Gilbert Ryle

Gilbert Ryle

region = Western Philosophers
era = 20th-century philosophy
color = #B0C4DE

image_caption =
name = Gilbert Ryle
birth = 19 August 1900
death = death date and age|1976|10|6|1900|8|19|df=y
school_tradition = Analytic
main_interests = Language, Ordinary language philosophy, Philosophy of mind, Behaviourism, Meaning, Cognition
influences = Descartes, Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein
influenced = J. L. Austin, A. J. Ayer, J.R. Searle, R.M. Hare, Wilfrid Sellars, Daniel Dennett
notable_ideas = Ryle's Regress, Ordinary language philosophy, The Ghost in the machine |

Gilbert Ryle (19 August 1900-6 October 1976), was a British philosopher, and a representative of the generation of British ordinary language philosophers influenced by Wittgenstein's insights into language, and is principally known for his critique of Cartesian dualism, for which he coined the phrase "the ghost in the machine". Some of his ideas in the philosophy of mind have been referred to as "behaviourist" (not to be confused with the psychological behaviourism of B. F. Skinner and John B. Watson). Ryle himself said that the "general trend of this book [The Concept of Mind, p. 327] will undoubtedly, and harmlessly, be stigmatised as 'behaviourist'."


Ryle was born in Brighton, England in 1900. The young Ryle grew up in an environment of learning. His father was a generalist who had interests in philosophy and astronomy, and passed on to his children an impressive library. Ryle was initially educated at Brighton College. In 1919, he went to Queen's College at Oxford, initially to study Classics but was quickly drawn to Philosophy. He would graduate with first class honours in 1924 and was appointed to a lectureship in Philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford. A year later, he was to become a tutor. Ryle remained at Christ Church until World War II.cite encyclopedia| last = Tanney | first = Julia | title = Gilbert Ryle | encyclopedia = Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy | publisher = The Metaphysics Research Lab | location = Stanford, CA | date = Winter 2003 | url = | accessdate = 2008-03-05 ]

A capable linguist, he was recruited to intelligence work during World War II, after which he returned to Oxford and was elected Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy and Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. He published his principal work, "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.

Philosophy as Cartography

Traditional philosophy believed that the task of a philosopher was to study mental as opposed to physical objects. Ryle believed it was no longer possible for philosophers to believe this. However, in its place, Ryle saw the tendency of philosophers to search for objects whose nature was neither physical nor mental. Ryle believed, instead, that “ [p] hilosophical problems are problems of a certain sort; they are not problems of an ordinary sort about special entities.”

Ryle offers the analogy of philosophy as being like 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. However, when asked to consult a map for the same knowledge he has practically, the villager will have difficulty until she is able to translate her practical knowledge into universal cartographal terms. The villager thinks of the village in personal and practical terms while the mapmaker thinks of the village in neutral, public, cartographical terms. [cite journal
last = Ryle
first = Gilbert
authorlink = Gilbert Ryle
coauthors =
title = Abstractions
journal = Collected Papers
volume = 2
issue =
pages = 440–442
publisher = Hutchinson
location = London
year = 1971
url =
format =
issn =
accessdate =

By "mapping" the words and phrases of a particular statement, philosophers are able to generate what Ryle calls "implication threads." In other words, 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. [cite journal
last = Ryle
first = Gilbert
authorlink = Gilbert Ryle
coauthors =
title = Abstractions
journal = Collected Papers
volume = 2
issue =
pages = 444–445
publisher = Hutchinson
location = London
year = 1971
url =
format =
issn =
accessdate =

"The Concept of Mind"

In "The Concept of Mind" (1949), Ryle admits to having been taken in by the body-mind dualism which permeates Western philosophy, and claims that the idea of Mind as an independent entity, inhabiting and governing the body, should be rejected as a redundant piece of literalism carried over from the era before the biological sciences became established. The proper function of Mind-body language, he suggests, is to describe how higher organisms such as humans demonstrate resourcefulness, strategy, the ability to abstract and hypothesize and so on from the evidences of their behaviour.

He attacks the idea of 17th and 18th century thinkers (such as Descartes) that nature is a complex machine, and that human nature is a smaller machine with a "ghost" in it to account for intelligence, spontaneity and other such human qualities. While mental vocabulary plays an important role in describing and explaining human behavior, neither are humans analogous to machines nor do philosophers need a "hidden" principle to explain their super-mechanical capacities.

