Review: The Concept of Mind

The Concept of MindThe Concept of Mind by Gilbert Ryle

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Men are not machines, not even ghost-ridden machines. They are men—a tautology which is sometimes worth remembering.

The problem of mind is one of those philosophical quandaries that give me a headache and prompt an onset of existential angst when I try to think about them. How does consciousness arise from matter? How can a network of nerves create a perspective? And how can this consciousness, in turn, influence the body it inhabits? When we look at a brain, or anywhere else in the ‘physical’ world, we cannot detect consciousness; only nerves firing and blood rushing. Where is it? The only evidence for consciousness is my own awareness. So how do I know anybody else is conscious? Could it be just me?

If you think about the problem in this way, I doubt you’ll make any progress either, because it’s insoluble. This is where Gilbert Ryle enters the picture. According to Ryle, the philosophy of mind was put on a shaky foundations by Descartes and his followers. When Descartes divided the world into mind and matter, the first private and the other public, he created several awkward problems: How do we know other people have minds? How do the realms of matter and mind interact? How can the mind be sure of the existence of the material world? And so on. This book is an attempt to break away from the assumptions that led to these questions.

Ryle’s philosophy is often compared with that of the later Wittgenstein, and justly so. The main thrusts of their argument are remarkably similar. According to what I’ve read, this may have been due simply to the influence of Wittgenstein on Ryle—though there appears to be some doubt. Regardless, it’s appropriate to compare them, as I think, taken together, their ideas help to shed light on one another.

Both Wittgenstein and Ryle are extraordinary writers. Wittgenstein is certainly the better of the two, though this is not due to any defect on Ryle’s part but to the indomitable force of Wittgenstein’s style. Wittgenstein is aphoristic, sometimes oblique, employing numerous allegories and similes to make his point. Ryle is sharp, direct, and epigrammatic. Wittgenstein is in the same tradition as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, while Ryle is the direct descendent of Jane Austen. But both of them are witty, quotable, and brilliant. They’ve managed to create excellent works of philosophy without using any jargon and avoiding all obscurity. Why can’t philosophy always be written so well?

There is no contradiction, or even paradox, in describing someone as bad at practising what he is good at preaching. There have been thoughtful and original literary critics who have formulated admirable canons of prose style in execrable prose. There have been others who have employed brilliant English in the expression of the silliest theories of what constitute good writing.

Ryle also has the quality—unusual among philosophers—of being apparently quite extroverted. His eyes are turned not toward himself, but his surroundings. He speaks with confidence and insight about the way people normally behave and talk, and in general prefers this everyday understanding of things to the tortured theories of his inverted colleagues.

Teachers and examiners, magistrates and critics, historians and novelists, confessors and non-commissioned officers, employers, employees and partners, parents, lovers, friends and enemies all know well enough how to settle their daily questions about the qualities of character and intellect of the individuals with whom they have to do.

This book, his most famous, is written not as a monograph or an analysis, but as a manifesto. Ryle piles epigram upon epigram until you’re gasping for just one qualification, just one admission that he might be mistaken. He even seems to get carried away by the force of his own pen, leading to some needlessly long and repetitive sections. What’s more, his style has the defect of all epigrammatists: he’s utterly convincing in short gasps, but leaves his reader grasping for something more substantial.

Ryle is often called an ordinary language philosophy, and the label suits him. Like Wittgenstein, he thinks that philosophical puzzles come about by the abuse of words; philosophers fail to correctly analyze the logical category of words, and thus use them inappropriately, leading to false-paradoxes. The Rylean philosopher’s task is to undo this damage. Ryle likens his own project to that of a cartographer in a village. The residents of the village are perfectly able to find their way around and can even give directions. But they might not be able to create an abstract representation of the village’s layout. This is the philosopher’s job: to create a map of the logical layout of language. This will prevent other foreigners from getting lost.

Ryle begins by pointing out some obvious problems with the Cartesian picture—a picture he famously dubs the ‘Ghost in the Machine’. First, we have no idea how these two metaphysically distinct realms interact. How does mind influence matter and vice versa? Nobody knows. Thus by attempting to explain the nature of human cognition, the Cartesians cordon it off from the familiar world and banish it to a shadow world, leaving unexplained how the shadow is cast.

Second, the Cartesian picture renders all acts of communication into a kind of impossible guessing game. You would constantly be having to fathom the significance of a word or gesture by making conjectures as to what’s happening in a murky realm behind an impassible curtain (another person’s mind). Conjectures of this kind would be fundamentally dissimilar to other conjectures because there would be in principle no way to check them. In the Cartesian picture, people’s minds are absolutely cut off from all outside observation.

