Gilbert Ryle

Last updated

Gilbert Ryle
Rex Whistler - Gilbert Ryle, Fellow.jpg
Portrait by Rex Whistler
Born19 August 1900
Brighton, England
Died6 October 1976 (aged 76)
Whitby, England
Alma mater The Queen's College, Oxford
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Analytic
Logical behaviorism [1] [2]
Notable students G. A. Cohen
Main interests
Language, ordinary language philosophy, philosophy of mind, behaviourism, meaning, cognition
Notable ideas
Category mistake, Ryle's Regress, ordinary language philosophy, ghost in the machine, thick description, knowing-how vs. knowing-that, topic neutrality [3]

Gilbert Ryle (19 August 1900 – 6 October 1976) was a British philosopher. [7] He was a representative of the generation of British ordinary language philosophers who shared Ludwig Wittgenstein's approach to philosophical problems, [8] 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'." [9] 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." [10]

Ordinary language philosophy is a philosophical methodology that sees traditional philosophical problems as rooted in misunderstandings philosophers develop by distorting or forgetting what words actually mean in everyday use. "Such 'philosophical' uses of language, on this view, create the very philosophical problems they are employed to solve." Ordinary language philosophy is a branch of linguistic philosophy closely related to logical positivism.

Ludwig Wittgenstein Austrian-British philosopher

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was an Austrian-British philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language. From 1929 to 1947, Wittgenstein taught at the University of Cambridge. During his lifetime he published just one slim book, the 75-page Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), one article, one book review and a children's dictionary. His voluminous manuscripts were edited and published posthumously. Philosophical Investigations appeared as a book in 1953, and has since come to be recognised as one of the most important works of philosophy in the 20th century. His teacher, Bertrand Russell, described Wittgenstein as "the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating".

The "ghost in the machine" is British philosopher Gilbert Ryle's description of René Descartes' mind-body dualism. Ryle introduced the phrase in The Concept of Mind (1949) to highlight the view of Descartes and others that mental and physical activity occur simultaneously but separately.



Ryle was born in Brighton, England, in 1900, and grew up in an environment of learning. His father, Reginald John Ryle, was a Brighton doctor, a generalist who had interests in philosophy and astronomy, and passed on to his children an impressive library. He was a son of John Charles Ryle, first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool. [11] [12] The Ryle family were Cheshire landed gentry; Gilbert's elder brother, John Alfred Ryle, of Barkhale, Sussex, became head of the family. Their ancestor, John Ryle, a silk merchant, was a friend of the theologian and evangelist John Wesley; members of this Ryle family include the silk manufacturer ('father of the United States silk industry') John Ryle and his nephew and business partner William. Gilbert Ryle's mother, Catherine, was daughter of Samuel King Scott (younger brother of the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott) by his wife Georgina, daughter of William Hulme Bodley, M.D. and sister of architect George Frederick Bodley, himself a student of Sir George Gilbert Scott. Cousins of the Ryle family thus included the haematologist Ronald Bodley Scott, architect George Gilbert Scott Jr., founder of Watts & Co., and his son, Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of the Battersea Power Station. [13]

Brighton Town on south coast of England

Brighton is a seaside resort on the south coast of England that is part of the city of Brighton and Hove, located 47 miles (76 km) south of London.

Astronomy natural science that deals with the study of celestial objects

Astronomy is a natural science that studies celestial objects and phenomena. It applies mathematics, physics, and chemistry in an effort to explain the origin of those objects and phenomena and their evolution. Objects of interest include planets, moons, stars, nebulae, galaxies, and comets; the phenomena also includes supernova explosions, gamma ray bursts, quasars, blazars, pulsars, and cosmic microwave background radiation. More generally, all phenomena that originate outside Earth's atmosphere are within the purview of astronomy. A related but distinct subject is physical cosmology, which is the study of the Universe as a whole.

J. C. Ryle Anglican bishop

John Charles Ryle was an English Evangelical Anglican bishop. He was the first Anglican bishop of Liverpool.

Ryle was educated at Brighton College, and in 1919 he went up to The Queen's College at Oxford to study classics but was quickly drawn to philosophy. He graduated with a "triple first": first-class honours in classical honour moderations (1921), literae humaniores (1923), and philosophy, politics, and economics (1924), and was appointed as lecturer in philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1925. A year later, he became a Student (Fellow) and tutor at Christ Church, where he remained until 1940. [14]

Brighton College English boarding school

Brighton College is a boarding and day school for boys and girls aged 11–18 in Brighton, England. Brighton College Preparatory School, for children aged 8 to 13, is located immediately next to the College itself and shares many of its facilities. The Pre-Prep School, for children ages 3 to 8, has its own site close by.

