Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers - Ryle, Gilbert (1900–76)
The Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Philosophers


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Ryle, Gilbert (1900–76)

Ryle, Gilbert (1900–76)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350052437-0376

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Gilbert Ryle was born in Brighton on 19 August 1900 and died in Whitby hospital, Yorkshire on 6 October 1976. He and his twin sister, Mary, were the eighth and ninth children in a family of ten. Their father was a doctor and their paternal grandfather was the first bishop of Liverpool. Schooled at Brighton College, Ryle went up to Oxford in 1919 as a member of Queen’s College, where his tutor was H.J. Paton . He gained first class honours in Classical Honour Moderations (1921) in the honours school of literae humaniores (1923), and in the then newly established honours school of PPE (1924). He was appointed a lecturer at Christ Church in 1924, and student and tutor the next year. A.J. Ayer was one of his pupils. After wartime service in the Welsh Guards, he was appointed Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy in 1945, a chair that he held until his retirement in 1968.

At Oxford, Ryle was instrumental in instituting the degree of Bachelor of Philosophy, which became the training ground for generations of philosophy teachers. His generosity to beginners in philosophy is legendary. He never tried to tell students what to think, but with coaxing and patience hoped to start them pondering on what they were saying, so they might have a practice to perfect and material to try it on. His larger services to philosophy include editing Mind from 1947 to 1971, and arranging joint conferences for philosophers from Britain and France. As editor of Mind, he regularly published young philosophers’ first articles, often after trenchant criticism for which he refused to print the authors’ thanks.

Ryle, who deplored the labelling of philosophers and their ideas, was widely regarded as the leader, or perhaps co-leader with J.L. Austin , of the Oxford school of linguistic philosophy, or linguistic analysis, that is supposed to have flourished in the 1950s. As he feared, the label got in the way of the appreciation of his work, so that while he is generally respected, he may be the twentieth-century British philosopher who is least understood. He is chiefly remembered for his work in philosophy of mind, particularly for his critical assault on Cartesian mind-body dualism. But for him, his anti-Cartesianism had a purpose beyond itself as an illustration of how to expose the nonsense of a philosophical ‘ism’. He wrote three major books: The Concept of Mind (1949), a classic in twentieth-century philosophy; Dilemmas (1954); and Plato’s Progress (1966). He also published many articles and book reviews. Most of the articles and some of the reviews are reprinted in Collected Papers (1971) and in two posthumous collections, On Thinking (1979) and Aspects of Mind (1993). The fifteen or so uncollected book reviews are valuable sources for his opinions of other philosophers, and for displays of his philosophical methods.

Ryle followed G.E. Moore and Wittgenstein in their practice of clearing away earlier philosophers’ mistakes, mistakes that were the result of failing to notice what was right in front of them. Moore, for example, showed that philosophical idealism, the doctrine that everything is either mind or mind-dependent, rests on the mistake of failing to notice such things as the difference between seeing the colour blue and blue itself. When philosophers’ mistakes are cleared away, we are left with what was always there, but with the advantage of an unencumbered view. To accept the Moorean-Wittgensteinian programme is, of course, to accept their faith that by raking away the philosophical rubbish, there is something to be got to, not specifiable in any general way, and doubtless in considerable variety, but nonetheless there, and thus the standard against which mistaken philosophical doctrine may be shown up. Philosophers might then be seen to have two jobs, not only clearing away mistakes, but also elucidating what the clearing away reveals. Ryle vigorously eschewed the second job, enlisting solely to clear away mistakes.