It’s like this: Imagine if their was a mechanical wheel whose rotation was supposed to represent something happening on the surface of a planet 3 billion light years away. There would be no way to check what the wheel’s rotation meant, since the planet is beyond observation. The Cartesian picture turns all human behavior into a similar situation, where we are trying to guess at something we can never observe using signs that are related to their object in an unknown way.

Ryle is hardly original in pointing out these two problems, which are just the mind/body problem and the problem of other minds, although he does manage to emphasize these embarrassing conundrums with special force. His more original critique is what has been dubbed “Ryle’s Regress.” This is made against what Ryle calls the “intellectualist legend,” which is the notion that all intelligent behaviors are the products of thoughts.

For example, if you produced a grammatically correct English sentence, it means (according to the “legend”) that you have properly applied the correct criteria for English grammar. However, in this scheme, this must mean that you applied the proper criteria to the criteria, i.e. you applied the meta-criteria that allowed you to choose the rules for English grammar and not the rules for Spanish grammar. But what meta-meta-criteria allowed you to pick the correct meta-criteria for the criteria for the English sentence? (I.e., what anterior rule allowed you to pick the rule that allowed you to choose the rule for determining whether English or Spanish rules should be used instead of the rule for choosing whether salt or sugar should be added to a recipe?—sorry, that’s a mouthful.) The point is that we are led down an infinite regress if we require thought to proceed action. This is one of the classic arguments against cognitive theories of the mind.

(I believe Hubert Dreyfus used this same argument in his criticisms of artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology. Considering the strides that A.I. has made since then, I’m sure there must be some way around this regress, though I don’t know what. Hopefully somebody can explain it to me.)

These are his most forceful reasons for rejecting the Ghost in the Machine. From reading the other reviews here, I gather that many people are fairly convinced by these arguments. Nonetheless, some have accused Ryle of failing to replace the Cartesian picture with anything else. This isn’t a fair criticism. Ryle does his best to rectify the mistaken picture with his own view, though you may not find this view very satisfying.

After doing his best to discredit the Cartesian picture, the rest of the book is devoted to demonstrating Ryle’s view that none of the ways we ordinarily use language necessitate or even imply that “the mind is its own place”. This is where he most nearly approaches Wittgenstein, for his main contentions are the following: First, it is only when language is misused by philosophers (and laypeople) that we get the impression that the mind is a metaphysically distinct thing. Second, our intellectual and emotional lives are in fact not cut off and separate from the world; rather, public behavior is at the very core of our being.

Here’s just one example. According to the Cartesian view, a person “really knows” how to divide if, when he’s given a problem—let’s say, 144 divided by 24—his mind goes through the necessary steps. Let’s say a professor gives a student this problem, and the student correctly responds “six.” The professor conjectures that the student’s mind has gone through the appropriate operation. But what if the professor asks him the exact same question five minutes later, and the student responded “eight”? And what if he did it again, and the student responded “three”? The following dialogue ensues:

PROFESSOR: Ah, you’re just saying random numbers. You really don’t know how to divide.

STUDENT: But my mind performed the correct operation when you asked me the first time. I forgot how to do it after that.

PROFESSOR: How do you know your mind performed the correct operation the first time?

STUDENT: Introspection.

PROFESSOR: But if you can’t remember how to do it now, how can you be sure that you did know previously?

STUDENT: Introspection, again.

PROFESSOR: I don’t believe you. I don’t think you ever knew.

The point of the dialogue is this. According to the Cartesian view, introspection provides not merely the best, but the only true window into the mind. You’re the only person who can know your own mind, and everyone else knows it via conjecture. Thus the student, and only the student, would really know if his mind performed the proper operation, and thus he alone would really know if he could divide. Yet this is not the case. We say somebody “knows how to divide” if they can consistently answer questions of division correctly.

Thus, Ryle argues, to “know how to divide” is a disposition. And a disposition cannot be analyzed into episodes. In other words, “knowing how to divide” is not a collection of discrete times when a mind went through the proper operations. Similarly, if I say “the glass is fragile,” I don’t mean that it has broken or even that it will necessarily break, just that it would break easily. Fragility, like knowing long division, is a disposition.

According to Ryle, when philosophers misconstrued what it meant to know how to divide (and other things), they committed a “category mistake.” They miscategorized the phrase; they mistook a disposition for an episode. More generally, the Cartesians mix up “knowing how” and “knowing that.” They confuse dispositions, capacities, and propensities for rules, facts, and criteria. This leads them into all sorts of muddles.