The Queens College, Oxford college of the University of Oxford

The Queen's College is a constituent college of the University of Oxford, England. The college was founded in 1341 by Robert de Eglesfield (d'Eglesfield) in honour of Queen Philippa of Hainault. It is distinguished by its predominantly neoclassical architecture, which includes buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Classics Study of the culture of (mainly) Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome

Classics or classical studies is the study of classical antiquity. It encompasses the study of the Greco-Roman world, particularly of its languages and literature but also of Greco-Roman philosophy, history, and archaeology. Traditionally in the West, the study of the Greek and Roman classics was considered one of the cornerstones of the humanities and a fundamental element of a rounded education. The study of classics has therefore traditionally been a cornerstone of a typical elite education.

In the Second World War he was commissioned in the Welsh Guards. A capable linguist, he was recruited into intelligence work 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. [14]

Welsh Guards regiment of the British Army

The Welsh Guards, part of the Guards Division, is one of the Foot Guards regiments of the British Army. It was founded in 1915 by Royal Warrant of George V.

Military intelligence is a military discipline that uses information collection and analysis approaches to provide guidance and direction to assist commanders in their decisions. This aim is achieved by providing an assessment of data from a range of sources, directed towards the commanders' mission requirements or responding to questions as part of operational or campaign planning. To provide an analysis, the commander's information requirements are first identified, which are then incorporated into intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination.

Magdalen College, Oxford constituent college of the University of Oxford in England

Magdalen College is one of the wealthiest constituent colleges of the University of Oxford, with an estimated financial endowment of £180.8 million as of 2014.

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 1935–1945 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 1963–1965 and appointed a CBE.[ citation needed ]

The Regius Professorship of Physic is one of the oldest professorships at the University of Cambridge, founded by Henry VIII in 1540. "Physic" is an old word for medicine , not physics.

University of Cambridge University in Cambridge, England, United Kingdom

The University of Cambridge is a collegiate public research university in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Founded in 1209 and granted a Royal Charter by King Henry III in 1231, Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world's fourth-oldest surviving university. The university grew out of an association of scholars who left the University of Oxford after a dispute with the townspeople. The two 'ancient universities' share many common features and are often referred to jointly as 'Oxbridge'. The history and influence of the University of Cambridge has made it one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

The Forestry Commission is a non-ministerial government department responsible for forestry in England and Scotland. It was set up in 1919 to expand Britain's forests and woodland after depletion during the First World War. To do this, the commission bought large amounts of former agricultural land, eventually becoming the largest land owner in Britain. The Commission is divided into three divisions: Forestry Commission England, Forestry Commission Scotland and Forest Research. Forestry Commission Scotland reports to the Scottish Government.


The Concept of Mind

In The Concept of Mind, Ryle argues 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. [15]

A category mistake, or category error, or categorical mistake, or mistake of category, is a semantic or ontological error in which things belonging to a particular category are presented as if they belong to a different category, or, alternatively, a property is ascribed to a thing that could not possibly have that property. An example is the metaphor "time crawled", which if taken literally is not just false but a category mistake. To show that a category mistake has been committed one must typically show that once the phenomenon in question is properly understood, it becomes clear that the claim being made about it could not possibly be true.

Nonsense is a communication, via speech, writing, or any other symbolic system, that lacks any coherent meaning. Sometimes in ordinary usage, nonsense is synonymous with absurdity or the ridiculous. Many poets, novelists and songwriters have used nonsense in their works, often creating entire works using it for reasons ranging from pure comic amusement or satire, to illustrating a point about language or reasoning. In the philosophy of language and philosophy of science, nonsense is distinguished from sense or meaningfulness, and attempts have been made to come up with a coherent and consistent method of distinguishing sense from nonsense. It is also an important field of study in cryptography regarding separating a signal from noise.

