Ryle, Gilbert (1900–1976)

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Gilbert Ryle, the British philosopher, was born in Brighton. Having read Classical Honour Moderations and the Final School of Literae Humaniores (Greats) he went on to read the then newly established School of Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the Queen's College, Oxford. He became a lecturer at Christ Church in 1924 and in the following year a student and tutor, and he remained there until his appointment as professor at the end of World War II. He was the Waynflete professor of metaphysical philosophy in the University of Oxford from 1945 to 1968. Ryle was largely responsible for the institution of the new degree of bachelor of philosophy at Oxford. He served as the editor of Mind, after the retirement of G. E. Moore, from 1947 until 1971.

Ryle's philosophical writings covered a wide range of topics. They fall mainly within the fields of philosophical methodology, philosophical logic, and the philosophy of mind, but the total spread is very wide and includes some work on the history of philosophy, especially on Plato. Only the fields of moral philosophy, political philosophy, and aesthetics are comparatively neglected. Much of his writing takes the form of articles addressed to the solution of quite specific issues, and it is impossible to discuss here seriatim his "Negation," "Plato's Parmenides," "Conscience and Moral Conviction," and "Heterologicality," to mention the titles of only four such papers.

Probably the best approach to Ryle's philosophical work is through his views on the nature and method of philosophy, which have developed in a consistent way after the end of a short and early flirtation with phenomenology. Many of his articles on specific topics seem to have a clear subordinate aim of illuminating these questions, while such important writings as "Systematically Misleading Expressions," his inaugural lecture, Philosophical Arguments, and the book Dilemmas are explicitly devoted to them. That The Concept of Mind can be regarded as an illustration of his views on philosophical method is a tribute to the consistency of his theory with his practice, though it would be an injustice to treat it merely as such.

Ryle's well-known article "Systematically Misleading Expressions" is important as being easily the first, although incompletely worked out, version of a view of philosophy closely akin to that which Ludwig Wittgenstein was then beginning to work out independently, and which is often spoken of as having been first suggested by Wittgenstein. This view treats philosophy as the activity of removing fundamental conceptual confusions that have their source in our overreadiness to construe grammatical similarities and differences as indicative of logical similarities and differences. For example, since either unpunctuality or the unpunctual Smith may, with grammatical similarity, be said to be reprehensible, some philosophers are inclined to conclude that similar things are being said of two objects, Smith and unpunctuality; hence, the world is thought to be populated by two kinds of objects, universals and particulars. Again, since "Mr. Baldwin is a statesman" is grammatically similar to "Mr. Pickwick is a fiction," philosophers have been tempted to suppose that the world contained fictions alongside of statesmen.

However, Ryle's view is not fully worked out at this stage. Writing in a climate of opinion in which philosophy was widely regarded as the activity of analysis by which the true logical form of facts was explicitly displayed and the test of adequate language was taken to be a one-to-one correspondence with the form of facts, he did not entirely free himself from its influence. As a result, he cannot regard the reformulation of statements in a way that removes misleading grammatical similarities as merely a useful expedient for making ourselves aware of important differences between them; the reformulation is still thought of as the revelation of the true form of the fact, so that "Baldwin is a statesman" is, in an absolute sense, a correct form of utterance, while "Pickwick is a fiction" is incorrectly formulated.

This anomalous relic of logical atomism caused Ryle uneasiness even then, and it does not appear again. If we neglect it, we may regard "Systematically Misleading Expressions" as an exposition of a view that Ryle never abandoned, although he did refine it. One such refinement is found in Dilemmas. Here it is claimed that many philosophical problems, if not all, immediately present themselves in the form of dilemmas: We find ourselves holding, without the possibility of sincere repudiation, two or more opinions that seem to be incompatible (that, for example, we often choose responsibly what to do, and that we are what we are through our natural endowment as modified by environmentthe problem of free will). Such dilemmas must be overcome by showing that the apparent conflict is a consequence of conceptual confusion rather than by choosing one horn on which to be impaled.

