Gilbert Ryle: The Concept of Mind

I wanted to apply, and be seen to be applying to some large -scale philosophical crux the answer to the question that had preoccupied us in the 1920s, and especially in the 1930s , the question namely ‘What constitutes a philosophical problem; and what is the way to solve it?’ … by the late 1940s it was time , I thought, to exhibit a sustained piece of analytical hatchet-work being directed upon some notorious and large-sized Gordian Knot…. For a time I thought of the problem of the Freedom of the Will as the most suitable Gordian Knot; but in the end I opted for the Concept of Mind— though the book’s actual title did not occur to me until the printers were hankering to begin printing the first proofs

– Gilbert Ryle,  The Concept of Mind

Been a long while since I first read this work as an undergraduate at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. Boy, how time flies… Reading some of the current work by neuroscientists made me remember this now classic philosophical polemic. Many of the traces and patterns one finds in these new works and practices first saw the light of day within the short pages of this book: embodied and ‘situated’ cognition; your mind is not in your brain; skill is not represented; intelligence without representation— to name only the most obvious. The notion that he approached this as philosophical hatchet-work is telling. As one commentator says “Ryle himself certainly did not understand his ideas in the way we are tempted to understand these returning versions of them. Today’s problems—the theoretical problems to which his ideas might be part of the solution— were largely un-imagined by Ryle. How did he arrive at his ideas , then? I think the answer lies in his method, which more than most methods welds its strengths and weaknesses into an indivisible lump, take it or leave it”.1 That I disagree with Ryle now on almost everything is not the point of this post, it is really about how philosophy is still caught in the web of its own illusory pursuits while the sciences have moved on.

It was in this book that Ryle coined the memorable line ‘the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine.’ This introspective scheme would now be a part of the history of self-reflexivity and internal conversation, etc. Even these notions that still hold onto some form of Subject Theory are being questioned in the cognitive neurosciences, but that is another tale. What’s more telling in the next passage is how all of our fictive frameworks, whether in philosophy or the sciences are not only logical muddles but are in need of revamping. We always seem to be bound within methodological framework horizons that produce a certain limit or closure to what can be thought in any one era. Why is this? What moves us forward? How do we arrive at newer inventive explanatory frameworks in the sciences and philosophy? I’ll not go into this at the moment, just a few questions nibbling under the surface. Such notions as Kuhn’s Scientific Revolutions have tried to map this with little success, yet it sits there waiting to be teased out. Foucault’s notions of discursive practices etc. All these for future development… Back to Gilbert Ryle….

On the view for which I am arguing consciousness and introspection cannot be what they are officially described as being, since their supposed objects are myths; but champions of the dogma of the ghost in the machine tend to argue that the imputed objects of consciousness and introspection cannot be myths, since we are conscious of them and can introspectively observe them. …I try to show that the official theories of consciousness and introspection are logical muddles. (Kindle Locations 2927-2930).

The first part of that statement is still worth investigating: “On the view for which I am arguing consciousness and introspection cannot be what they are officially described as being…” The rest of his statement is a part of the history of philosophy and can be seen within its traditions. But even the terms ‘consciousness’ and ‘introspection’ seem dated now in this age of neurosciences. So how do we describe what is inaccessible to our older common sense tools of the trade. Nothing. We lack even the tools to describe the unique processes of the brain once termed ‘consciousness’ and ‘introspection’. If anything else R. Scott Bakker’s BBT theory has taught me one thing: that our knowledge is based upon what is missing, a lack, more than on what is available to our visible common sense spectrum. Why is this?

Ryle once said this:

A natural counterpart to the theory that minds constitute a world other than ‘the physical world’ is the theory that there exist ways of discovering the contents of this other world which are counterparts to our ways of discovering the contents of the physical world. In sense perception we ascertain what exists and happens in space; so what exists or happens in the mind must also be ascertained in perception, but perception of a different and refined sort, one not requiring the functioning of gross bodily organs.(Kindle Locations 2909-2913).

