Gilbert Ryle

A graduate of Oxford, Gilbert Ryle became a tutor at Christ Church, Oxford. In 1945, he became Waynflete professor of metaphysical philosophy.

From 1947 to 1971 he was editor of the philosophical journal ‘Mind’.

Like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ryle was concerned with problems caused by the confusion of grammatical with logical distinctions. He pointed out the so-called category mistake, in which, usually because of a grammatical equivalence, two things are mistakenly treated as belonging to equivalent logical categories.

In his ‘Concept of Mind’ (1949), Ryle argued that the mind is not a non-physical substance residing in the body, “a ghost in a machine,” but a set of capacities and abilities belonging to the body. All references to the mental must be understood, at least theoretically, in terms of witnessable activities.

It is argued that Ryle was not really an important philosopher since his ideas were rather shallow and largely borrowed from others (especially the behaviorists and Wittgenstein). But he did have a lot of influence, and by embracing “linguistic” or “ordinary language philosophy” helped make Oxford the center of English-language philosophy in the period after World War II.

Ryle claimed in his little book, Dilemmas (1954), that most or all philosophical problems are in the form of dilemmas: Two opposing, incompatible views, both of which we believe, and pointed to free will as an example, where we want to believe both that all events have causes and yet that we are free to make choices. (And both things are indeed true, though there is not really any dilemma in this.)

Another favorite idea of Ryle’s, this time borrowed from Aristotle, is that many erroneous philosophical notions arise from making “category mistakes”, that is, from not noticing that we are treating something as if it were a member of some category that it really is not. Thus in the sentence ‘She came home in a sedan chair and a flood of tears’ it would be wrong to assume that “a flood of tears” is a means of conveyance just because it is put on a grammatical par with “sedan chair”. This example also illustrates what Ryle (following Wittgenstein) claimed was a major tendency of grammar to mislead us philosophically.

Ryle said that Cartesian dualism views mind as being in the same category as brain, which leads to all the philosophical confusion about mind. While there is something to this, it is necessary to give some positive explication of mind as well, something that Ryle could not do.

Major Works of Gilbert Ryle

– Dilemmas (1954)
– Plato’s Progress (1966)
– Collected Papers (2 vol., 1971).
– Concept of Mind (1949)

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