Gilbert Ryle

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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 materThe Queen's College, Oxford
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
Logical behaviorism[1][2]
Notable studentsG. 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]


Ryle was born in Brighton, England, in 1900, and grew up in an environment of learning. His father was a Brighton doctor, a generalist who had interests in philosophy and astronomy, and passed on to his children an impressive library. 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.[11]

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.[11]

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 Concept of Mind[edit]

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.[12]

Philosophy as cartography[edit]

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."[11]

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.[14]

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.[15]

Knowing-how and knowing-that[edit]

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.[16] 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.[17]


Ryle's notion of thick description, from "The Thinking of Thoughts: What is 'Le Penseur' Doing?"[18] and "Thinking and Reflecting", has been an important influence on cultural anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz.[19] [20]

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.[21] 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."[22]


  • The Concept of Mind (1949)
  • Dilemmas. The Tarner Lectures 1953 (1954), a collection of shorter pieces
  • Plato's Progress (1966)
  • Contemporary Aspects of Philosophy (1977), editor
  • On Thinking (1979)[23]


  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. ^ a b c Tanney, Julia (Winter 2003). "Gilbert Ryle". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford, CA: The Metaphysics Research Lab. Retrieved 5 March 2008.
  12. ^ "Ryle: The concept of mind (Summary)". Retrieved 2018-09-03.
  13. ^ Concept of Mind p 1
  14. ^ Ryle, Gilbert (1971). "Abstractions". Collected Papers. London: Hutchinson. 2: 440–442.
  15. ^ Ryle, Gilbert (1971). "Abstractions". Collected Papers. London: Hutchinson. 2: 444–445.
  16. ^ Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson, "Knowing How", Journal of Philosophy, 98(8): 411–444, 2001.
  17. ^ "Gilbert Ryle > By Individual Philosopher > Philosophy". Retrieved 2018-09-03.
  18. ^ 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)
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ "Gilbert Ryle". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  21. ^ Dennett, Daniel C. (2002). "Re-Introducing The Concept of Mind". Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy (7). Retrieved 20 December 2007.
  22. ^ Webster, Richard (2005). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: The Orwell Press. pp. vii, 483. ISBN 0951592254.
  23. ^ "Gilbert Ryle Collection | Linacre College". Retrieved 2018-09-03.

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