Gilbert Ryle
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
Doctoral students
Other notable students
Main interests
Notable ideas

Gilbert Ryle (19 August 1900 – 6 October 1976) was a British philosopher,[7] principally known for his critique of Cartesian dualism, for which he coined the phrase "ghost in the machine." He was a representative of the generation of British ordinary language philosophers who shared Ludwig Wittgenstein's approach to philosophical problems.[8]

Some of Ryle's ideas in philosophy of mind have been called behaviourist. In his best-known book, The Concept of Mind (1949), he writes that the "general trend of this book will undoubtedly, and harmlessly, be stigmatised as 'behaviourist'."[9] Having studied the philosophers Bernard Bolzano, Franz Brentano, Alexius Meinong, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger, Ryle suggested that the book instead "could be described as a sustained essay in phenomenology, if you are at home with that label."[10]


Family tree

Gilbert Ryle's father, Reginald John Ryle, was a Brighton doctor, a generalist who had interests in philosophy and astronomy, passing on to his children a large library. Gilbert's father was a son of John Charles Ryle, the first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool.[11][12] The Ryles were Cheshire landed gentry; Gilbert's elder brother, John Alfred Ryle, of Barkhale, Sussex, became head of the family. Their ancestor John Ryle, a silk merchant, was a friend of theologian and evangelist John Wesley; members of this Ryle family include the silk manufacturer ("father of the United States silk industry"[citation needed]) John Ryle, as well as his nephew and business partner, William.

Gilbert Ryle's mother, Catherine, was daughter of Samuel King Scott (younger brother of the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott) by his wife Georgina, daughter of William Hulme Bodley, M.D., and sister of architect George Frederick Bodley, himself a student of Sir George. Cousins of the Ryle family thus include the haematologist Ronald Bodley Scott, architect George Gilbert Scott Jr., founder of Watts & Co., and his son, Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of the Battersea Power Station.[13]

Early life and education

Gilbert Ryle was born in Brighton, England, on 19 August 1900, and grew up in an environment of learning.

He was educated at Brighton College and in 1919 went up to The Queen's College at Oxford to study classics, but was soon drawn to philosophy. He graduated with a "triple first"; he received first-class honours in classical Honour Moderations (1921), literae humaniores (1923), and philosophy, politics, and economics (1924).


In 1924, Ryle was appointed lecturer in philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford. A year later, he became a fellow and tutor at Christ Church, where he remained until 1940.[14]

In the Second World War, Ryle 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 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.[14]

Ryle's brothers John Alfred (1889–1950) and George Bodley (1902–1978), both educated at Brighton College, also had eminent careers. John became Regius Professor of Physic at the University of Cambridge 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 and appointed a CBE.[15]

Ryle was the subject of a portrait by Rex Whistler, which he said made him look like "a drowned German General". He was a lifelong bachelor, and in retirement he lived with his twin sister Mary.[16]


The Concept of Mind

Main article: The Concept of Mind

In The Concept of Mind, Ryle argues that dualism involves category mistakes and philosophical nonsense, two philosophical topics that continued to inform Ryle's work. He rhetorically asked students in his 1967–68 Oxford audience 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 bunghole of a beer barrel is part of the barrel or not.[17]

Knowing-how and knowing-that

Main articles: Descriptive knowledge and Procedural knowledge

A distinction deployed in The Concept of Mind, between 'knowing-how' and 'knowing-that', has attracted independent interest. This distinction is also the origin of procedural (knowing-how) and declarative (knowing-that) models of long-term memory.[18] This distinction is widely accepted in philosophy.[18]

Philosophers have not done justice to the distinction which is quite familiar to all of us between knowing that something is the case and knowing how to do things. In their theories of knowledge they concentrate on the discovery of truths or facts, and they either ignore the discovery of ways and methods of doing things or else they try to reduce it to the discovery of facts. They assume that intelligence equates with the contemplation of propositions and is exhausted in this contemplation.

An example of the distinction can be knowing how to tie a reef knot and knowing that Queen Victoria died in 1901.