The emphasis is somewhat different in Philosophical Arguments. While in "Systematically Misleading Expressions" and in Dilemmas the emphasis is on the activity of freeing ourselves from conceptual errors and puzzlement, in Philosophical Arguments the more constructive side of the procedure is stressed. By methodically determining what can and what cannot be said without absurdity, which inferences are valid and which are invalid, which grammatical parallels are likely to mislead and which are not, we come to see better the "logical geography" of our conceptual systemhow different concepts are related to each other and what are the different roles that they play. There is no essential conflict between the view of Ryle's philosophical procedures as "removing conceptual roadblocks" and "freeing conceptual traffic jams," to echo the metaphor employed in Dilemmas, and the more constructive view of them. Thus, it would be idle to ask whether, or at which stages, The Concept of Mind is correctly viewed as exposing the confusion of "the ghost in the machine," into which we are led by grammatical analogies, or as mapping the extension and boundaries of such interrelated concepts as "will," "intelligence," "imagination," "thought," and the like; the two aspects are not thus separable.

Ryle often expressed this view of philosophy in terms of the notion of a category mistake, as in The Concept of Mind. A category mistake occurs when something is taken to belong to a different category from its true one. Neither in The Concept of Mind nor elsewhere is any serious attempt made by Ryle to give a rigorous account of the notion of a category, although there is a historical discussion of it in "Categories," and Ryle sees this notion as akin to Bertrand Russell's notion of type. Although this is a gap, it is probably of little direct importance to the argument of The Concept of Mind. The essential thesis here is that there is a special kind of confusion that can be illustrated by that of taking team spirit as an element in a game as being on equal footing with serving or receiving, of taking a division as a military formation as being on equal footing with its component regiments, of taking Oxford University as an institution as being on equal footing with its component colleges. Ryle then goes on to claim that traditional Cartesian dualism treats the mind as an entity on equal footing with the body and mental activities as being on equal footing with bodily activities, and that this is a confusion of the same kind as those in the three illustrative cases. The language of category mistakes is not essential; Ryle could have used his terminology of 1931 and said that just as the grammatical similarity of "Jones gave an exhibition of dribbling" and "Jones gave an exhibition of ball control" could mislead us into thinking that Jones was giving two independent and simultaneous exhibitions, so the grammatical similarities between our talk of mental and bodily activities could mislead us into thinking that they were independent and simultaneous activities.

Such a misconception Ryle calls the dogma of the ghost in the machine. He attempts to show its falsity in a series of chapters on the main aspects of mental life, in which the arguments fall into two main classes. On the one hand he tries to show that the dogma of the ghost in the machine fails in its explanatory task and is logically incoherent, leading to such logical evils as vicious infinite regresses. On the other hand he tries to show that a satisfactory positive account of mental phenomena can be given, without invoking the ghost, in terms of such things as style of performance, dispositions to certain characteristic performances, and acquired skills. Thus, if a person does a physical action while thinking about what he is doing, we must take it not that the ghost discursively thinks and the bodily machine moves but that the person performs bodily in an appropriate way, while being disposed to perform other actions if the occasion arises.

One chapter in the book is a restatement of the argument of the paper "Knowing How and Knowing That," published in 1946, and it is a plausible inference that this paper was the germ from which the larger enterprise sprang. In that article Ryle suggested that philosophers commonly take it that knowing how to do something is knowing the truth of certain principles and applying them to an activity. He pointed out that although a given cook may learn to cook from a cookbook, the principles of cookery are logically a distillation from the practice of those who know how to cook, just as the principles of valid argument are a distillation from the practice of those who know how to argue. Thus, knowing how to do things, being able to perform intelligently, is logically independent of any interior theorizing; therefore it involves a display of intelligence that others can witness, rather than a mechanical event from which we have to infer a piece of unwitnessable ghostly theorizing. The Concept of Mind attempts to extend the same line of thought to other mental phenomena.