But why do we think that there is an equivalency between these two approaches as Ryle suggests? Do we really have access to the mind as a sort of internal space, an extended cartography of the mind that does not require the “functioning of bodily organs”? Isn’t this in itself a little muddled, logically and scientifically? He goes on:

More than this, it has been thought necessary to show that minds possess powers of apprehending their own states and operations superior to those they possess of apprehending facts of the external world. If I am to know, believe , guess or even wonder anything about the things and happenings that are outside me, I must, it has been supposed, enjoy constant and mistake-proof apprehension of these selfsame cognitive operations of mine.(ibid.)

This notion that the mind possesses certain innate powers of apprehension that allows it access to its on states and operations is itself questionable, and more of a myth that many of the myths Ryle uncovered in his own digressions into Descartes and other philosophers. He continues:

It is often held therefore (I) that a mind cannot help being constantly aware of all the supposed occupants of its private stage, and (2) that it can also deliberately scrutinise by a species of non-sensuous perception at least some of its own states and operations. Moreover both this constant awareness (generally called ‘consciousness’), and this non-sensuous inner perception (generally called ‘introspection’) have been supposed to be exempt from error. A mind has a twofold Privileged Access to its own doings, which makes its self-knowledge superior in quality, as well as prior in genesis, to its grasp of other things. I may doubt the evidence of my senses but not the deliverances of consciousness or introspection.(ibid.)

This is the Myth of the Cartesian Subject. Yet, as Ryle states it this myth is based on presuppositions that founder under closer scrutiny. Yet, after carefully demolishing this tradition we discover Ryle himself trying to reify it under a different parallel guise:

Lest any reader feels despondency at the thought of being deprived of his twofold Privileged Access to his supposed inner self, I may add the consolatory undertaking that on the account of self-knowledge that I shall give, knowledge of what there is to be known about other people is restored to approximate parity with self-knowledge.(ibid.)

So what was this approximate parity with self-knowledge that he presents?

“One thing that I cannot prepare myself for is the next thought that I am going to think.” – Gilbert Ryle

In describing the elusiveness of self-knowledge he tells us that to concern oneself about oneself in any way, theoretical or practical, is to perform a higher order act, just as it is to concern oneself about anybody else. To try, for example, to describe what one has just done, or is now doing, is to comment upon a step which is not itself, save per accidens, one of commenting . But the operation which is the commenting is not, and cannot be, the step on which that commentary is being made.(Kindle Locations 3644-3648).

What is this higher-order act? Is this the folding and unfolding of self-reflexivity in action? A sort of tapping into the brain’s processes without really having access to those very processes? An illusion of our own lack of information, a doubling of our feedback-loops to memory which give us the apparent illusion of a self reflecting on its processes? Ryle tells us that “They are the same in kind as the higher order acts and attitudes exhibited in the dealings of people with one other.” (ibid.) Continuing he states:

Indeed the former are only a special application of the latter and are learned first from them. If I perform the third order operation of commenting on a second order act of laughing at myself for a piece of manual awkwardness, I shall indeed use the first personal pronoun in two different ways. I say to myself, or to the company, ‘I was laughing at myself for being butter-fingered’. But so far from this showing that there are two ‘Mes’ in my skin, not to speak, yet, of the third one which is still commenting on them, it shows only that I am applying the public two-pronoun idiom in which we talk of her laughing at him; and I am applying this linguistic idiom, because I am applying the method of inter-personal transaction which the idiom is ordinarily employed to describe.(Kindle Locations 3692-3700).

For Ryle it all came down to our misunderstanding of linguistic conventions, and that if we understood more about how language works we’d understand more about these inter-personal transactions and get our descriptions right. But he never did address the actual processes themselves that undergird all this linguistic naivety (i.e., the brain processes that are very physical processes that he acknowledges we have no access too, and often saw as irrelevant to his own pursuit).

