cartesian) myth, words like 'knowing', 'believing', 'imagining', 'sensing', and so on refer to a private, non-spatial 'mind' which we can know only by 'looking within' ourselves. Philosophers have been led to such a view, Ryle argues, because of a category mistake [a]. The error is similar to that made by a visitor to Oxford who, having looked at the various colleges and knowing nothing about their organization, asks where the University is. The University, however, is not an entity which can be looked at in the way its constituent colleges can. Likewise when we look at human bodies we must not suppose there is some internal non-corporeal controlling entity, the 'mind'. There is no need to postulate a 'ghost' to account for the workings of the body, any more than we need to think of the body as just a machine. Rather we must think of ourselves as human beings who behave in a variety of ways.

What then, given such a position, does Ryle have to say about mental concepts? His arguments turn on a distinction between categorical statements (about episodes or occurrences) and hypothetical statements (about dispositions). To say, for example, that glass is brittle is to say that if you drop glass or hit it with a stone, and so on, it will break. In the same way, statements about knowing that something is the case believing, willing, feeling, and the like are not about some supposedly inner thought 'processes' or strivings but are dispositional: they attribute a pattern of behaviour that is law-like. To say that someone is intelligent is then to say that in given circumstances he would behave observably in ways we call intelligent. There is no reference here to some inner cognition — knowing some piece of information, or 'knowing that' something is the case, which we are supposed to run through our 'mind' before we act. For Ryle 'knowing that' is thus assimilated to 'knowing how' [b], that is, the possession of some skill or capacity. Likewise to say an action is voluntary is not to appeal to any prior inner conscious act of 'volition'. It is simply to say only that the agent could have acted differently. (It follows that for Ryle there is no problem with the notion of freedom of the will) [c]. Similar considerations apply to motives, emotions, perceptions, and 'imagings', none of which entails commitment to any occult 'mental processes'. Thus in his account of perception Ryle attacks both the sense-datum theory and aspects of phenomenalist theories [d]. The sense-datum theory, he claims, rests on the 'logical howler' of assimilating the concept of sensation to the concept of observation. When we use our eyes and ears we see and hear things around us. We do not see or hear sensations or sense-data. We may talk of 'having' them, but this is already implicit in our perceiving things. 'Seeing' and 'hearing', and the like are what Ryle calls achievement words: when we observe we have already succeeded in a task. We do not need any 'private theatre' to provide stages for any extra 'objects' such as 'private' sensations or sense-data — though he allows we may use 'round', 'green', 'loud', and so on to describe the way already perceived objects appear to us; or we may utilise them in situations where normal perception has broken down. As for supposedly inner 'imagings', while it is true that we can talk of 'having' images and sounds 'in our heads', we are not seeing or hearing copies or pictures of things. What we are really doing is imagining, in the sense of pretending what it would be like actually to see, say, a mountain, or hear a tune being played — perhaps as a kind of rehearsal, a prelude to the performance of intelligent action.

Underpinning Ryle's rejection of all such supposed mental processes is the argument that any appeal to them must involve an infinite regress. Take images. If we appeal to them to identify some object, the images themselves must be identified. How can this be done other than by comparison with another image? If we say that an action is preceded by an act of volition, are we not also responsible for that act? So do we not need a further prior act?

[4] Given that Ryle rejects 'Cartesian' accounts of the mind, what of the problem of our knowledge of the self? He says that both consciousness and introspection, as understood by psychologists, do exist. But these are not avenues to occult mental entities [a]. The word 'I', Ryle argues, indicates directly the person who can be called by 'my' name. It is not in itself a name; and indeed it can be used in different ways [b], as in, for example, 'I thought hard', 'I weigh ten stone', 'I crossed the road'. To learn about ourselves we do not require introspection; the sorts of things I can find out about myself are the same as the sorts of things I can find out about other people — by observing their behaviour, though there may be some difference of degree [c]. And to understand or explain the kind of critical monitoring of circumstances that characterizes our preparation or state of readiness for action (or refraining from it) we do not require the postulate of 'Privileged Access' proposed by dualists.

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Ryle is notable for two interconnected contributions to philosophy:

(l) The thesis that philosophical errors may arise as a result of the misleading grammar of informal or 'ordinary' language, especially when we use words belonging to one category as if they belonged to another. He sees it as the philosopher's function to detect and rectify such philosophical mistakes.

(2) In the philosophy of mind, his rejection of Cartesian-type theories in favour of the view that so-called 'inner' mental life should be understood in terms of sets of dispositional statements about publicly observable behaviour.

