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The Ghost in the Language
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The Ghost in the Language:  Ryle and Logical Behaviourism

Ryle and Descartes' Myth

Gilbert Ryle's purpose in his most important book, The Concept of Mind, is to "explode the myth" of the "Ghost in the Machine[1]".  The ghost in the machine is Ryle's self-admittedly abusive description of what he calls the Official Doctrine, which he says "hails chiefly from Descartes".

This is somewhat unfair to Descartes, since Descartes certainly didn't invent the concept of mind-body dualism, and since Descartes' reduction in the "Meditations" was methodological.  He didn't intend to create the mind-body chasm.  Or at least, he didn't intend to leave us suspended over it.

Ryle's Criticism's of the Cartesian Thesis

Ryle's problem with the Cartesian thesis is two-fold:

First, according to Ryle, the Cartesian philosophy states that behaviour depends on some prior mental activity.  Especially, intelligent behaviour results from well-performed prior mental activity; unintelligent behaviour from mental activity performed poorly.  Or, as Ryle explains,

To put it quite generally, the absurd assumption made by the intellectualist legend is this, that a performance of any sort inherits all its title to intelligence from some anterior internal operation of planning what to do[2].

Ryle points out that, in the Cartesian thesis, since this mental activity can be performed well or poorly, it must also be the result of some prior mental activity.  This mental activity can also be performed well or poorly, and so must be the result of some tertiary level of prior mental activity, and so forth into infinite regress.  For Ryle, the Cartesian thesis results in a mind like a mental Achilles perpetually trying to catch up to the tortoise of actual behaviour.  The theory itself would seem to preclude the possibility of intelligent action.

Ryle also says that much creditable behaviour (for example, being witty or artistic) is not really the result of some definable prior mental activity.  A man who is witty does not think or plan his wit - that, in fact, is the essence of wit.

Ryle's second criticism of  the Cartesian view is often stated as the "problem of other minds".  Since according to Descartes, these other minds are "private" and essentially unknowable to us, we cannot use references to other minds to explain behaviour.  Ryle states:

For since, according to the theory, one person cannot in principle visit another person's mind as he can visit signal-boxes, there could be no way of establishing the necessary correlation between the overt moves and their hidden causal counterparts.[3]

Problems with Ryle's First Criticism

Ryle's first criticism and his answer to it is, I think, truly insightful in that it clarifies how mental processes occur.  Ryle's distinction between knowing how and knowing that is a valuable one. 

That said, however, there is no reason to believe that the criticism, even if correct, leads us to a reduction from mind-body dualism to logical behaviourism.  Suppose for instance, that intelligent behaviour is not the result of prior mental activity.  That does not preclude it from being related to concurrent mental activity.  Even if Descartes description of the process is wrong, his mind-body dualism can still be right.


We will find this problem over and over again with Ryle. He continually tries to twist insightful linguistic or psychological criticisms into ontological proofs.  That, in my mind, is Ryle's own "category mistake".  But I'll come back to this.



Problems with Ryle's Second Criticism

Ryle's second criticism was the problem of inferring the existence of other minds.  The most powerful part of Descartes philosophy was the reductionist part, where he meditates us into a mental box from which we have yet to be truly freed.  We can imagine Descartes using this technique to criticize Ryle's own logical behaviourism. 

"I concur," Descartes might say, "That these other minds are unknowable.  That was in fact my point.  However, why stop there?  Why are you so convinced that this behaviour you seem to rely so much on is knowable.  Why is my inference of other minds logically different from your inference of other physical beings exhibiting behaviour?"

In fact, I don't believe there is a logical difference.  Ryle's inference is just as suspect as Descartes. If you allow one, why not the other?

Another problem with Ryle's criticism is in fact the assertion (or better, assumption) that other minds are unknowable.  Some people do profess to know other minds directly.  And there is nothing to contradict that, at some future time, minds may generally be directly knowable to others. 

If our minds are currently as trapped as Descartes indicates, there is nothing to say that they must always be so, or in fact, have always been so.  Ryle is essentially saying that since we don't know other minds directly, there must be nothing to be known, which seems an unlikely statement for a philosopher.

Ryle's Category Mistake Thesis

Ryle attempts to explain the origin of mind-body dualism as a logical mistake.  It is a mistake of logically comparing two things of different categories.  He mentions the example of a someone touring a campus, seeing the buildings and the students, and then asking where the University is.

It is difficult to understand this how this theory has anything to do with mind-body dualism until you grasp that Ryle is concerned with qualities of mind activity.  Thus, he says that to perform a task keenly is not to perform two tasks (one doing and one thinking), but one.

Ryle's Logical Behaviourism

Regardless of the validity of Ryle's criticisms of the Cartesian view, his own viewpoint is both clever and powerful in itself.  Ryle wields Occam's razor, a popular pastime in the logical positivist world in spite of the fact that the principle is neither logical nor positive.

