The Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Men are not machines, not even ghost-ridden machines. They are men—a tautology which is sometimes worth remembering.
The problem of mind is one of those philosophical quandaries that give me a headache and prompt an onset of existential angst whenever I try to think about them. How does consciousness arise from matter? How can a network of nerves create a perspective? And how can this consciousness, in turn, influence the body it inhabits? When we look at a brain, or anywhere else in the physical world, we cannot detect consciousness; only nerves firing and blood rushing. Where is it? The only evidence for consciousness is my own awareness. So how do I know anybody else is conscious? Could it be just me?
If you think about the problem in this way, I doubt you will make any progress either, because it is insoluble. This is where Gilbert Ryle enters the picture. According to Ryle, the philosophy of mind was put on a shaky foundation by Descartes and his followers. When Descartes divided the world into mind and matter, the first private and the other public, he created several awkward problems: How do we know other people have minds? How do the realms of matter and mind interact? How can the mind be sure of the existence of the material world? And so on. This book is an attempt to break away from the assumptions that led to these questions.
Ryle’s philosophy is often compared with that of the later Wittgenstein, and justly so. The main thrusts of their argument are remarkably similar. This may have been due simply to the influence of Wittgenstein on Ryle, or vice versa—there appears to be some doubt. Regardless, it is appropriate to compare them, as I think, taken together, their ideas help to shed light on one another’s philosophy.
Both Wittgenstein and Ryle are extraordinary writers. Wittgenstein is certainly the better of the two, though this is not due to any defect on Ryle’s part. Wittgenstein is aphoristic, sometimes oblique, employing numerous allegories and similes to make his point. Ryle is sharp, direct, and epigrammatic. Wittgenstein is in the same tradition as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, while Ryle is the direct descendent of Jane Austen. But both of them are witty, quotable, and brilliant. They have managed to create excellent works of philosophy without using any jargon and avoiding all obscurity. Why can’t philosophy always be written so well?
There is no contradiction, or even paradox, in describing someone as bad at practising what he is good at preaching. There have been thoughtful and original literary critics who have formulated admirable canons of prose style in execrable prose. There have been others who have employed brilliant English in the expression of the silliest theories of what constitute good writing.
Ryle also has the quality—unusual among philosophers—of being apparently quite extroverted. His eyes are turned not toward himself, but to his surroundings. He speaks with confidence and insight about the way people normally behave and talk, and in general prefers this everyday understanding of things to the tortured theories of his introverted colleagues.
Teachers and examiners, magistrates and critics, historians and novelists, confessors and non-commissioned officers, employers, employees and partners, parents, lovers, friends and enemies all know well enough how to settle their daily questions about the qualities of character and intellect of the individuals with whom they have to do.
This book, his most famous, is written not as a monograph or an analysis, but as a manifesto. Ryle piles epigram upon epigram until you are craving just one qualification, just one admission that he might be mistaken. He even seems to get carried away by the force of his own pen, leading to some needlessly long and repetitious sections. What is more, his style has the defect of all epigrammatists: he is utterly convincing in short gasps, but ultimately leaves his reader grasping for something more systematic.
Ryle is often called an ordinary language philosopher, and the label suits him. Like Wittgenstein, he thinks that philosophical puzzles come about by the abuse of words; philosophers fail to correctly analyze the logical category of words, and thus use them inappropriately, leading to false paradoxes. The Rylean philosopher’s task is to undo this damage. Ryle likens his own project to that of a cartographer in a village. The residents of the village are perfectly able to find their way around and can even give directions. But they might not be able to create an abstract representation of the village’s layout. This is the philosopher’s job: to create a map of the logical layout of language. This will prevent other foreigners from getting lost.
Ryle begins by pointing out some obvious problems with the Cartesian picture—a picture he famously dubs the ‘Ghost in the Machine.’ First, we have no idea how these two metaphysically distinct realms of mind and matter interact. Thus by attempting to explain the nature of human cognition, the Cartesians cordon it off from the familiar world and banish it to a shadow world, leaving unexplained how the shadow is cast.
Second, the Cartesian picture renders all acts of communication into a kind of impossible guessing game. You would constantly be having to fathom the significance of a word or gesture by making conjectures as to what is happening in a murky realm behind an impassible curtain (another person’s mind). Conjectures of this kind would be fundamentally dissimilar to other conjectures because there would be, in principle, no way to check them. In the Cartesian picture, people’s minds are absolutely cut off from all outside observation.
Ryle is hardly original in pointing out these two problems, although he does manage to emphasize these embarrassing conundrums with special force. His more original critique is what has been dubbed “Ryle’s Regress.” This is made against what Ryle calls the “intellectualist legend,” which is the notion that all intelligent behaviors are the products of thoughts.