While honouring the examples of Moore and Wittgenstein, Ryle had his own methods for carrying out their common task. Sometimes when he was asked why he made some claim, he would say no more than that one has a nose for it. Indeed, his methods might be characterized as three kinds of sensitivity: category sensitivity, sensitivity to conceptual content and sensitivity to the use of terms. Category sensitivity is roughly a sense of what goes with what, and of what things are conceptually subordinate or superordinate to other things. Its use is in spotting such category mistakes as putting together things that do not belong together, or failing to recognize a hierarchy of types. ‘Saturday is in bed’ is categorial nonsense. Why? One just knows that while Saturday goes between Friday and Sunday, it is not the sort of thing that can go between bed sheets. Failing to notice a hierarchy of types is a more complex mistake: a young child is taken to see a circus parade, and having seen the clowns, animals and calliope pass, begins to cry, because she has not yet seen the parade. But a parade is not a parade-item like the elephants; it is a superordinate type that collects clowns and elephants. The detection of categorial nonsense depends, of course, on a supply of categorial sense, the sine qua non of category sensitivity. Ryle did not suppose that he, or anyone else, could give us a final, definite list of categories. He did suppose, however, that people who had been properly brought up and whose wits were in working order would have a supply of categories that would enable them to move comfortably and easily through their usual occasions and occupations. Reliance on category sensitivity was crucial to Ryle’s refutation of Cartesian dualism, and his general programme of dissolving philosophical dilemmas.

A sensitivity to conceptual content enabled Ryle to see that ‘knowledge’ includes something besides knowing that, namely knowing how, and that consequently ‘intelligence’ should be understood not only as people’s knowing truths, but also as their practices for enquiring after truth, and indeed their capacity to learn how to do many things and to practise those competences intelligently. A sensitivity to the uses of a term enabled Ryle to see that our use of ‘thinking’ to mean ‘having beliefs’ is quite different from using it to mean ‘pondering’, the practice of thinking to solve a problem. Along with Ryle’s methods, three other factors make his treatment of philosophical topics uniquely his own – his sense of humour, his accessible style, and his expositions salted with illuminating analogies.

Ryle saw philosophy as harbouring a host of false oppositions – dilemmas generated by category mistakes – that force us to choose between unpalatable, and ultimately untenable positions. The subject was, therefore, due for a radical housecleaning, and Ryle took the dilemma of Cartesianism’s mind-body dualism versus Hobbesian-Watsonian corporeal monism as a first promising target for his methodological broom. The result was The Concept of Mind, the foundation for modern philosophy of mind, despite the fact that some of the newer rooms in that now many-chambered mansion are in gross violation of the original building permit.

Cartesianism divides a human being into a mind thing and a body thing, and generates the question, ‘Which thing is the true person?’ In answer, Cartesianism makes the category mistake of assigning qualities of intellect and character to the mind, to make it the true person. To expose the mistake, Ryle simply points out what we all know: it is the performances and characters of people that we know how to assess, and do assess. We call people, and not minds, ‘careful’, ‘stupid’, ‘logical’, ‘unobservant’, ‘ingenious’, ‘vain’, ‘methodical’, ‘credulous’, ‘witty’, ‘self-controlled’, and so on. If we have a use for ‘mind’, it is our most general word for the wide range of thinking and doing that a person carries on with more or less skill. ‘Mind’ is not the name of a nebulous place where mental processes occur, or a container where mental contents are stored, for there is no such place and no such container. In denying ‘mind’ in these senses, Ryle is not, despite what his critics have said, denying that people can talk silently to themselves, read silently, ponder without speaking aloud, do sums in their heads, dream, entertain images and memories, and keep these practices to themselves by not saying what they are doing. His point rather is that philosophers should attend to what people are doing, even when the doing is not overt, and they should not attempt to transmute these doings into the occurrence of occult mental processes or the possession of occult mental contents.

Since Cartesianism’s body thing is a physical object, its movements are necessarily subject to the laws of motion: no bodily movement until the body is moved by something else. To get the body machine moving, Cartesianism assigns the starter role to mental processes – thoughts, decisions, aversions, acts of will – originated by the mind: Ryle’s ‘ghost in the machine’. For Ryle, this story is a tangle of category mistakes. First, the body is conceived as something that is no longer the body of a person. Then the things that a person does, such as reviewing courses of action, say, and deciding what to do before acting, are improperly assigned to ‘the ghost’. When the mistakes are put aside, however, we can see that a person’s actions are not simply bodily movements. They are the doings, the practices, of a person, and are understandable as expressions of a person’s purposes, plans and decisions. The physical model of force-impelled motion, even when raised to the rarefied level of ghostly mental pushes, is not an appropriate model for explaining people’s behaviour.

