Gilbert Ryle

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Gilbert Ryle

The English philosopher Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) ranked among the leaders of the contemporary analytic movement in British philosophy. His most original work was his analysis of the concept of mind.

Gilbert Ryle was born on Aug. 19, 1900, in Brighton, the son of a prosperous doctor. He was educated at Brighton College and then entered Queen's College, Oxford, where he took first honors in two subjects: classical honor moderations and the school of philosophy, politics, and economics. He was also captain of the Queen's College Boating Club.

As a result of his brilliant academic work, Ryle was appointed lecturer in 1924 and a year later tutor in philosophy, both appointments at Christ Church, Oxford. In 1940 he was commissioned in the Welsh Guards, serving for the duration of World War II and ending his military career as a major.

Ryle returned to Oxford to become Waynfleete professor of metaphysical philosophy, a post he held from 1945 to 1968. In 1947 he inherited from G. E. Moore the editorship of Mind, the most influential journal of English philosophy.

Early in his philosophical career, Ryle decided that the task of philosophy was "the detection of the sources in linguistic idioms of recurrent misconceptions and absurd theories." In his Tanner Lectures, published as Dilemmas (1954), he showed how certain philosophical impasses could be dissolved by a clearer understanding of the concepts employed by the apparently contradictory views.

In his major work, The Concept of Mind (1949), Ryle mounted a devastating attack on Cartesian dualism and, in particular, on the view of mind as a separate substance apart from the body. He caricatured this view as the "myth of the ghost in the machine" proposed by Descartes. Ryle's own view of mental reality is that it consists in dispositions to behave in certain ways. He tried to show that mental concepts do not refer to private, unwitnessable events, maintaining against critics that his view was not identical with behaviorism.

In Plato's Progress (1966) Ryle exhibited an unexpected talent for ingenious speculation in an attempt to reconstruct the historical genesis of Plato's dialogues. Ryle, a bachelor, lived most of his life in college rooms. Friends said that "the Common Room atmosphere fits him like a glove." Quick and formidable in debate, Ryle was also the writer of clear and witty prose. He took particular delight in exploding pompous views and in inventing fresh metaphors and vivid aphorisms. Though professing to dislike erudition and intellectual matters, Ryle was both learned and highly intellectual. He was said to distrust imagination and its works, but he had a typically British love of gardening.

Further Reading

Ryle's works are eminently readable even for the general reader. The Concept of Mind (1949) and Dilemmas (1954) are the most important. The only study of any length is the highly critical one by Laird Addis in Moore and Ryle: Two Ontologies (1965). Also see William Lyons, Gilbert Ryle: An Introduction to his Philosophy, (1980) and Ira Altman, The Concept of Intelligence: A philosophical Analysis (1997). Collections of Ryle's works include: Modern Studies in Philosophy (1971) and Logic and Language (1978). □

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Gilbert Ryle, 1900–1976, British philosopher. A graduate of Oxford, he became a tutor at Christ Church, Oxford, and later was Waynflete professor of metaphysical philosophy (1945–68) there. From 1947 to 1971 he was editor of the philosophical journal Mind. Like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ryle was concerned with problems caused by the confusion of grammatical with logical distinctions. He pointed out the so-called category mistake, in which, usually because of a grammatical equivalence, two things are mistakenly treated as belonging to equivalent logical categories. In his Concept of Mind (1949), Ryle argued that the mind is not a nonphysical substance residing in the body, "a ghost in a machine," but a set of capacities and abilities belonging to the body. All references to the mental must be understood, at least theoretically, in terms of witnessable activities. His other works include Dilemmas (1954), Plato's Progress (1966), and Collected Papers (2 vol., 1971).

See G. Pitcher and O. Wood, ed., Ryle (1971).