Gilbert Ryle was Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy in Oxford University from 1945 to 1968, and editor of the philosophical journal Mind. In his major work The Concept of Mind (Ryle, G. 1949 The Concept of Mind. London: Hutcheson – all page references refer to this edition) Ryle focuses on making sense of the way we talk about the mind, and about its faculties such as consciousness and intelligence. He says in his preface that “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 which we already possess.” (p.9)
2. The Concept of Mind – principle ideas and arguments
Ryle’s aim in this book is to falsify a certain view of the mind and our mental activities, which was forcefully presented by Descartes and has been widely held by many philosophers and non-philosophers ever since. This view is called substance dualism by modern philosophers, and it can be stated as follows.
A person consists of both a body and a mind. Bodies are physical. Like any other physical object they operate according to the laws of physics in an objectively observable way. Minds, on the other hand, are non-physical. They do not exist in ordinary space and are not subject to the laws of physics. The processes of the mind can only be accessed directly by the person who has (is?) that mind. Minds are necessarily private – no other person can have direct cognisance of your mind.
Ryle derisively refers to this view as the dogma of “the ghost in the machine”, and argues that it is seriously flawed. The dualist creates a radical cleavage between the mind and the body. Yet the mind is supposed to control the body in some way. The mind instigates volitions, compelling the body to act. Indeed, this is what distinguishes acts or behaviour from mere movement or reflex. But how can something intrinsically non-physical affect a physical thing like the body?
Ryle’s attack on dualism aims to point out a mistake that allowed this metaphysical puzzle to arise. He argues that to suppose that the mind is something non-physical, mysteriously embedded in the body is to commit what he calls a category mistake.
An example of a category mistake might be as follows: Suppose that a visitor to a university is shown the libraries, the laboratories and all the various buildings and facilities. He meets the students and is introduced to the members of academic and administrative staff. If he then asks: ‘but when are you going to show me the University?’ he is making a category mistake in supposing that the university is actually something apart from the various buildings and people which constitute it.
Another even simpler example would be the case of a child who sees a sign stating: ‘Danger – keep away!’ and then innocently asks: ‘What sort of animal is a danger?’ Again, the mistake comes from assuming danger to be a thing, in this case an animal. Contrast this sort of mistake with, say, someone mistaking a birch tree for an elm, or misspelling a word, one can get a clear idea of the nature of a category mistake.
Therefore, according to Ryle, if one supposed that the qualities of the mind such as intelligence are something apart from the various abilities and dispositions of a person, then one would be making a category mistake.
For Ryle, when we talk about a person’s mind, we are talking about a person’s abilities to perform certain kinds of tasks. Hence words that refer to mental states, such as “know”, and “believe” refer to a person’s dispositions to behave in certain ways, given certain circumstances. This point is made especially clear in Ryle’s discussion of the distinction between knowing-how and knowing-that. It is often assumed that knowing-how to do something is a matter of knowing certain facts or principles, and applying them to the task. For example, the thought that knowing how to cook is a matter of knowing recipes. Although it is true that one may learn to cook from a set of instructions, those actual principles are a description of the activities of those who know how to cook. Thus it is fallacious to infer that there must be some ghostly process that precedes activity whereby one consults an inner set of rules for action. As Ryle says:
… when we describe people as exercising qualities of the mind, we are not referring to occult episodes of which their overt acts and utterances are effects; we are referring to those overt acts and utterances themselves. (p. 26)
We have to be careful when characterising Ryle’s position. It would be tempting to suppose that Ryle is attempting to identify our minds with our overt acts and utterances. This would make him a behaviourist, a person who analyses humans in terms of stimulus and response, disallowing theoretical vocabulary that includes mentalistic terminology. Ryle, on the other hand, embraces our mentalistic terminology. His aim is to show that there is a conceptual connection between our overt behaviour and utterances and our mentalistic vocabulary. Thus Ryle’s position has been called logical behaviourism.
According to Ryle, the habit of thinking and talking about the mind as being a place where thinking occurs is a result of the misleading metaphor we employ when we assert, for example, that a maths problem is done ‘in the head’, or ‘in the mind’. Ryle says that:
… The phrase “in the mind” can and should always be dispensed with. Its use habituates its employers to the view that minds are queer places, the occupants of which are special-status phantasms. (p.40)
Ryle is trying to undermine the idea that we have privileged access to our minds. Not only is there a relationship between the behaviour of a person and their thinking, one comes to know about oneself in much the same way that one comes to know about another – by observing behaviour. He is making the strong claim that all references to mental activities must be understood as references to outward, observable behaviour.