Here’s a classic example. Since Berkley, philosophers have been perplexed by the mind’s capacity to form abstract ideas. The word “red” encompasses many different particular shades, and is thus abstract. Is our idea of red some sort of vague blend of all particular reds? Or is it a collections of different, distinct shades we bundle together? Ryle contends that this question makes the following mistake: Recognizing the color red is knowing how. It’s a skill we learn, just like recognizing melodies, foreign accents, and specific flavors. It is a capacity we develop; it isn’t the forming of a mental object, an “idea,” that sits somewhere in a mental space.

Ryle applies this method to problem after problem, which seem to dissolve in the acid of his gaze. It’s an incredible performance, and a great antidote for a lot of the conundrums philosophers like to tie themselves up in. Nevertheless, you can’t shake the feeling that for all his directness, Ryle dances around the main question: how does awareness arise from the brain?

Well, I’m not positive about this, but I believe it was never Ryle’s intention to explain this, since he considers this question outside the proper field of philosophy. It’s a scientific, not a philosophical question. His goal was, rather, to show that the mind/body problem was not an insoluble mystery or evidence of metaphysical duality, and that the mind is not fundamentally private and untouchable. Humans are social creatures, and it is only with great effort that we keep some things to ourselves.

I certainly can’t keep this review to myself. This was the best work of philosophy I’ve read since finishing Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations in 2014, and I hope you get a chance to read it too. Is it conclusive? No. Is it irrefutable? I doubt it. But it’s witty, it’s eloquent, it’s original, and it’s devoid of any nonsense. This is as good as philosophy gets.

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11 thoughts on “Review: The Concept of Mind

  1. Wow! One long blog post. “How does consciousness arise from matter?”

    Answer: It doesn’t. The body is a vehicle of consciousness, not its source. Consciousness transcends the protoplasmic brain.


    1. Yes, sorry, I badly need an editor.

      “The body is a vehicle of consciousness, not its source. Consciousness transcends the protoplasmic brain.”

      I think Ryle and others would disagree!


      1. The only thing I would humbly point out is that a seeker is going to be disappointed when he/she uses instruments of the physical material world to try to measure or determine the reality of a spiritual plane of existence. Our scientific instruments are merely extensions of our physical senses and thus have limitations. Many will disagree here, but science has its limitations and if one asserts that he/she is scientific and denies the possibility of a spiritual plane of existence that is not a scientific attitude. A more objective and honest approach would be to say that science is not competent to address the existence and nature of a spiritual plane of existence. Best wishes.


      2. I see where you’re coming from, but I can’t agree with the following: “Many will disagree here, but science has its limitations and if one asserts that he/she is scientific and denies the possibility of a spiritual plane of existence that is not a scientific attitude.”

        Of course, science has limitations, like everything does. But the scientific attitude is based on the principle that you should only believe what there is evidence to support. Scientists will thus be right to disbelieve in a spiritual plane unless there is evidence.

        Have you read Carl Sagan? He has a very nice section in his book, The Demon Haunted World, where he uses a hypothetical scenario to demonstrate why scientists don’t believe in the supernatural.

        Let’s say I told you that I had a dragon in my garage. Being open-minded, you say “Okay, show me.” We go to the garage and it’s empty. You ask where it is, and I respond “It’s invisible.” You say “Okay, then I’ll scatter some flour on the ground so we can see its footprints.” I respond that the dragon also can’t be touched. You suggest detecting it with infrared goggles, and I respond that the dragon produces no heat. And so on, you get the idea.

        The point is that the only “evidence” for the existence for the dragon will be my assertion that it exists. And you will have every right to disbelieve my assertion, since I can’t substantiate it in any way. Supernatural phenomena are in a similar situation (unless there’s real evidence for them, of course). The only reason I should believe in a spiritual plane is because some people assert that it exists. But what if I assert that invisible dragons exist? Should I be believed too? Can we begin to believe every groundless claim people make? Obviously not, because these will probably contradict one another at one point.

        This is the fundamental question: What’s the difference between believing in an undetectable, invisible dragon and not believing in one? It comes to the same thing; the world we experience would be identical. Doesn’t the same apply to a spiritual plane?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. An amusing analogy. And, I think I see where you are coming from.

    What I suggest is that if science is not competent to address the spiritual (because its instruments and methods apply to the physical and material) then an honest adherent of science would have to admit that science cannot come to a conclusion nor render a verdict (one way or the other) on the existence of the spiritual. Forgive me for being wordy. The objective and honest scientist would have to admit that even though science cannot prove nor disprove the existence of a spiritual plane that does not mean that such a plane does not – or cannot – exist. Forgive me for an analogy of my own. All during the time that people believed the Earth to be flat, it was in fact round. People who sailed beyond the horizon did not fall off the Earth. The spiritual plane (if it exists) exists independent of people’s beliefs about it. In other words, the existence of the spiritual plane is not dependent upon people believing it exists. People may insist on concrete, physical proof of the spiritual before choosing to believe the spiritual exists, but that does not make the spiritual any less real (if it exists).