Does Ryle’s dispensing with Cartesianism’s dualism impale him on the other horn of the dilemma, namely Hobbesian-Watsonian monistic materialism? No, for it harbours category mistakes that parallel those of Cartesianism. The qualities of intellect and character that properly belong to a person are improperly assigned to the body, and the notion of purposive action is improperly replaced with bodily jerks brought on by external pressures. Mention of the mistakes dissolves the doctrine. Many of Ryle’s critics have missed this part of his argument. They suppose that his denial of a mind thing leaves only the body thing standing, so that the mental is reduced to manifestations of bodily behaviour. People, however, as well as being neither solely minds, nor maladroitly conjoined minds and bodies, are not solely bodies either. Ryle reminds us that the doings of people, including their thinking, must be ascribed as they have always been properly ascribed, to people themselves. In making this move, Ryle has been taken to be replacing the concept of mind with the concept of human being, or, more formally, a concept of person. He strenuously denied any such intention; his assault on Cartesianism was undertaken merely as a demonstration of method, with no doctrinal intent. Nonetheless, in his analysis of mental concepts, he regularly assumes that they are to be understood as the doings and sufferings of persons, and a fair number of philosophers, directly or indirectly influenced by him, have gone on to develop a person-centred philosophy of mind.

Ryle’s categorial refutation of the Cartesian mind-thing myth occurs in the first few pages of The Concept of Mind, preparing the way for the project that occupies the remainder of the book: mapping the logical geography of mental concepts by studying their applications and their correlations with one another and with other concepts. The book’s principal topics are intellect, will, emotion, self-knowledge, sensation and observation, and imagination. In general, Ryle would steer us away from thinking of a person’s mental life as the occurrence of occult processes or episodes in a mind thing, or as the work of mental faculties. Rather, he would direct attention to people themselves, to their doings, including their thinking, to the ways they conduct their thinking and doing, and to the habits and competences they acquire for conducting their thinking and doing. In discussing intellect, for example, he talks not about a faculty, the intellect, but about people’s acquisition and use of knowledge. In an original move, he shows knowledge to be not only our knowing that, but also our knowing how, not only our possessing acquired truths, but also our possessing acquired dispositions, particularly competences. Indeed, he claims that knowing that depends on knowing how, for, among other reasons, if we did not know how to seek truths, we should have none to know.

Dispositions play a large role in The Concept of Mind, for an understanding of their place in people’s doings tells strongly against the supposition that people could not act without the aid of a ghostly starter mechanism. Some of our dispositions are habits, things we do, and usually need to do, without thinking, such as walking over level ground, or coordinating the foot and hand movements required to shift the gears of a motor vehicle. Other of our dispositions are higher-order competences, such as skill in translating Latin prose, or playing the piano, or driving a car in heavy traffic. To know how to do something is to have learned how and not forgotten. To know how to do this or that is not necessarily to be exercising a competence at a given moment. Rather, someone who knows French is ready to engage in a broad range of doings – conversing in French, asking directions, reading signs, laughing at jokes, making jokes herself, and so on and so on – as occasions require. While determinable, a higher order competence is not determinate. We judge whether someone has a competence by how well she performs, by whether she can regulate her performances, correct and learn from her lapses, improve on her successes, and profit from the example of others. Her keeping her understanding of a French speech to herself is not a reason for regarding it as an essentially private mental act or occurrence, for the understanding depends first on her having followed public lessons intelligently, and passed public tests of her competence. Ryle adheres to the Wittgensteinian principle that a person’s mental life may be carried on in public, where it may be observed not only by others but noted by the person herself as well.