3. Principle criticisms
A powerful criticism of Ryle’s theory can be presented by considering the case where one is asked to imagine, say, a horse. Take a minute – actually picture the horse in your ‘mind’s eye’. It should have a determinate colour and form. Usually it is easier to do this by closing your eyes. Now this clearly is a mental event. It is an episode which takes place in time, and the quality and character of this imagined object, in this case a horse, cannot be fully captured in terms of behavioural dispositions. This does not necessarily lend support to the dualist theory – there may well be a scientific and physicalist way of explaining this mental episode. However, this example does count against Ryle’s positive theory that mental events can be conceptually reduced to episodes of observable behaviour.
A related criticism to this is that a behaviourist style approach such as that presented by Ryle fails to capture another thing that is surely purely mental, and is not fully captured by reference to observable behaviour. And that is the qualitative feel of our conscious experience. These qualities: the taste of coffee, the look of red, and so on, are often referred to as qualia. No description of behaviour and behavioural dispositions, no matter how complete will capture “what it is like” to experience the colours, sounds, tastes and smells of the world. The issue of how to explain the qualitative nature of our conscious experience is at the centre of debate in contemporary philosophy of mind.
The legacy of Ryle’s method and criticism can be seen in the contemporary work of Daniel Dennett. Dennett answers the above criticism of Ryle by denying that there are such things as qualia. It may seem like there is “ineffable quality” to our conscious experience, says Dennett, but “seeming” is all there is to it. So although it appears there is an unanalysable aspect to one’s experience, this qualitative aspect is a complex of one’s judgements, dispositions and associations that make up the parallel processing that goes on to result in the action of experiencing the world.
Perhaps the greatest problem with Ryle’s identification of mental state ascriptions with dispositions and abilities is the niggling intuition that the relationship between one’s mental states and one’s outward behaviour is contingent. For example, people express love, hate, annoyance, thoughts, feelings and beliefs in all different kinds of ways. And as a similar state of mind may result in entirely different behaviour on different occasions, it seems that attempting to individuate mental states by actual and possible behaviour is just a hit and miss way of guessing the state of someone’s mind, rather than an accurate means of individuating mental state types. Ryle’s assumption is that there is a clear connection between mental state ascriptions and behaviour, yet it is not clear how this connection can be specified.
Another objection to Ryle’s account can be called the theory objection. It may well be that Ryle’s analysis of the way we talk about the mind provides a useful, ‘rough and ready’ theory that suffices for our everyday understanding of mental activity. But this does not rule out the possibility that there is a yet unformulated scientific theory of the actual nature of the mind that is not entirely compatible with Ryle’s analysis.
Consider the analogous example of folk physics. This is our everyday understanding of everyday objects and how they interact. Things move when pushed, fall when dropped, and hurt if they are heavy and they hit you. This theory may be very useful in everyday life, but it does not get to the bottom of the real nature of physical objects and their motions. Likewise, perhaps our everyday mind-talk encapsulates a useful but inaccurate folk theory of the mind.
It can be said in Ryle’s defence that recent work in cognitive science is confirming his ideas about the nature of intelligence. One of Ryle’s ideas is that many of the tasks we perform are not based on knowledge of facts. Rather they are merely skills that we have. His point was perhaps that intelligence is based on skills rather than knowledge of facts. Researchers have begun to study abstract models based on the neural structure of our brains. These models are able to perform complex tasks such as pattern recognition and linguistic transformations without any explicit encoding of facts. In Ryle’s terminology, these “neural networks” know-how to do things without knowing-that. At least here, scientific study of the mind is in consonance with Ryle’s ideas.
Another major point with regard to Ryle’s work is that he wanted to get away from thinking about the mind as being a physical or a non-physical entity, instead explaining talk about the mind as a relationship between a person and their environment. Functionalism, the dominant contemporary theory of mind, is the successor of Ryle’s logical behaviourism. Functionalism also attempts to explain the mind in terms of this relationship. The essence of functionalism is that at a certain level of analysis, what matters is not an object’s physical make-up, but rather the functional role it has. Thus mental states are not identified by the physical states that underlie them. Rather they are identified by the role those physical states play within the brain and the person’s behavioural interaction with the environment. So ultimately a mental state refers to a relationship rather than a particular “thing”.
The influence of Ryle’s Concept of Mind should not be underestimated. The book still has the status of mandatory reading in these areas of philosophy of mind. Whether a contemporary theory is in support of, or at odds with Ryle’s views, it is still common practice to engage directly with his arguments.