Philosophy as cartography

Ryle thought it was no longer possible to believe that it was a philosopher's task 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 "philosophical problems are problems of a certain sort; they are not problems of an ordinary sort about special entities." [14]

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. [17]

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. [18]

Knowing-how and knowing-that

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. [19] 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 his field. For him, philosophy 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. [20]


Ryle's notion of thick description, from "The Thinking of Thoughts: What is 'Le Penseur' Doing?" [21] and "Thinking and Reflecting", has been an important influence on cultural anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz. [22] [23]

The Concept of Mind was recognised 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 . 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. [24] Ryle remains a significant defender of the possibility of lucid and meaningful interpretation of higher-level human activities without recourse to an immaterial 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." [25]


Related Research Articles

Metaphilosophy is "the investigation of the nature of philosophy". Its subject matter includes the aims of philosophy, the boundaries of philosophy, and its methods. Thus, while philosophy characteristically inquires into the nature of being, the reality of objects, the possibility of knowledge, the nature of truth, and so on, metaphilosophy is the self-reflective inquiry into the nature, aims, and methods of the activity that makes these kinds of inquiries, by asking what is philosophy itself, what sorts of questions it should ask, how it might pose and answer them, and what it can achieve in doing so. It is considered by some to be a subject prior and preparatory to philosophy, while others see it as inherently a part of philosophy, or automatically a part of philosophy while others adopt some combination of these views. The interest in metaphilosophy led to the establishment of the journal Metaphilosophy in January 1970.

Analytic philosophy style of philosophy

Analytic philosophy is a style of philosophy that became dominant in the Western world at the beginning of the 20th century. The term can refer to one of several things:

Intentionality is a philosophical concept and is defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as "the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs". The once obsolete term dates from medieval scholastic philosophy, but in more recent times it has been resurrected by Franz Brentano and adopted by Edmund Husserl. The earliest theory of intentionality is associated with St. Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God, and with his tenets distinguishing between objects that exist in the understanding and objects that exist in reality.

Eliminative materialism

Eliminative materialism is the claim that people's common-sense understanding of the mind is false and that certain classes of mental states that most people believe in do not exist. It is a materialist position in the philosophy of mind. Some supporters of eliminativism argue that no coherent neural basis will be found for many everyday psychological concepts such as belief or desire, since they are poorly defined. Rather, they argue that psychological concepts of behaviour and experience should be judged by how well they reduce to the biological level. Other versions entail the non-existence of conscious mental states such as pain and visual perceptions.

20th-century philosophy

20th-century philosophy saw the development of a number of new philosophical schools—including logical positivism, analytic philosophy, phenomenology, existentialism, and poststructuralism. In terms of the eras of philosophy, it is usually labelled as contemporary philosophy.

<i>The Concept of Mind</i> book by Gilbert Ryle

The Concept of Mind is a 1949 book by philosopher Gilbert Ryle, in which the author argues that "mind" is "a philosophical illusion hailing chiefly from René Descartes and sustained by logical errors and 'category mistakes' which have become habitual." The work has been cited as having "put the final nail in the coffin of Cartesian dualism" and has been seen as a founding document in the philosophy of mind, which received professional recognition as a distinct and important branch of philosophy only after 1950.

Neurophenomenology refers to a scientific research program aimed to address the hard problem of consciousness in a pragmatic way. It combines neuroscience with phenomenology in order to study experience, mind, and consciousness with an emphasis on the embodied condition of the human mind. The field is very much linked to fields such as neuropsychology, neuroanthropology and behavioral neuroscience and the study of phenomenology in psychology.

Peter Michael Stephan Hacker is a British philosopher. His principal expertise is in the philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. He is known for his detailed exegesis of the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and his outspoken conceptual critique of cognitive neuroscience.

John Niemeyer Findlay, usually cited as J. N. Findlay, was a South African philosopher.

Quietism (philosophy) Concept in philosophy

Quietism in philosophy is an approach to the subject that sees the role of philosophy as broadly therapeutic or remedial. Quietist philosophers believe that philosophy has no positive thesis to contribute, but rather that its value is in defusing confusions in the linguistic and conceptual frameworks of other subjects, including non-quietist philosophy. By re-formulating supposed problems in a way that makes the misguided reasoning from which they arise apparent, the quietist hopes to put an end to humanity's confusion, and help return to a state of intellectual quietude.

This is a list of philosophy of mind articles.

Oets Kolk Bouwsma American philosopher

Oets Kolk Bouwsma (1898–1978) was an American philosopher born of Dutch-American parents in Muskegon, Michigan.