Ryle’s consideration of thinking is part of his consideration of intellect. We use ‘thinking’ at least to cover believing that this or that is so, to cover attending to what one is doing, and to cover pondering or searching for the solution to a practical problem or the answer to a theoretical question. Hence Ryle’s point that thinking, like work, is polymorphous: philosophers should not tie themselves to a single characterization of it. He treats thinking, or believing that something is so, as a disposition to do or say certain things, or to avoid doing or saying certain things, in accordance with the belief. As for thinking what one is doing, or paying attention to what one is doing, or attending to what one is doing, there are not two things going on, the doing and the thinking what one is doing; there is only one thing, the doing, but done in a certain way: with care, with a readiness to meet difficulties and attempt to overcome them, with a readiness to improve one’s technique, to capitalize on favourable opportunities and openings, and so on. In short, Ryle’s point is that attending to what one is doing is adverbial to the doing, as is not attending to what one is doing, or doing it carelessly, recklessly, and so on. Pondering is thinking done to solve problems that may range from thinking about how to fit a carpet into an oddly shaped room, to the more sophisticated thinking about how to build a theory. Ryle devoted a few pages of The Concept of Mind and many later papers to this topic. Pondering is first of all an activity, something that people do. It is not confined to using words. Composers may try out tunes by humming them aloud or in their heads, or by playing them on a piano. Architects may ponder with pencil sketches on paper, artists with paint strokes on canvas, and sculptors by kneading clay this way and that. Pondering cannot be a generalizable practice, for it must be carried on to suit its subject. Ryle found the highest order of pondering, theory building, difficult to characterize. He opposed the neat story told by epistemologists about the theory builder’s finding premises and stringing them together to make an argument that proves a conclusion. ‘Premise’, ‘conclusion’, ‘argument’ and ‘proof’ belong to the language of presenting a theory once it has been discovered. Ryle saw successful theory building as dependent on the theory builder’s many trials, testings and false starts as he sorts through possible answers to find the solution to his problem. The knack of thinking up and trying out possible solutions for a problem is at the heart of theory building. Perhaps Ryle’s best account of how the knack might be acquired is the analogy he draws with a boy’s learning to swim by following the directions and demonstrations of a coach. The boy swims when he applies the coach’s lessons to the movement of his arms and legs. In effect, the coach induces the boy to teach himself to swim. Once the boy learns to swim with the prescribed strokes, he can go on to teach himself new strokes, and perhaps even invent a few of his own. Thus Ryle connects the pondering involved in theory building with self-teaching, and suggests that the best teachers will develop a pupil’s knack for self-teaching.

In Dilemmas Ryle discusses the fatalist doctrine ‘What is was to be’, Achilles’ interminable effort to overtake the tortoise, pleasure, the world of science versus the everyday world, technical and non-technical concepts, perception, and formal and informal logic. For each topic, his aim is to show how disrespect for the limits of a concept’s usefulness, or disregard for how it fits with other concepts, can lead to intellectual confusion. He illustrates with his chosen examples how confusions induced by conceptual carelessness may be sorted out. But each such confusion is its own knot, and only trials and shortfalls will tell what methods will untie it. In that respect, Dilemmas may be as interesting for the moves that Ryle must have made off the page as for those he makes on it. He came to a better understanding of pleasure by shifting to a consideration of enjoying. But how many synonyms for ‘pleasure’ did he try before he hit on ‘enjoying’? He illuminated the supposed conflict between the world of science and the everyday world by considering the ways both a college student and the college auditor may talk of college events and neither contradict the other. But how many analogies did he try before he hit on that one?