In the end Ryle offered an astute observation:

Thinking, on the one view, is identical with saying. The holders of the rival view rightly reject this identification, but they make this rejection, naturally but wrongly, in the form that saying is doing one thing and thinking is doing another. Thinking operations are numerically different from verbal operations, and they control these verbal operations from another place than the place in which these verbal operations occur. …But to offer even an erroneous description of what distinguishes heedless and undisciplined chattering from thinking is to recognise a cardinal distinction.(Kindle Locations 6034-6035).

And I would ask the simple question: What is this other place other than the brain itself who produces these operations of thinking and saying, of which the philosophers have nothing to say or think? Maybe we should turn away from the philosophers and to the scientists who are actually uncovering the roots of these very processes in the brain that produce both thinking and saying.


addendum: further reflections…

In Philosophy Now Daniel Dennett gives us his take on Ryle:

Gilbert Ryle himself was the other pillar of support I needed. In many regards he ruled Oxford philosophy at the time, as editor of Mind and informal clearing-house for jobs throughout the Anglophone world, but at the same time he stood somewhat outside the cliques and coteries, the hotbeds of philosophical fashion. He disliked and disapproved of the reigning Oxford fashion of clever, supercilious philosophical one-upmanship, and disrupted it when he could. He never ‘fought back’. In fact, I tried to provoke him, with elaborately-prepared and heavily-armed criticisms of his own ideas, but he would genially agree with all my good points as if I were talking about somebody else, and get us thinking what repairs and improvements we could together make of what remained. It was disorienting, and my opinion of him then – often expressed to my fellow graduate students, I am sad to say – was that while he was wonderful at cheering me up and encouraging me to stay the course, I hadn’t learned any philosophy from him.

I finished a presentable draft of my dissertation in the minimum time (six terms or two years) and submitted it with scant expectation that it would be accepted on first go. On the eve of submitting it, I came across an early draft of it, and compared the final product with its ancestor. To my astonishment, I could see Ryle’s influence on every page. How had he done it? Osmosis? Hypnotism? This gave me an early appreciation of the power of indirect methods in philosophy. You seldom talk anybody out of a position by arguing directly with their premises and inferences. Sometimes it is more effective to nudge them sideways with images, examples, helpful formulations that stick to their habits of thought. My examiners were A.J. Ayer and the great neuroanatomist J.Z. Young from London – an unprecedented alien presence at a philosophy viva, occasioned by my insistence on packing my thesis with speculations on brain science. He too had been struck by the idea of learning as evolution in the brain, and was writing a book on it, so we were kindred spirits on that topic, if not on the philosophy, which he found intriguing but impenetrable. Ayer was reserved. I feared he had not read much of the thesis, but I later found out he was simply made uncomfortable by his friend Young’s too-enthusiastic forays into philosophy, and he found silence more useful than intervention. I waited in agony for more than a week before I learned via a cheery postcard from Ryle that the examiners had voted me the degree.

His statement above on the influence of Ryle: “This gave me an early appreciation of the power of indirect methods in philosophy. You seldom talk anybody out of a position by arguing directly with their premises and inferences. Sometimes it is more effective to nudge them sideways with images, examples, helpful formulations that stick to their habits of thought.” This notion of indirect methods to me is probably central to a lot of current skeptical naturalist positions.

Ryle was also the first to coin the notion of a Cartography or Mapping/Modeling of  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 we already possess”.

Ryle believed it was no longer possible for a philosopher to believe that it was the task of a philosopher 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 “[p]hilosophical problems are problems of a certain sort; they are not problems of an ordinary sort about special entities.”

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.