Frank Noel Sibley was a British philosopher who worked mainly in the field of aesthetics. He held the first Chair of Philosophy at Lancaster University. Sibley is best known for his 1959 paper "Aesthetic Concepts", and for "Seeking, Scrutinizing and Seeing". Both papers have been anthologized, "Aesthetic Concepts" multiple times.

This is an index of articles in philosophy of language

This is a list of articles in analytic philosophy.

Logical behaviorism is a theory of mind that mental concepts can be explained in terms of behavioral concepts.

Margaret MacDonald (philosopher) British analytic philosopher

Margaret MacDonald was a British analytic philosopher. She worked in the areas of philosophy of language, political philosophy and aesthetics.

William Edward Lyons is a philosopher who specializes in philosophy of mind. Lyons was the former head of the Department of Philosophy (1985–1995) and Professor of Moral Philosophy (1985–2004) in the School of Mental and Moral Science, Trinity College, Dublin. He is now an Emeritus Fellow of Trinity College Dublin and a member of the Royal Irish Academy." He is also the author of a number of "theatre of thought" dramas. His play about Wittgenstein, The Crooked Roads of Genius had its world premiere on 19 April 2011 at the Riverside Studios. He received his PhD at the University of Dundee.


  1. Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). "Behaviorism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
  2. Neil Tennant, Introducing Philosophy: God, Mind, World, and Logic, Routledge, 2015, p. 299.
  3. Logical Constants (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  4. Stuart Brown, Diane Collinson, Robert Wilkinson (eds), Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Philosophers, Routledge, 2012: "Paton, Herbert James."
  5. Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations , Volume 1, Routledge & Keegan Paul, 2001: Introduction by Dermot Moran, p. lxiv: "Husserl... visited England in 1922 intent on establishing relations with English philosopherss.... He delivered a number of lectures which were attended by Gilbert Ryle...."
  6. Michael Dummett, Origins of Analytical Philosophy, Bloombury, 2014, p. xiii; Anat Biletzki, Anat Matarp (eds.), The Story of Analytic Philosophy: Plot and Heroes, Routledge, 2002, p. 57: "It was Gilbert Ryle who, [Dummett] says, opened his eyes to this fact in his lectures on Bolzano, Brentano, Meinong, and Husserl."
  7. "Gilbert Ryle | British philosopher". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2018-09-03.
  8. 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"
  9. Ryle, Gilbert.The Concept of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Pp. 327.
  10. Gilbert Ryle, "Phenomenology versus The Concept of Mind," in Collected Papers, London: Hutchinson, 1971, p. 188.
  11. Ryle ('Modern Studies in Philosophy' series), ed. Oscar P. Wood and George Pitcher, Doubleday & Co. Ltd, 1970, p. 1
  12. Faith in the Age of Science: Atheism, Religion, and the Big Yellow Crane, Mark Silversides, Sacristy Press, 2012, p. 157
  13. Burke's Landed Gentry, 18th edition, vol. 1, 1965, ed. Peter Townend, p. 615, 'Ryle formerly of Barkhale' pedigree
  14. 1 2 3 Tanney, Julia (Winter 2003). "Gilbert Ryle". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford, CA: The Metaphysics Research Lab. Retrieved 5 March 2008.
  15. "Ryle: The concept of mind (Summary)". Retrieved 2018-09-03.
  16. Concept of Mind p 1
  17. Ryle, Gilbert (1971). "Abstractions". Collected Papers. London: Hutchinson. 2: 440–442.
  18. Ryle, Gilbert (1971). "Abstractions". Collected Papers. London: Hutchinson. 2: 444–445.
  19. Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson, "Knowing How", Journal of Philosophy , 98(8): 411–444, 2001.
  20. "Gilbert Ryle > By Individual Philosopher > Philosophy". Retrieved 2018-09-03.
  21. Ryle, Gilbert (1968). "The Thinking of Thoughts: What is 'Le Penseur' Doing?". University Lectures (18). University of Saskatchewan. Archived from the original on 2008-04-10. Retrieved 25 June 2008. 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. 21 August 1996. ISSN   1363-1098.Missing or empty |title= (help)
  22. 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 25 June 2008.
  23. "Gilbert Ryle". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  24. Dennett, Daniel C. (2002). "Re-Introducing The Concept of Mind". Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy (7). Retrieved 20 December 2007.
  25. Webster, Richard (2005). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: The Orwell Press. pp. vii, 483. ISBN   0951592254.
  26. "Gilbert Ryle Collection | Linacre College". Retrieved 2018-09-03.