Ryle asserted that the workings of the mind are not distinct from the actions of the body. They are one and the same. Mental vocabulary is, he insists, merely a different manner of describing action. He also claimed that the nature of a person's motives are defined by that person's dispositions to act in certain situations. There are no overt feelings, pains, or twinges of vanity. There is instead a set of actions and feelings that are subsumed under a general behavior-trend or propensity to act, which we term "vanity."

Novelists, historians and journalists, Ryle points out, have no trouble in ascribing motives, moral values and individuality to people's actions. It is only when philosophers try to attribute these qualities to a separate realm of mind or soul that the problem arises. Ryle also created the classic argument against cognitivist theories of explanation, Ryle's Regress.

Legacy and Criticism

"The Concept of Mind" was recognized on its appearance as an important contribution to philosophical psychology, and an important work in the ordinary language philosophy movement. However, in the 1960s and 1970s the rising influence of the cognitivist theories of Noam Chomsky, Herbert Simon, Jerry Fodor and others in the neo-Cartesian school became predominant. Chomsky even wrote a book entitled Cartesian Linguistics. In philosophy the two major post-war schools in the philosophy of mind, the representationalism of Jerry Fodor and the functionalism of Wilfrid Sellars posited precisely the 'internal' cognitive states that Ryle had argued against. However as influential modern philosopher and former student Daniel Dennett has pointed out, 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 has provided a sympathetic foreword to the 2000 edition of The Concept of Mind. [cite journal
url =
last = Dennett
first = Daniel C.
journal = Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy
issue = 7
year = 2002
title = Re-Introducing "The Concept of Mind"
authorlink = Daniel Dennett
accessdate = 2007-12-20
] Ryle remains a significant defender of the possibility of lucid and meaningful interpretation of higher-level human activities without recourse to an abstracted soul.

Ryle's notion of thick description, from "The Thinking of Thoughts: What is 'Le Penseur' Doing?" [Citation
last =Ryle
first =Gilbert
author-link =Gilbert Ryle
year =1968
contribution =The Thinking of Thoughts: What is 'Le Penseur' Doing?
contribution-url =
accessdate =2008-06-25
periodical =University Lectures,
place =The University of Saskatchewan
number =18
. Reprinted in his Citation
date =1971
title =Collected Papers
publication-place =London
publisher =Hutchinson
volume =2
pages =480–496
, and (linked) in Citation
publication-date =1996-08-21
accessdate =2008-06-25
periodical =Studies in Anthropology
volume =11
publisher =Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing
issn =1363-1098
] and "Thinking and Reflecting", has been an important influence on cultural anthropologists like Clifford Geertz. [Citation
last = Geertz
first = Clifford
author-link = Clifford Geertz
publication-date = 1973
chapter = Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture
chapterurl =
date =
year =
place =
title = The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays
publication-place = New-York
publisher = Basic Books
pages = 3–30
accessdate = 2008-06-25

Allan Bloom, a classicist and Greek scholar now best known for his controversial "The Closing of the American Mind", was harshly critical of Ryle, writing: "In themselves Ryle's opinions are beneath consideration, but they do deserve diagnosis as a symptom of a sickness which is corrupting our understanding of old writers and depriving a generation of their liberating influence...Such scholarship should give us pause, for Ryle is held by many to be one of the preeminent professors of philosophy in the Anglo-Saxon world." [cite journal
last = Bloom
first = Allan
authorlink = Allan Bloom
date = April 9 1970
title = Plato
journal = The New York Review of Books
volume = 14
issue = 7
issn = 0028-7504
url =
accessdate = 2008-04-08
] Bloom's central criticism indicts Ryle for anachronistically "Aristotelianizing" Platonic texts, thereby putting them through an artificial "analytic strainer." According to Bloom, this mediation vitiates the content of Plato's text by "torturing Plato to conform to a dogmatic starting point," rather than entering at the natural beginning.



*"The Concept of Mind" (1949)
*"Dilemmas" (1954), a collection of shorter pieces
*"Plato's Progress" (1966)
*"On Thinking" (1979)

Notes and references

External links

* [ Gilbert Ryle] in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
* [ Gilbert Ryle at]
* [ About Ryle's Concept of Mind]
* [ The Philosophy of Gilbert Ryle]
* [ "Ordinary Language"] , the Philosophical Review LXII (1953)
* [ "Symposium: Use, Usage and Meaning"] . Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 35 (1961): 223-242. (with J. N. Findlay)
* [ The Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy - Issue dedicated to Ryle]
* [ Profile at UXL Newsmakers]

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