Gilbert Ryle

From New World Encyclopedia

Gilbert Ryle (Aug. 19, 1900, Brighton, Sussex, Eng. – Oct. 6, 1976, Whitby, North Yorkshire), was a philosopher and a founding representative of the Oxford-based British ordinary language philosophers who were influenced by Wittgenstein's insights into language. He is principally known for his critique of Cartesian dualism, for which he coined the phrase "the ghost in the machine." He referred to some of his ideas as "behaviourism" (not to be confused with the psychological Behaviorism of B. F. Skinner and John B. Watson), and he claimed that much of his philosophical work amounted to "Occamizing" (the reference is to William of Occam and his so-called "Occam's razor," which states that the best explanation is the simplest, the overly-complicated concepts and work of other philosophers.


Gilbert Ryle was born in 1900, at Brighton, Sussex, England. Ryle's father was a general practitioner physician with extra interests in astronomy and philosophy who as a young man "had migrated into agnosticism from the Evangelicalism in which his father, eventually the first Bishop of Liverpool, had raised him." [1] Because of his varied interests, the father had a large library that contained many philosophical and semi-philosophical works, and the young Gilbert read omnivorously in it.

There were ten children in the family, and they were unchurched and non church-going. Ryle reports, however, that they did not suffer much hostility from others because of this. As a schoolboy, one of Ryle's masters told him, "Ryle, you are very good on theories but you are very bad on facts." [2] In 1919 Ryle entered Oxford University, where he studied classics halfheartedly, but he "took greedily to the off-centre subject of Logic." [3] Among other things, Ryle became interested in the work of Bertrand Russell on logic. Ryle did fail to appreciate Plato's Republic, an attitude that would remain with him throughout his life. For seven terms he worked on ancient and modern philosophy and Greek and Roman history. H. J. Paton was his tutor. He also spent some time learning languages, especially Italian, and learning some Italian philosophy, especially that of Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile. In October 1924 he became a lecturer in philosophy at the prestigious Christ Church College at Oxford, and began teaching.

Ryle reports that during his time as an undergraduate and for his first few years as a teacher at Oxford philosophy was at a very low ebb there, and logic, except for scholarship in Aristotle, "was in the doldrums." In the second half of the 1920s, he reports, two ventilators for philosophy at Oxford were opened. The first was that some of the junior philosophy tutors began to attend the annual Joint Sessions of the Mind Association and the Aristotelian Society, and from this they got to know and exchange ideas with colleagues from Cambridge, London, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and elsewhere, and even with visitors from overseas. George Edward Moore always attended these sessions and interaction with him was always an invigorating experience. It was at one of these sessions that Ryle struck up a friendship with Wittgenstein, whose Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was then mostly unknown at Oxford.

The second ventilator in reviving philosophy at Oxford was the formation among the junior philosophers of an informal dining group known as the "Wee Teas," at which philosophical discussions were carried on.

Ryle and his fellows, especially the younger men J. L Austin and P. F. Strawson and some others, would be instrumental in changing that climate at Oxford and making it into one of the most dynamic and important centers of philosophical investigation and study in the world, especially after the Second World War.

A capable linguist, Ryle was recruited to intelligence work during World War II, after which he became Wayneflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford. He was also editor of the highly-respected philosophy journal Mind from 1947 to 1971, nearly 25 years. Daniel Dennett reports that "He edited the journal autocratically, reading all the submissions and making most decisions regarding publication without consulting anybody." [4]

In later life, Ryle was a governor of Brighton College and the school named a dayboy house in his honor.

It was Ryle, as teacher, who suggested to A. J. Ayer that Ayer should go to Vienna to meet with the members of the Vienna circle. The result was Ayer's highly influential book, Language, Truth, and Logic.

Ryle had a large influence on Oxford ordinary language philosophy. Moreover, because of his position and prominence, he had a large influence on Anglo-American analytic philosophy altogether. His best known work, The Concept of Mind, was considered by many philosophers to be the best work extant on the subject when it came out in 1949, and it exercised a large effect, at least for a time, on philosophy of mind in England and America.

Ryle never married. He lived for the last 30 years of his life with his twin sister.