Philosophy as cartography

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.[19]

Ryle thought it no longer possible to believe that a philosopher's task is to study mental as opposed to physical objects. In its place, Ryle saw a 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."[14]

Ryle analogizes philosophy to 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. But when asked to interpret a map of that knowledge, the villager will have difficulty until he is able to translate his practical knowledge into universal cartographic terms. The villager thinks of the village in personal and practical terms, while the mapmaker thinks of the village in neutral, public, cartographic terms.[20]: 440–2 

By "mapping" the words and phrases of a particular statement, philosophers are able to generate what Ryle calls implication threads: 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.[20]: 444–5 

Thick description

Main article: Thick description

In 1949 Ryle first introduced the notion of thick description in "The Thinking of Thoughts: What is 'Le Penseur' Doing?"[21][22] and "Thinking and Reflecting". According to Ryle, there are two types of descriptions:[21]

  1. thin description: surface-level observations of behaviour, e.g. 'His right hand rose to his forehead, palm out, when he was in the vicinity of and facing a certain other human.'
  2. thick description: adds context to such behaviour. Explaining this context necessitates an understanding of the motivations people have for their behaviours, as well as how observers in the community understand such behaviour: 'He saluted the General.'


Ryle's notion of thick description[21] has been an important influence on cultural anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz.[23][24]

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. But 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. The two major postwar schools in the philosophy of mind, Fodor's representationalism and Wilfrid Sellars's functionalism, posited precisely the 'internal' cognitive states that Ryle had argued against. Philosopher Daniel Dennett, a student of Ryle's, has said that 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 provided a sympathetic foreword to the 2000 edition of The Concept of Mind.[25]

Author Richard Webster endorsed Ryle's arguments against mentalist philosophies, suggesting in Why Freud Was Wrong (1995) 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."[26]



  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, Bloomsbury Publishing, 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 3 September 2018.
  8. ^ A. C. Grayling (Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction, 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. [1949] 2002. The Concept of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 327.
  10. ^ Ryle, Gilbert. 1971. "Phenomenology versus 'The Concept of Mind'." In Collected Papers. London: Hutchinson. p. 188.
  11. ^ Ryle ('Modern Studies in Philosophy' series), ed. Oscar P. Wood and George Pitcher, Doubleday & Co. Ltd, 1970, p. 1
  12. ^ Faith in the Age of Science: Atheism, Religion, and the Big Yellow Crane, Mark Silversides, Sacristy Press, 2012, p. 157
  13. ^ Burke's Landed Gentry, 18th edition, vol. 1, 1965, ed. Peter Townend, p. 615, 'Ryle formerly of Barkhale' pedigree
  14. ^ a b c Tanney, Julia (Winter 2003). "Gilbert Ryle". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford, CA: The Metaphysics Research Lab. Retrieved 5 March 2008.
  15. ^ "George Bodley Ryle C.b.e". Forestry: An International Journal of Forest Research. 51 (2): 187–188. 1 January 1978. doi:10.1093/forestry/51.2.187. ISSN 0015-752X.
  16. ^ "Gilbert Ryle". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 2021.
  17. ^ "Ryle: The concept of mind (Summary)". 3 June 2012. Retrieved 3 September 2018.
  18. ^ a b Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson, "Knowing How", Journal of Philosophy, 98(8): 411–444, 2001.
  19. ^ Concept of Mind p 1
  20. ^ a b Ryle, Gilbert. 1971. "Abstractions." In Collected Papers 2. London: Hutchinson.
  21. ^ a b c Ryle, Gilbert. [1968] 1996. "The Thinking of Thoughts: What is 'Le Penseur' Doing?" Studies in Anthropology 11:11. ISSN 1363-1098. Archived from the original on 10 April 2008. Retrieved 25 June 2008.
  22. ^ Ryle, Gilbert. [1968] 1971. "The Thinking of Thoughts: What is 'Le Penseur' Doing?" Pp. 480–96 in Collected Papers 2. London: Hutchinson.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ "Gilbert Ryle". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2021.
  25. ^ Dennett, Daniel C. (2002). "Re-Introducing The Concept of Mind". Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy (7). Retrieved 20 December 2007.
  26. ^ Webster, Richard (2005). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: The Orwell Press. pp. vii, 483. ISBN 0951592254.
  27. ^ "Gilbert Ryle Collection | Linacre College". Retrieved 3 September 2018.