Ryle was a wide-ranging student of philosophies, with more appetite, and even patience, for variety than most philosophers are granted. He familiarized himself with phenomenology and wrote about it seriously at a time when few English-speaking philosophers paid it any attention. He had a sustained interest in ancient philosophy which fertilized his own work, provided subjects for half a dozen papers, and led him to write Plato’s Progress, in which his thesis is that Plato was not a ‘static philosopher’. If Platonism equates with sticking to the theory of Forms forever, then Plato was not a Platonist. Rather he was an evolving thinker not to be identified with any single doctrine. To sustain the thesis, Ryle offered reconsiderations of the order of events in Plato’s life, of the order in which Plato composed his dialogues, and of Plato’s relation to his contemporaries. Not surprisingly, given the scanty and controversial materials on which conclusions about Plato and his work must be based, Plato’s Progress met with strong criticism from professional classicists. Nor can a friendly, but unschooled, reader find much comfort in what seems to be an assemblage of musings, perhaps preparatory for a book, but not yet a book. Fortunately Ryle did produce the book, or at least a hefty sketch for it, in his ‘Plato’ article in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967). It is a masterful introduction for a reading programme in the dialogues; just what a good tutor might say to his pupils as they begin their studies. Ryle relates the dialogues to Plato’s life, and gives directions for following various topics through the sequence of dialogues. One of the topics is, of course, knowledge, and following Plato through his pursuit of the concept over the whole course of the dialogues, one can see with Ryle that Plato was indeed not a static philosopher.

On Ryle’s map of the disciplines, philosophy is given a territory separate from both formal logic and the sciences. Philosophers attend to what we can and cannot say, and sort out the confusions and boundary line disputes that arise where one of our modes of discourse encroaches on another. Thus he denies to philosophers two of their traditional feats: transcendental leaps to the ideal entities of a world above the everyday world, and descendental dives to the scientific minutiae of a world below the everyday world. The pain these denials caused old-guard philosophers may be measured by the outpouring of opposition that Ryle’s work aroused. (See, for example, A.J. Ayer, Clarity Is Not Enough, 1963.) As for any this-worldly, new guard that Ryle’s drum may have mustered, its strength is yet to be counted.


‘Systematically Misleading Expressions’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 32 (1931–2).

Philosophical Arguments [inaugural lecture] (Oxford, 1945).

The Concept of Mind (1949).

Dilemmas (Cambridge, 1954).

Plato’s Progress (Cambridge, 1966).

Collected Papers, vol. 1, Critical Essays, vol. 2, Collected Essays 1929–68 (1971).

On Thinking , ed. K. Kolenda (Oxford, 1979).

Aspects of Mind , ed. Rene Meyer (Oxford, 1993).

Other Relevant Works

John Locke on the Human Understanding (Oxford, 1933).

‘The Nature of Thought’ [review of Brand Blanshard], Philosophy vol. 15 (1940), pp. 324–9.

‘Epistemology’, Concise Encyclopaedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, ed. J.O. Urmson (1960).

A Rational Animal ’ [lecture] (1962).

‘Plato’, in Paul Edwards (ed.), Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York, 1967), vol. 6, pp. 314–33 .

Further Reading

Anon., ‘Gilbert Ryle’, Revue Internationale de Philosophie, no. 1 (March 2003).

Ayer, A.J., ‘Philosophy and Language’, Clarity is not Enough, ed. H.D. Lewis, pp. 401–28 (1963).

Ayer, A.J., Part of my Life (1977).

Kolenda, Konstantin, ‘Recovery of the Human’, Rice University Studies, vol. 58 (1972), pp. 89–103.

Kolenda, Konstantin, (ed.), Gilbert Ryle on Thinking, with an Introduction by G.J. Warnock (Oxford, 1979).

Mabbott, John, Oxford Memories (Oxford, 1986).

Magee, Brian, (ed.), ‘Conversation with Gilbert Ryle’, Modern British Philosophy, (1971).

Meyer, René, Thinking and Perceiving (Mukleneuk, South Africa, 1975).

Palmer, Anthony, ‘Categories of Linguistic Expression’, in Concept and Object (1988), chap. 5.

Sprague, Elmer, Persons and their Minds (Boulder, Colorado, 1999).

Urmson, J. O., ‘Gilbert Ryle’, in Paul Edwards (ed.), Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York, 1967), vol. 7, pp. 269–71 .

Warnock, G.J., ‘Categories and Dilemmas’, English Philosophy Since 1900 (Oxford, 1958), chap. 7.

Warnock, G.J., ‘Gilbert Ryle’s Editorship’, Mind, vol. 85 (1976), pp. 47–56.

White, R., Philosophy of Mind (1967).

Wood, P. and George Pitcher (eds), Ryle: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York, 1960).