It should be noted that Ryle is not content with the "weaker" thesis that overt human actions must not be analyzed as mechanical events brought about by nonphysical, ghostly activities. In fact, he adopts the far stronger thesis that all references to the mental must be understood in terms of, in principle, witnessable activities. We must not only avoid ascribing the skill of a skillful driver to a ghostly "inner" driver, but we must also explain all mental life, including emotion and feeling, in terms of the witnessable. Certainly it is this feature of his book that has led many, with considerable plausibility, to class Ryle as a philosophical behaviorist, though he repudiated this label in advance. Ryle, indeed, sometimes refers to "twinges," "throbs," "flutters," and "glows" in his characterization of feelings in a way hard to reconcile with behaviorism, but it is notoriously difficult to see how such terms are not a relic of the essentially private in Ryle's public world. By adopting this stronger thesis Ryle avoids well-known difficulties about knowledge of other minds and privacy; however, it is not clearly required for the basic program, and much that he has to say is independent of it.

Much of the interest of this modern classic is independent of the question whether Ryle succeeds in demonstrating any general thesis. The detailed discussions of thinking, knowledge, will, emotion, sensation, intellect, and the like have great independent interest. In the course of these discussions Ryle introduces a number of philosophical distinctions, such as those of "task and achievement," "avowal," and "mongrel-categorical," that have become the common tools of modern philosophical discussion. The whole character of philosophical discussion of the mind has been decisively changed, even in quarters where Ryle's conclusions are strongly challenged, by the appearance of The Concept of Mind.

Another set of problems to which Ryle devoted a number of papers are those concerned with the concept of meaning. Here his review of Rudolf Carnap's Meaning and Necessity in Philosophy, his "The Theory of Meaning," published in British Philosophy in the Mid-century, and his contribution to the symposium "Use, Usage and Meaning" in the PAS supplementary volume for 1961 deserve special mention. One main contention in these articles is that it is words that are the bearers of meaning, and whose meanings have to be taught and learned, rather than sentences. To learn a language is to acquire a vocabulary and a syntax; this language is then used in speech, which is an activity that one performs by means of a language. The sentence is a unit of speech, not of language. The theory of meaning is therefore concerned primarily with words, not with sentences; but this theory, Ryle holds, has been often vitiated by a simple model of meaning that he calls the "'Fido'-Fido" theory, one that seeks always to find as the meaning of a word something that stands to that word rather as the dog Fido stands to the name "Fido." J. S. Mill partly emancipated himself from the theory by distinguishing connotation from denotation, but he continued to say that meaning was connotation and denotation. In the review of Carnap mentioned before, Ryle attempts to show that the "'Fido'-Fido" theory is still not an outworn fallacy but something that continues to vitiate much sophisticated modern work.

It is notable that the bulk of Ryle's philosophical writing avoids, rather than lacks, any historical discussion. There is the very minimum of reference to even recent learned controversy, and the great philosophers are rarely given even a casual mention. In The Concept of Mind the expression "Cartesian dualism" is a nickname for a kind of view that Ryle had once held and to which he thinks many are prone rather than a genuine historical reference. However, this is a policy of segregating the history of philosophy from the treatment of problems, not a sign of lack of interest in the history of philosophy. Ryle's historical interests, though eclectic, are wide. They have, however, centered on Plato; in addition to already published articles on Plato, Ryle devoted much work to problems arising from the Platonic dialogues, and further publications in that field may be expected.

In conclusion, a word should be said about Ryle's highly individual style, for it is of more than literary interest. It is peculiarly his own, so that it would be impossible for anyone familiar with it not to recognize his work from even a few sentences. One hallmark is the freshness of the vocabulary; although he liberally coined technical terms when he needed them, he always avoided the well-worn counters of philosophical exchange. Another hallmark is that although the general style is informal, the choice of words is literary rather than colloquial; this is achieved by the use of a vocabulary more novelistic than learned. Although there is much close argument in his writing, the importance of the fresh language, the bold metaphor, and the terse epigram in giving the problem a striking presentation, in bringing down pretentious castles of learned jargon, and in making his own contention memorable is very great indeed.