    For many of us, consciousness (or, if you prefer, mind) is ultimately not material, as consciousness transcends the physical/material. (Rene DesCartes was not so unique or original in his thinking on mind as we might assume. In Hinduism, we see a view of consciousness as not being produced by matter.) Sure, the world we experience is the same whether we believe or do not believe. What is different is how a belief in the spiritual plane and consciousness not being produced by matter can lead a person to live their life differently, with different priorities. (But not all who believe do live differently, I know.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re correct when you argue that, if a spiritual plane existed, scientists wouldn’t be able to detect it. That’s true by definition. You’re also correct that, if it existed, its existence wouldn’t depend on people’s beliefs. We’re agreed on that.

      This is what interests me: How do you know the spiritual plane exists? How did you find out about it? From someone else? How did they find out? Apparently, this thing cannot be measured, detected, or experienced. The way you defined this spiritual plane, it’s completely unknowable. So how do you know about it? That’s the crux of the matter.

      You say:

      Sure, the world we experience is the same whether we believe or do not believe. What is different is how a belief in the spiritual plane and consciousness not being produced by matter can lead a person to live their life differently, with different priorities.

      But you must admit that just because a belief influences the way people live their lives, doesn’t mean it’s true. I might believe, fervently believe, that there is an undetectable, invisible dragon living in the corner of my apartment. As a result, I avoid that corner. I don’t put any furniture there. I don’t allow my kids or my guests to get too close to that corner. Obviously, this belief is influencing my behavior and my life. Does that mean it’s true? Does that mean the dragon is real?

      Based on your sentence above, you should believe in invisible dragons, too, because belief in them influences the way people live their lives. If you don’t believe in them, you need a good reason why belief in a spiritual plane is different from belief in invisible dragons.


  3. At this point, there may be no benefit to continuing. As the Hindus say, we are in the Kali-Yuga, the age of spiritual darkness when man is ignorant of his spiritual nature.

    What good would it do to explain why I believe? That would not be a catalyst for you to question your non-belief. (I am beginning to think you may be the invisible dragon. Haha.) Life is short. If you demand concrete proof, then you will be disappointed. But, we can infer the existence of things when we see their effects. If your mind is open, you may yet find some truth in due time.


    1. I’m somewhat puzzled by your comment.

      In my comments, I did not definitively assert that the spiritual plane does not exist. I also didn’t ask for “concrete proof,” since I agree that if a spiritual plane existed, no concrete proof would be possible. I was hoping that you had a good philosophical argument for belief in a spiritual plane. In my opinion, philosophical arguments can be compelling, even though they don’t rely on concrete proof. (After all, we’re commenting on a review of a work of philosophy!)

      How can you be sure that your explanation “would not be a catalyst for [me] to question my non-belief”? If you offered me a good reason for believing in a spiritual realm, I would seriously consider it. I only wanted to point out my reasons for remaining skeptical. Surely, you cannot expect me to believe in something if you don’t explain to me how you know about it. If I went through life believing everything everybody said, without asking for the reasons, I’d get into a lot of trouble. You’re apparently very convinced about this, so isn’t it easy to explain to me what convinced you?


  4. Enjoyed this post; thanks for sharing. Just a quick note on Ryle and Wittgenstein’s relationship, in case of interest:

    I know that they certainly discussed a lot of these ideas on ‘walking holidays’ in the early 1930s but what I found interesting is the extent to which their relationship declined following Ryle’s publication of this work. If you can obtain the extant letters between Wittgenstein and his friends, you’ll note that, at around that time, Wittgenstein became quite dismissive of and bitter towards Ryle. A plagiarist was definitely one accusation. The word ‘charlatan’ also rings a bell. Similarly, I’m confident that in one or two of the memoirs (I think Bouwesma’s was one), the author comments on Wittgenstein’s open disappointment with Ryle.

    I remember enjoying CoM originally but, once exploring Wittgenstein’s writings, I did feel as if the former was a dilution. I do distinctly remember thinking that Ryle had excellent clarity of expression, though. Daniel Dennett is certainly a big fan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment. I didn’t know any of that, but it’s certainly interesting! I had no idea that they spent so much time interacting, though I suppose that explains why their ideas are so similar.


      1. Yes, he was also good friends with Gilbert’s older brother, John, who was a noted Physician. He used to stay with him and his family.

        Both went to my school in the UK (a room and a house are named after each) and so, as minor trivia as it is, I found it particularly interesting.


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