Gilbert Ryle

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Ryle, Gilbert (19 August 1900 - 6 October 1976)

Born in Brighton, England, Ryle was educated at Brighton College. During World War II, he did intelligence work, after which he became Wayneflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford. From 1945 to 1946 he was president of the Aristotelian Society.

A Ghost in the Machine

His principal work is The Concept of Mind (1949), in which he pointed out the "fundamental mistake" in Descartes' dualism and referred to his model as the "ghost in the machine." Cartesian dualism, he wrote, erroneously assumes that it makes sense to ask of a given cause, process, or event, whether it is mental or physical (implying that it cannot be both). Ryle gave the example of a student visiting a university, seeing the library, the classrooms, the various facilities, then asking, "But where is the university?", illustrating that it is a different place. The student fails to see that "university" and "library" are terms that belong to different categories.

Like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ryle wrote about the confusion of grammatical with logical distinctions. The "category mistake," for example, is one in which two things are treated as belong to equivalent logical categories, but they are not. By using "a ghost in a machine," he was derogatory about Dualism, the theory that humans are comprised of a tangible body and an intangible mind, a view that leads to a person's having an ethereal soul that is in a physical body and that continues after death. This, it is clear, is not something that is witnessable.

The book contains the following,

  • If my argument is successful, there will follow some interesting consequences. First, the hallowed contrast between Mind and Matter will be dissipated, but dissipated not by either of the equally hallowed absorptions of Mind by Matter or Matter by Mind, but in quite a different way. . . . It will also follow that both Idealism and Materialism are answers to an improper question. The "reduction" of the material world to mental states and processes, as well as the "reduction" of the mental states and processes to physical states and processes, presuppose the legitimacy of the disjuntion "either there exist minds or there exist bodies (but not both)". It would be like saying, "either she bought a left-hand and a right-hand glove or she bought a pair of gloves (but not both)".

Ryle, the Philosopher

Ryle wrote about the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit and was a friend of Wittgenstein.

In his Systematically Misleading Expressions (1932), he focused on linguistics and held that a main part of philosophy must be “the detection of the sources in linguistic idioms of recurrent misconstructions and absurd theories.”

The editor of Mind (1948–1971), Ryle was an influential figure among British philosophers.

(See entry for Richard C. Vitzthum.)