Ryle thinks that Descartes "had mistaken the logic of his problem".  He says of Descartes:

Instead of asking by what criteria intelligent behaviour is actually distinguished from non-intelligent behaviour, he asked, "Given that the principle of mechanical causation does not tell us the difference, what other causal principle will tell it us?"

In trying to understand what we refer to as mentalistic behaviour, Ryle looks at the words we use to characterize mental activity: - intelligent, witty, and so forth.  Ryle says that there is no need to posit some "ghost in the machine" to explain what we are talking about.  What these words refer to is the behaviour itself.

Overt intelligent performances are not the clues to the workings of minds; they are those workings[4].

Consequently, when we say someone is intelligent, we are really saying that he has a disposition to act intelligently.  In other words, in certain defined circumstances, he is likely to act in a way we would interpret as intelligent. And since we don't need  the existence of a mind to explain these words, then we should not posit a mind at all and explain mental processes as behaviour. 

Criticisms of Ryle and Logical Behaviourism

The first criticism we can make of Ryle is also one of his strong points.  Ryle deals with mental predicates and behaviour.  This "external" starting point for describing the mind is certainly one of his most interesting contributions to the philosophy of mind, and has seemingly influenced a generation of philosophers.  However, Ryle seems to deny any place to the subjective experience of mind as a contributor to our understanding.  Ryle says:

A person's appraisals of his own performances do not differ in kind from his appraisals of those of others[5].

I think this is far too extreme for most people to accept.  Maybe we cannot with certainty infer other minds, but we can certainly "plausibly conjecture" them from our own subjective experience.  And our subjective understanding of our own mind certainly plays a part in our evaluation and judgement of others' behaviour.

Secondly, as we noted before, Ryle's criticism of the Cartesian thesis doesn't lead where he thinks it does - a reduction from mind-body dualism to logical behaviourism.  Ryle's criticism addresses mental predicates, the quality of mental processes, and not their existence.  It addresses how these processes happen - not if or "where" they happen.  It is really a psychological criticism of Descartes description of mental processes, not an ontological criticism of his assertion of mind-body dualism.

To say that a process is intelligent or unintelligent is not to say that it does or does not happen in the mind.  Unintelligent mental processes happen as often (if not more often) than intelligent ones.


Interestingly, Ryle makes a strong case in asserting that the words intelligent, witty, and other mental predicates point to behaviour, not mental processes.  However, even if he is right, that says nothing about the existence or non-existence of mental operations.  His assertion is a linguistic assertion of the meaning of the words, not an ontological assertion of the existence of the processes.  In just the same way, his criticism of Descartes theory of prior mental activity as the causal basis of behaviour was a psychological criticism, not an ontological one. 

Another problem with asserting that the mind is in the behaviour is what I call the Marital Theory. When my wife is angry, she yells.  When I am angry, I stay silent.  If the referent of the word is the behaviour, the referent of angry must be to yell  and be silent.  Since these are exclusive behaviours (a silent yell is poetic but not really coherent), the statement has no meaning.

Since one mental state can yield mutually exclusive behaviours, the mental state cannot be the behaviours.  It seems pretty well recognized now that we don't act in a specific way only because we are angry, but because we are angry and have certain other beliefs and desires that influence our behaviour.

Ryle himself seems to admit this at one point when he says:

The higher grade dispositions of people with which this inquiry is largely concerned are, in general not single track dispositions, but dispositions the exercises of which are indefinitely heterogeneous.[6]

The final criticism I would level against Ryle is his easy use of the term disposition.  It is one thing to use the term in a logical sense, as Ryle does.  It is quite another to say that, having stated something has a disposition to act in a certain way, we have said all there is to say about it.

When we say that glass is brittle, we don't stop there as if knowledge of brittleness were all that was required.  We ask why it is brittle, and assert a certain molecular structure to explain it.

In the same way, when we say a person is intelligent ( or has a disposition to intelligent behaviour, as Ryle would say), we don't stop there.  We ask why?  And asking why reopens the entire field of mind-body speculation.  It may be enough for Ryle to know that the words refer to a disposition to behaviour, but I suspect most of us want to know why we are so disposed.  Frankly, to me disposition is a pretty ghostly term that could easily stand for mind.

In addition, the concept of prior disposition runs into the same regression problem as Ryle imputes to Cartesianism.  When we ask why the person is disposed, must we answer that he must be disposed to have a disposition?  And must he then be disposed to be disposed to be disposed?  And so forth.


Ryle did have one thing in common with Descartes:  he was a brilliant and insightful man who should have stopped philosophically while he was ahead.  And like Descartes, I think it is his insights, and not necessarily his conclusions, for which he will be remembered.

[1] Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, as excerpted in the section entitled "Descartes' Myth" in  The Nature of Mind, David M. Rosenthal, ed.

[2] Ryle, The Concept of Mind, p. 31.

[3]  Ibid, p. 53.

[4]  Ibid, p. 58.

[5]  Ibid, p. 53.

[6]  Ibid, p. 44.

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