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. (see Gilbert Ryle)

Obviously Ryle was embedded in the philosophical culture of his day which was in the midst of the Linguistic Turn, etc. But this is besides the point, what he describes in this book more of an approach to the muddles in our thinking that lead us into traps. There is a section on epistemology that I think is worth quoting in full:

Before concluding this chapter, we must consider an academic and departmental matter. A part of philosophy is traditionally called ‘theory of knowledge’, or ‘epistemology’. Our present question is, ‘What sorts of theories about knowledge should epistemologists try to build, given that we have found something radically wrong with important parts of the theories which they have hitherto offered? If the whole imposing apparatus of terms like ‘idea’,‘conception’,‘judgment’,‘inference’ and the rest has been wrongly transferred from the functional descriptions of the elements of published theories to the description of acts and processes of building theories, what is left of the theory of knowledge? If these terms do not denote the hidden wires and pulleys by which intellectual operations were wrongly supposed to work, what is the proper subject matter of the theory of knowledge?’

The phrase ‘theory of knowledge’ could be used to stand for either of two things. (1) It might be used to stand for the theory of the sciences, i.e. the systematic study of the structures of built theories. (2) Or it might be used to stand for the theory of learning, discovery and invention.

(1) It might be used to stand for the theory of the sciences, i.e. the systematic study of the structures of built theories. (2) Or it might be used to stand for the theory of learning, discovery and invention. (1) The philosophical theory of the sciences or, more generally, of built theories, gives a functional account of the terms, statements and arguments as well as of the numerous other kinds of expressions which enter into the formulation of the theories. It could be called ‘the Logic of Science’ or, metaphorically, ‘the Grammar of Science’. (But ‘science’ should not be used so parochially as to exclude theories unpatronised by the Royal Society.) This sort of account does not describe or allude to episodes in the lives of individual scientists. It does not therefore describe or allude to any supposed private episodes in those lives. It describes in a special manner what is, or might be, found in print.

(2) As there do exist the practice and the profession of teaching, there could exist a branch of philosophical theory concerned with the concepts of learning, teaching and examining. This might be called ‘the philosophy of learning’, ‘the methodology of education’ or, more grandly, ‘the Grammar of Pedagogy’. This would be the theory of knowledge in the sense of being the theory of getting to know. This study would be concerned with the terms in which certain episodes in the lives of individuals are described and prescribed for by teachers and examiners.

Now the great epistemologists, Locke, Hume and Kant, were in the main advancing the Grammar of Science, when they thought that they were discussing parts of the occult life-story of persons acquiring knowledge. They were discussing the credentials of sorts of theories, but they were doing this in para-physiological allegories. The recommended restoration of the trade-names of traditional epistemology to their proper place in the anatomy of built theories would have a salutary influence upon our theories about minds. One of the strongest forces making for belief in the doctrine that a mind is a private stage is the ingrained habit of assuming that there must exist the ‘cognitive acts’ and ‘cognitive processes’ which these trade-names have been perverted to signify. So, since none of the things which we could witness John Doe doing were the required acts of having ideas, abstracting, making judgments or passing from premisses to conclusions, it seemed necessary to locate these acts on the boards of a stage to which only he had access. The wealth of convincing biographical detail given in the epistemologists’ allegories has been, at least in my own case, what gave one of the two strongest motives for adhering to the myth of the ghost in the machine. The imputed episodes seemed to be impenetrably ‘internal’ because they were genuinely unwitnessable. But they were genuinely unwitnessable because they were mythical. They were causal hypotheses substituted for functional descriptions of the elements of published theories.(Kindle Locations 5802-5831).

This notion that most of our theories of Mind in philosophy have been based on erroneous causal hypotheses rather than on functional descriptions seems still a part of our philosophical problematique. More and more the need for a philososcience or the love of knowledge rather than wisdom (philosophia) in which our descriptions arise out of practice and our mappings and theoretical models become ontocartographical devices or epistemic engines seems to be the direction needed to overcome our current debates in philosophy and the sciences.

1. Ryle, Gilbert (2012-04-26). The Concept of Mind (Kindle Locations 184-190). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

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