Portrait by Rex Whistler
|Born||19 August 1900|
|Died||6 October 1976 (aged 76)|
|Alma mater||The Queen's College, Oxford|
|Other notable students|
Gilbert Ryle (1900–1976) was a British philosopher, 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.
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'." 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."
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; he was a son of John Charles Ryle, the first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool. 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") 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.
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 1925, 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.
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.
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.
Ryle was the subject of a portrait by Rex Whistler, which he said made him look like "a drowned German General".
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.
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.
An example of the distinction can be knowing how to tie a reef knot and knowing that Queen Victoria died in 1901.
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 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."
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.: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.:444–5
Main article: Thick description
In 1949 Ryle first introduced the notion of thick description in "The Thinking of Thoughts: What is 'Le Penseur' Doing?" and "Thinking and Reflecting". According to Ryle, there are two types of descriptions:
Ryle's notion of thick description has been an important influence on cultural anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz.
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 '70s, 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.
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."