For example, if you produced a grammatically correct English sentence, it means (according to the “legend”) that you have properly applied the correct criteria for English grammar. However, this must mean that you applied the proper criteria to the criteria, i.e. you applied the meta-criteria that allowed you to choose the rules for English grammar and not the rules for Spanish grammar. But what meta-meta-criteria allowed you to pick the correct meta-criteria for the criteria for the English sentence? (I.e., what anterior rule allowed you to pick the rule that allowed you to choose the rule for determining whether English or Spanish rules should be used instead of the rule for choosing whether salt or sugar should be added to a recipe?—sorry, that’s a mouthful.)
The point is that we are led down an infinite regress if we require rules to proceed action. This is one of the classic arguments against cognitive theories of the mind. (I believe Hubert Dreyfus used this same argument in his criticisms of artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology. Considering the strides that A.I. has made since then, I’m sure there must be some way around this regress, though I don’t know what. Hopefully somebody can explain it to me.)
These are his most forceful reasons for rejecting the Ghost in the Machine. From reading the other reviews here, I gather that many people are fairly convinced by these arguments. Nonetheless, some have accused Ryle of failing to replace the Cartesian picture with anything else. This is not a fair criticism. Ryle does his best to rectify the mistaken picture with his own view, though you may not find this view very satisfying.
After doing his best to discredit the Cartesian picture, the rest of the book is devoted to demonstrating Ryle’s view that none of the ways we ordinarily use language necessitate or even imply that “the mind is its own place.” This is where he most nearly approaches Wittgenstein, for his main contentions are the following: First, it is only when language is misused by philosophers (and laypeople) that we get the impression that the mind is a metaphysically distinct thing. Second, our intellectual and emotional lives are in fact not cut off and separate from the world; rather, public behavior is at the very core of our being.
Here is just one example. According to the Cartesian view, a person “really knows” how to divide if, when given a problem—let’s say, 144 divided by 24—his mind goes through the necessary steps. Let us say a professor gives a student this problem, and the student correctly responds: 6. The professor conjectures that the student’s mind has gone through the appropriate operation. But what if the professor asks him the exact same question five minutes later, and the student responds: 8? And what if he did it again, and the student responds: 3? The following dialogue ensues:
PROFESSOR: Ah, you’re just saying random numbers. You really don’t know how to divide.
STUDENT: But my mind performed the correct operation when you asked me the first time. I forgot how to do it after that.
PROFESSOR: How do you know your mind performed the correct operation the first time?
PROFESSOR: But if you can’t remember how to do it now, how can you be sure that you did know previously?
STUDENT: Introspection, again.
PROFESSOR: I don’t believe you. I don’t think you ever knew.
The point of the dialogue is this. According to the Cartesian view, introspection provides not merely the best, but the only true window into the mind. You are the only person who can know your own mind, and everyone else knows it via conjecture. Thus the student, and only the student, would really know if his mind performed the proper operation, and thus he alone would really know if he could divide. Yet this is not the case. We say somebody “knows how to divide” if they can consistently answer questions of division correctly.
Thus, Ryle argues, to “know how to divide” is a disposition. And a disposition cannot be analyzed into episodes. In other words, “knowing how to divide” is not a collection of discrete times when a mind went through the proper operations. Similarly, if I say “the glass is fragile,” I do not mean that it has broken or even that it will necessarily break, just that it would break easily. Fragility, like knowing long division, is a disposition.
According to Ryle, when philosophers misconstrued what it meant to know how to divide (and other things), they committed a “category mistake.” They miscategorized the phrase; they mistook a disposition for an episode. More generally, the Cartesians mix up two different sorts of knowledge: knowing how and knowing that. They confuse dispositions, capacities, and propensities for rules, facts, and criteria. This leads them into all sorts of muddles.
Here is a classic example. Since Berkley, philosophers have been perplexed by the mind’s capacity to form abstract ideas. The word “red” encompasses many different particular shades, and is thus abstract. Is our idea of red some sort of vague blend of all particular reds? Or is it a collections of different, distinct shades we bundle together into a group? Ryle contends that this question makes the following mistake: Recognizing the color red is a knowing how. It is a skill we learn, just like recognizing melodies, foreign accents, and specific flavors. It is a capacity we develop; it is not the forming of a mental object, an “idea,” that sits somewhere in a mental space.
Ryle applies this method to problem after problem, which seem to dissolve in the acid of his gaze. It is an incredible performance, and a great antidote for a lot of the conundrums philosophers like to tie themselves up in. Nevertheless, you cannot shake the feeling that for all his directness, Ryle dances around the main question: How does awareness arise from the brain?
Well, I’m not positive about this, but I believe it was never Ryle’s intention to explain this, since he considers the question outside the proper field of philosophy. It is a scientific, not a philosophical question. His goal was, rather, to show that the mind/body problem is not an insoluble mystery or evidence of metaphysical duality, and that the mind is not fundamentally private and untouchable. Humans are social creatures, and it is only with great effort that we keep some things to ourselves.
I certainly cannot keep this review to myself. This was the best work of philosophy I have read since finishing Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations in 2014, and I hope you get a chance to read it too. Is it conclusive? No. Is it irrefutable? I doubt it. But it is witty, eloquent, original, and devoid of nonsense. This is as good as philosophy gets.