Ryle's Philosophical Work

Ryle's work was dominated by two concerns. The first was the question "What is Philosophy?" This question became especially important after the rise of the Logical Positivists and the appearance of Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic. The positivists had declared that the only meaningful statements were the empirical statements of the natural sciences and the analytic statements of logic and mathematics. But philosophical statements are not empirical statements of science; nor are they analytic statements of logic or mathematics, at least not in any clear or obvious way. This seems to leave no room or place for philosophical statements. Ryle seems to have wrestled with this problem at length. In his introduction to the book The Revolution in Philosophy he declared that philosophical statements "are condemned to be uninformative about the world and yet able, in some important way, to be clarificatory of those propositions that are informative about the world, reporting no matters of fact yet correcting our mishandlings of reported matters of fact." So Ryle's work can be said to be his attempt at carrying out that clarificatory task or role.

In the second part of his career, with the writing and publication of The Concept of Mind, Ryle was largely occupied with what has come to be called, broadly, the philosophy of mind.

In 1966 Ryle published Plato's Progress, a volume-long study of Plato. This work has been of little subsequent importance because it takes a quite idiosyncratic, unusual, and unsympathetic view of Plato, a view that hardly any Plato scholar ever recognized as accurate or perceptive. Ryle also wrote the article on Plato for the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, an article that continues that unusual and idiosyncratic approach to Plato and Plato's work.

Ryle wrote many studies and reviews of the work of other philosophers. [5] These include a study of Plato's "Parmenides," a review of F. M. Cornford's Plato and Parmenides, and other works on Plato and Plato's Academy; several articles on John Locke; an article on Hume; several articles on phenomenology; a more-or-less generous review of Heidegger's Sein und Zeit in which he presents a summary of the work of Franz Bretano and its influence on Husserl, Heidegger's teacher; a critical, even hostile, discussion of Rudolf Carnap's Meaning and Necessity; several articles on Ludwig Wittgenstein and his work; an article on G. E. Moore; a review of a symposium on J. L. Austin; and others.

Collected Papers, Vol. II, contains many of Ryle's most important papers other than his studies of other philosophers. Ryle said of these works that they exhibit an "Occamizing zeal" in that they seek to eliminate the hypostatising that had been committed by other philosophers.

In his article "Systematically Misleading Expressions" (1932), Ryle proposed a method, using ordinary language, of dissolving philosophical problems through showing that incorrect abstract inferences have been drawn from certain expressions. In "Categories" (1938), Ryle showed that misapplying an ordinary term can result in a seriously misleading category mistake.

One work in that Vol. II deals with negation. Another with the question whether there are propositions—Ryle's conclusion is that:

There are not substantial propositions. There are facts, there are standard symbols, i.e., such as are statements of known facts, and there are non-statements or quasi-symbols which in grammatical structure, though not in presentative function, are like standard symbols. [p. 37]

Additional works deal with imaginary objects; the question whether there are internal relations; the ontological argument for the existence of God; induction; philosophical arguments; the difference between knowing how and knowing that (a distinction that was quite important to Ryle's work and that has also been made by others); the terms 'if,' 'so,' and 'because'; and the verification principle. The latter part of the book contains essays in what can be broadly construed as the philosophy of mind, including pleasure, sensation, thinking, rationality, thinking and reflection, and others.

The Concept of Mind

In his principal and best-known work, The Concept of Mind (1949), Ryle took a meat-axe against the body-mind dualism which permeates Western philosophy. As William Lyons put it: "In The Concept of Mind Ryle's Occamizing zeal and the logical tools he was developing to pursue this zealotry were at their highest pitch." [6] Ryle claimed 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 suggested, 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 behavior.

He attacked the idea of seventeenth century and eighteenth century thinkers (such as Descartes and La Mettrie) 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.

Novelists, historians and journalists, Ryle pointed 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. Ryle held that such cognitivist theories cannot be scientific. He wrote:

According to the legend, whenever an agent does anything intelligently, his act is preceded and steered by another internal act of considering a regulative proposition appropriate to his practical problem. … Must we then say that for the hero's reflections how to act to be intelligent he must first reflect how best to reflect how to act? The endlessness of this implied regress shows that the application of the appropriateness does not entail the occurrence of a process of considering this criterion. [7]

Legacy and influence

Some years after his death Ryle's work and influence had waned considerably. Although his place in changing the philosophical climate at Oxford and in working in what has usually been called ordinary language analysis were recognized and admitted, some commentators claimed that he had not been a genuinely great philosopher because his ideas were mostly derivate from and glosses on those of others.

