Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind

Posted by Ali Reda | Posted in | Posted on 5/10/2015

Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind (1949) is a critique of the notion that the mind is distinct from the body, and a rejection of the theory that mental states are separable from physical states. In this book Ryle refers to the idea of a fundamental distinction between mind and matter as "the ghost in the machine". According to Ryle, "Cartesian dualism", makes a basic "category-mistake".
Such in outline is the official theory. I shall often speak of it, with deliberate abusiveness, as 'the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine'. I hope to prove that it is entirely false, and false not in detail but in principle. It is not merely an assemblage of particular mistakes. It is one big mistake and a mistake of a special kind. It is, namely, a category-mistake. It represents the facts of mental life as if they belonged to one logical type or category (or range of types or categories), when they actually belong to another. The dogma is therefore a philosopher's myth.
A category mistake is a semantic error in which things belonging to a particular category are presented as if they belong to a different category or that a property is ascribed to a thing that could not possibly have that property. For example:
"You are free to execute your laws and your citizens as you see fit." (William Riker, Star Trek: The Next Generation)
"[They] covered themselves with dust and glory." (Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)
"Eggs and oaths are soon broken." (English proverb)
"A house they call the rising sun, where love and money are made." (Dolly Parton's rendition of House of the Rising Sun)
The first example Ryle gives is of a visitor to Oxford. The visitor, upon viewing the colleges and library, reportedly inquired “But where is the University?" The visitor's mistake is presuming that a University is part of the category "units of physical infrastructure" or some such thing, rather than the category "institutions", say, which are far more abstract and complex conglomerations of buildings, people, procedures, and so on, all what he have seen.
A foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge for the first time is shown a number of colleges, libraries, playing fields, museums, scientific departments and administrative offices. He then asks 'But' where is the University? I have seen where the members of the Colleges live, where the Registrar works, where the scientists experiment and the rest. But I have not yet seen the University in which reside and work the members of your University.' It has then to be explained to him that the University is not another collateral institution, some ulterior counterpart to the colleges, laboratories and offices which he has seen. The University is just the way in which all that he has already seen is organized. When they are seen and when their co-ordination is understood, the University has been seen. His mistake lay in his innocent assumption that it was correct to speak of Christ Church, the Bodleian Library, the Ashmolean Museum and the University, to speak, that is, as if `the University' stood for an extra member of the class of which these other units are members. He was mistakenly allocating the University to the same category as that to which the other institutions belong.
Cartesian dualism attempts to analyze the relation between "mind" and "body" as if they were terms of the same logical category, it speaks of mind and body as a substance, which is of course wrong. So it mistakenly assumes that a mental act could be and is distinct from a physical act, or even that a mental world could be and is distinct from the physical world. For example Thomas Szasz argued that minds are not the sort of things that can be said to be diseased or ill because they belong to the wrong category and that "illness" is a term that can only be ascribed to things like the body. This theory of the separability of mind and body is described by Ryle as "the dogma of the ghost in the machine". For him, there is no entity called "Mind" inside a mechanical apparatus called "the body". Then, dualist doctrines are mythic in an analytical sense.
Now the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine does just this. It maintains that there exist bodies and minds; that there occur physical processes and mental processes; that there are mechanical causes of corporeal movements and mental causes of corporeal movements. 'I shall argue that these and other analogous conjunctions are absurd; but, it must be noticed, the argument will not show that either of the illegitimately conjoined propositions is absurd in itself.' I am not, for example, denying that there occur mental processes. Doing long division is a mental process and so is making a joke. But I am saying that the phrase 'there occur mental processes' does not mean the same sort of thing as 'there occur physical processes', and, therefore, that it makes no sense to conjoin or disjoin the two.
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 is defined by that person's dispositions to act in certain situations. Mental events reduce to bodily events or statements about the body. Knowledge, memory, imagination, and other abilities or dispositions do not reside "within" the mind as if the mind were a space in which these dispositions could be placed or located.
When we describe people as exercising qualities of mind, we are not referring to occult episodes of which their overt acts and utterances are effects; we are referring to those overt acts and utterances themselves.
Ryle admits that his approach to the theory of mind is behavioristic in being opposed to the theory that there are hidden mental processes that are distinct from observable behaviors. His approach is based on the view that actions such as thinking, remembering, feeling, and willing are revealed by modes of behavior or by dispositions to modes of behavior. At the same time, however, he criticizes both Cartesian theory and behaviorist theory for being overly mechanistic. While Cartesian theory may insist that hidden mental events produce the behavioral responses of the conscious individual, behaviorism may insist that stimulus-response mechanisms produce the behavioral responses of the conscious individual. Ryle concludes that both Cartesian theory and behaviorist theory may be too rigid and mechanistic to provide us with an adequate understanding of the concept of mind.
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 mental states and processes to physical states and processes, presuppose  the legitimacy of the disjunction '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's regress

The consideration of propositions is itself an operation the execution of which can be more or less intelligent, less or more stupid. But if, for any operation to be intelligently executed, a prior theoretical operation had first to be performed and performed intelligently, it would be a logical impossibility for anyone ever to break into the circle.

Variants of Ryle's regress are commonly aimed at cognitivist theories. For instance, in order to explain the behavior of rats, Edward Tolman suggested that the rats were constructing a "cognitive map" that helped them locate reinforcers, and he used intentional terms (e.g., expectancies, purposes, meanings) to describe their behavior. To interpret this Cognitive map, we need a set of cognitive rules and to interpret those cognitive rules, we need another set of rules and so on.

Kant's response to Ryle's regress
But of reason one cannot say that before the state in which it determines the power of choice, another state precedes in which this state itself is determined. For since reason itself is not an appearance and is not subject at all to any conditions of sensibility, no temporal sequence takes place in it even as to its causality, and thus the dynamical law of nature, which determines the temporal sequence according to rules, cannot be applied to it.
In essence, Kant is saying that Reason is outside of the causative elements of the natural world and as such is not subject to the law of cause and effect. Hence, for Kant, Reason needs no prior explanation for any of its choices or volitions. Ryle's assumption is that all volitions are physicalistic processes and thus subject to cause and effect. If such is the case, then Ryle would be correct in his regress. However, if some volitions are not subject to cause and effect, per Kant, then Ryle's regress fails. The same as Wittgenstein's solution in saying "Logic Takes care of itself" or in "The propositions of logic describe the scaffolding of the world, or rather they represent it".

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