Against these theses many criticisms have been made.

(1) It might be said that category mistakes are mistakes only on the assumption that at least some concepts belong to certain well-defined categories. This raises the question whether these categories pertain to or reflect the actual structure of the world (realism), or whether they are in some sense relativistic and pragmatic and therefore contingent on our needs and purposes. If the latter is the case, then the notion of rectifying the logical geography of our concepts to avoid putative category mistakes becomes much more flexible than Ryle would wish. As for the former, many philosophers of dualist persuasion would argue that, at least so far as mind-body problems are concerned, there is no such category mistake. Others might question the paradigmatic primacy given to 'ordinary' language.

(2) On the specific issue of mind, it is a matter of debate whether Ryle's position should be described as 'behaviourist'. Nevertheless it seems that it is his primary aim to present an account of our talk about 'mental' life in at least quasi-behaviourist terms. It is, however, questionable whether our thinking, perceiving, imagining, and so on can be eliminated or by-passed in this way. At the same time Ryle's achievement — his powerful arguments against the Cartesian substance dualistic model — should not be underestimated.

 

READING

Ryle: [of many writings] "Systematically Misleading Expressions" (1932) in Logic and Language I, ed. A. G. N. Flew; "Categories" (1938) in Logic and Language, II, ed. A.G.N. Flew; The Concept of Mind (1949) — see Penguin edn (2000) with Introduction by D. Dennett; Review of Carnap's Meaning and Necessity (1949), in Philosophy XXIV; Dilemmas (1954); 'The Theory of Meaning' (1957), in British Philosophy at Mid-Century, ed. Mace C. A.; "Use, Usage and Meaning" (1961), in The Theory of Meaning, ed. G. H. R. Parkinson.

Studies

W. Lyons, Gilbert Ryle: An Introduction to his Philosophy.

G. Warnock, 'Gilbert Ryle'.

Collections of Essays

O. P. Wood and G. Pitcher (eds), Ryle: A Collection of Critical Essays.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Ryle

 

[1a] Grammatical form of ordinary language can lead to error; philosopher's job to reformulate expressions

   Russell

   Wittgenstein

   Hampshire

   Strawson

Dummett

[1d]

[3a]

[1a]

[1a 2a]

[1a h]

 

[1b] Category confusion; philosophy to 'rectify logical geography of concepts'; dilemmas result of conceptual confusion

   Russell

   Schlick

   Wittgenstein

   Merleau-Ponty

Ayer

   Strawson

Dummett

   Searle

[1b 2d]

[2b]

[3a d]

[5b]

[1f]

[1a 2a]

[1a h]

[2a]

 

[1c] Paradoxes of motion    Zeno [2a]

 

[2a] Rejection of denotation theory of meaning; meaning and use; words as bearers of meaning but sentences as units of speech; assimilation of accounts of sentence meaning to word meaning leads to error

   Russell

   Wittgenstein

   Carnap

Strawson

[1c]

[1a 2a]

[3c]

[1c]

 

[3a; see also 1b] Erroneous dogma of 'ghost in machine': in knowing, etc. reference to private 'mind' is category mistake

   Descartes

   Wittgenstein

Hampshire

Strawson

   Searle

[2a 3g]

[2c]

[1b c e]

[2c]

[2a]

 

[3b; cf. 3c d] Reference to mental processes leads to infinite regress; distinction between categorial (episodic) and hypothetical (dispositional) statements; R. assimilates 'knowing-that' to 'knowing-how'

   Wittgenstein

Ayer

Strawson

Searle

[2c]

[3e]

[2c]

[2h]

 

[3c] Voluntary action — mistaken to appeal to conscious acts of volition; freedom of will no problem

   Wittgenstein

Strawson

[2c]

[3c]

 

[3d] Perception: rejection of sense-datum and phenomenalist theories

   Russell

   Moore

   Wittgenstein

   Merleau-Ponty

   Ayer

[2b 3a b]

[2g]

[2c]

[3a]

[2a]

 

[4a c] No knowledge of self through consciousness/ introspection; no occult mental entity; knowledge gained same as for knowledge about others (behaviour)

   Descartes

   Russell

   Wittgenstein

Ayer

Hampshire

Strawson

[2a]

[2c 3a b]

[2c]

[2d 3e]

[1b]

[2c 2d]

 

[4b] 'I' not a name; indicates person directly; has variety of uses

   Wittgenstein

Ayer

[2d]

[3d]