The Concept of Mind, however, was recognized on its appearance as an important contribution to philosophical psychology, and an important work in the ordinary language philosophy movement. In his review of that book, Stuart Hampshire wrote:

This is probably one of the two or three most important and original works of general philosophy which have been published in English in the last twenty years. Both its main thesis and the mass of its detailed observations will certainly be a focus of discussion among philosophers for many years to come… [8]

But 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. Ryle remains a significant defender of the possibility of lucid and meaningful interpretation of higher-level human activities without recourse to an abstracted soul.

Today, however, there is at least a small resurgence of interest in Ryle's work in The Concept of Mind among some philosophers and others who are working in robotics and artificial intelligence. Those commentators say that Ryle had recognized important points about intelligence and machines long before the appearance of the computer era and robots.

One aspect of Ryle's work has been an important influence on cultural anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz who approvingly quote his notion that behavior must be understood within context. In "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture," Geertz explains that he adopted the term "thick description" from philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Ryle pointed out that if someone winks at us without a context, we don't know what it means. As the context changes; the meaning of the wink changes.


  1. Oscar P. Wood and Gilbert Ryle, (eds). "Introduction," "Autobiographical," in A Collection of Critical Essays. (Macmillan, 1971), 1
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 2
  4. "Gilbert Ryle's Last Letter to Dennett," From [1] Louisiana University. Accessed Jan. 19, 2007
  5. (See especially his Collected Papers, Vol. I (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1971)
  6. William Lyons, Gilbert Ryle: An Introduction to His Philosophy. (Humanities Press, 1980), 43
  7. Gilbert Ryle. The Concept of Mind. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002)
  8. Mind LIX (1950): 237

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

Primary sources

  • A Rational Animal. London: University of London, The Athlone Press, 1962.
  • Aspects of Mind, edited by René Meyer. Blackwell Publishing Professional, 1993. ISBN 978-0631184898
  • Collected Papers, 2 Vols., New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1971.
  • The Concept of Mind. Barnes & Noble. Introduction by Daniel C. Dennett, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002 (original 1949).
  • Contemporary Aspects of Philosophy, ed. by Gilbert Ryle. Oriel Press, 1976. ISBN 978-0853621614
  • Dilemmas. Cambridge University Press, 2002 (original 1954). ISBN 978-0521091152
  • "Introduction" in The Revolution in Philosophy. London: Macmillan, 1956. (Other than Ryle's introduction, this book consists of previously broadcast talks by A. J. Ayer and others.)
  • Logic and Language, Edited by Antony Flew. Blackwell Publishers, 1978 (original 1951). ISBN 978-0631034209
  • On Thinking, Edited by Konstantin Kolenda. Rowman and Littlefield Pub Inc., 1980. ISBN 978-0847662036
  • Plato's Progress. Cambridge University Press, 1966. ISBN 978-0521061780
  • Studies in the Philoosphy of Thought and Action: British Academy Lectures by Gilbert Ryle and Others. Selected and introduction by P. F. Strawson, Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • The Thinking of Thoughts. The University of Saskatchewan. 1968.

Secondary sources

  • Addis, Laird, and Douglas Lewis. Moore and Ryle: Two Ontologists. Iowa City IA: University of Iowa, 1965.
  • Geertz, Clifford. "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture," In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 3-30. New York: Basic Books, 1973.
  • Kolenda, Konstantin, (ed.). Studies in Philosophy: A Symposium on Gilbert Ryle by Virgil C. Aldrich [and others]. Houston, TX: William Marsh Rice University, 1972.
  • Lyons, William. Gilbert Ryle: An Introduction to His Philosophy. Humanities Press, 1980. ISBN 978-0391018006
  • Miedzianogora, Myriam. Gilbert Ryle and Jean-Paul Sartre: A Comparative Study of Two Theories of Mind. Columbia University. Ph.D. Thesis, 1964.
  • Wood, Oscar P, and George Pitcher, (eds.). Introduction by Gilbert Ryle. Ryle: A Collection of Critical Essays. Macmillan, 1971. ISBN 978-0333122631. (Contains a bibliographical listing of all Ryle's published writings from 1927 to 1968.)

External links

All links retrieved June 21, 2017.

General Philosophy Sources


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