See also Analysis, Philosophical; Artificial and Natural Languages; Behaviorism; Carnap, Rudolf; Categories; Meaning; Mill, John Stuart; Moore, George Edward; Language, Philosophy of; Philosophy of Mind; Plato; Propositions, Judgments, Sentences, and Statements; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Thinking; Type Theory; Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann.


works by ryle

Review of Martin Heidegger's Sein und Zeit. Mind 38 (1929).

"Negation." PAS supp. 9 (1929).

"Are There Propositions?" PAS 30 (19291930).

"Systematically Misleading Expressions." PAS 32 (19311932).

"Phenomenology." PAS supp. 11 (1932).

"Imaginary Objects." PAS supp. 12 (1933).

Locke on the Human Understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933.

"About." Analysis 1 (1933).

"Internal Relations." PAS supp. 14 (1935).

"Mr. Collingwood and the Ontological Argument." Mind 44 (1935).

"Unverifiability-by-Me." Analysis 4 (1936).

"Induction and Hypothesis." PAS supp. 16 (1937).

"Taking Sides in Philosophy." Philosophy 12 (1937).

"Categories." PAS 38 (19371938).

"Plato's Parmenides." Mind 48 (1939).

"Conscience and Moral Convictions." Analysis 7 (1940).

Philosophical Arguments. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1945. Inaugural lecture.

"Why Are the Calculuses of Logic and Mathematics Applicable to Reality?" PAS supp. 20 (1946).

Review of Marvin Farber's Foundations of Phenomenology. Philosophy 21 (1946).

"Knowing How and Knowing That." PAS 46 (19461947).

Review of Carnap's Meaning and Necessity. Philosophy 25 (1949).

The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson, 1949.

"'If,' 'So' and 'Because.'" In Philosophical Analysis, edited by Max Black. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1950.

"Logic and Professor Anderson." Australasian Journal of Philosophy 28 (1950).

"Thinking and Language." PAS supp. 25 (1951).

"Feelings." Philosophical Quarterly 1 (1951).

"Heterologicality." Analysis 11 (1951).

"The Verification Principle." Revue international de philosophie 5 (1951).

"Ludwig Wittgenstein." Analysis 12 (1951).

Contribution to The Physical Basis of Mind, edited by Peter Laslett. Oxford: Blackwell, 1950.

"Ordinary Language." Philosophical Review 62 (1953).

"Thinking." Acta Philologica 9 (1953).

"Pleasure." PAS supp. 28 (1954).

"Proofs in Philosophy." Revue internationale de philosophie 8 (1954).

Dilemmas. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1954.

Introduction to The Revolution in Philosophy, edited by D. F. Pears. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1956.

"Sensation." In Contemporary British Philosophy, edited by H. D. Lewis, third series. London, 1956.

"The Theory of Meaning." In British Philosophy in the Mid-century, edited by C. A. Mace. London: Allen and Unwin, 1957.

"Predicting and Inferring." Colston Papers 9 (London, 1957).

"On Forgetting the Difference between Right and Wrong." In Essays in Moral Philosophy, edited by A. I. Melden. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1958.

"A Puzzling Element in the Notion of Thinking." Proceedings of the British Academy 44 (1958).

Article on Wittgenstein in Scientific American (1959).

"Letters and Syllables in Plato." Philosophical Review 59 (1960).

Review of Richard Wollheim's F. H. Bradley. Spectator (1960).

"Comment on Mr. Achinstein's Paper." Analysis (1960).

"Use, Usage and Meaning." PAS supp. 35 (1961).

"La phénomenologie contre le Concept of Mind." In La philosophie analytique,edited by H. Bréra. Paris, 1962.

"Thinking Thoughts and Having Concepts." Institut Internationale de Philosophie (1962).

"Abstractions." Dialogue 1 (1962).

J. O. Urmson (1967)