Gilbert Ryle, Reconnecting Mind and Body

Just after World War II and near the halfway mark of the 20th century, philosopher Gilbert Ryle published The Concept of Mind, a book widely credited with ending the philosophical division between physical and mental realms of reality.

Ryle was one of 10 children born into a prosperous family in Brighton, his father a physician keenly interested in philosophy and astronomy. At age 23 Ryle graduated with first-class honors at Oxford University and immediately became a lecturer, then a tutor there – an Oxford don. Ryle Christ_Church_College_Meadow_Building 2A lifelong bachelor, he devoted himself fully to philosophy and to his students. Among colleagues he proved sociable, conversational, and entertaining. He befriended Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom he greatly admired, and both advanced the concept of ordinary language philosophy.[1]

The division of things into mental and physical emerged early in the course of human communication. Shamans in primitive cultures attributed special powers to words and names, at first audible and later written. According to Julian Jaynes (described in an earlier blog), humankind became “conscious” – a term Jaynes used loosely – sometime after the composition of Homer’s Iliad and concurrent with most of the writing of the Hebrew Bible. In the New Testament St. Paul contrasted flesh and spirit. Descartes made the division between the mind and the body explicit, although he struggled to show how the two communicate.

In The Concept of Mind, Ryle argues that trying to establish special categories of mental objects apart from physical ones just doesn’t work. He insists that one can accurately describe mental processes by identifying the referents of ordinary language, without the need for a separate typology. Because we learn that events in the physical world obey “mechanical” laws (today we would refer to physical laws), we tend to slip easily into the mistake of describing events in the mind in a “para-mechanical” manner. Such para-mechanical descriptions borrowed from the physical world fail.

It’s important to note that Ryle and even his student Daniel Dennett acknowledge that an individual person has some degree of privileged access to thoughts in her own mind – that is, representations of the world occurring in her brain. Dennett once foolishly tried to deny the usefulness of the personal pronoun “I” (see earlier blog). Ryle is more circumspect, finding “perplexities in the notion of ‘I’,” but recognizing that I-sentences have meaning. Therefore, he agrees at least to some extent with what Heidigger called dasein, my particular place in the world.

In summary fashion Ryle denies the validity of “Freedom of the Will.” However, let’s note that Schopenhauer did likewise (described here), yet framed his entire philosophy around the will. Ryle’s denial of free will appears less than convincing when he turns to speak of motives and of the ability to change one’s habits –

Any act done from a motive can be appraised as relatively sagacious or stupid, and vice versa. Actions done from sheer force of habit are not characterized as sensible or silly, though of course the agent may show sense or silliness in forming, or in not eradicating, the habit.[2]

Ryle continues to regard both intentional acts and formation/persistence of habits as either wise or stupid. Like Schopenhauer, he does not regard motives as causes in a physical sense. Yet he states clearly that this does “not invalidate the distinctions which we all quite properly draw between voluntary and involuntary actions and between strong-willed and weak-willed persons.”[3] Accordingly, he gives the following notion of culpability:

When we say that someone could have avoided committing a lapse or error, or that it was his fault that he committed it, we mean that he knew how to do the right thing, or was competent to do so, but did not exercise his knowledge or competence. He was not trying, or not trying hard enough.[4]

That is not really much different from Augustine:

Whatever the cause of the will might be, if the will cannot resist it, it is no sin to yield to it; but if the will can resist it, let it do so, and there will be no sin. What if the cause of the will deceives the will and catches it off guard? Then let the will guard against deception. What if the deception is so great that the will cannot guard against it? Then there is no sin, for who sins by doing what he cannot guard against? But there is sin, so it is possible to guard against it.[5]

Ryle would assert that the will cannot be considered an entity separate from the person, including the body – that is, the will is not an entity separate from who I am or who you are. Ryle retains, however, a notion of what willing does, because ordinary sensible people have such a notion. Actually I think Augustine might agree. Notice that Augustine does not in the passage above commit to any specific “cause of the will.”

Ryle may have demolished the concept of mind as a separate entity, but parents stubbornly continue to say to unruly children, “I have a mind to punish you!” This and other inconvenient facts leads some of Ryle’s followers simply to explain: The mind is the brain. Or as described by J. J. C. Smart, the mind is identical to the brain in terms of its states and processes.

A current adaptation of mind-brain identity is functionalism, which is often described by analogy to the software of a computer. The software can perform the same functions whether it is implemented on a mechanical device of sufficient complexity, a vacuum tube computer that fills a room or two, an assembly of integrated circuits that you hold in your hand, or the complex interconnections of neurons in a brain. By this account the brain is a bit more than the mind, since brain retains the biochemistry of a living organism. Because the brain also includes in its structure subroutines and memory, the brain in its more important role embodies the software as well. The software role of the brain performs every function of the mind. That is functionalism.

Not surprisingly, those who subscribe to functionalism generally describe themselves as materialists. Smart suggests that a better term than ‘materialist’ is ‘physicalist,’ since “one might be a materialist about mind but nevertheless hold that there are entities referred to in physics that are not happily described as ‘material’.”[6]

Gilbert Ryle in The Concept of Mind stresses repeatedly the importance of asking the right questions. Let’s ask, then, does the crucial question concern materialism (or physicalism) versus immaterialism? Is the important question about mind substance versus physical substance? Is it about para-mechanical theories versus mechanical theories? Is it about spiritual versus material, or nonphysical versus physical?

My answer to all of these is No. Instead the question concerns how we get knowledge about things. Most tellingly, is it public knowledge, reproducible and available to anyone, or is it private, experienced by only myself or by some group less than all and often not reproducible? This question asks: In what dome of experience and response does the event occur?

The private-public distinction should not be confused with elite versus common. A common person may hold, for example, religious beliefs which a member of the elite does not share, and yet those beliefs of the common person clearly fall into the category of private rather than public knowledge.

Moreover, the private kind of knowledge, that which is held by less than all, may comprise in variegate assembly a larger and more interesting corpus than the whole of public, scientific knowledge.

One short-sighted way to describe the distinction is to say that private knowledge, defined in this way, is opinion, whereas public, scientific knowledge is fact. This sort of statement usually comes from people who for personal and private reasons have devoted their lives to science. It reflects their choice to embrace “fact,” which they study, as having greater value than opinion.

However, immediate and particular events that engender private knowledge in a person are usually facts, not conjectures. Furthermore, private knowledge has an aspect of public exposure: We all agree that immediate and particular events do happen repeatedly in our lives. It is the content of those events that differs and may not repeat. What is the content of those events? Facts, hard and disparate. The categorization of private knowledge as opinion and public knowledge as fact simply does not hold.

Science aspires to further knowledge in the most public of all communities, but it does not reach its lofty goal. This failure has less to do with the ability and determination of scientists than it does with a fundamental problem of self-reference.

Science is conducted among the magnificent community of persons who agree to require agreement for knowledge. Thus science is conducted among those who agree to agree. The scientific community excludes those who agree to disagree as well as those who won’t agree on much at all.

When those who require agreement claim that all other forms of knowledge are meaningless (this claim is the basis of positivism), we should recognize that the claim arises in a group much less than the whole public. In this respect all knowledge is private – or shall we say, all knowledge arises in a continuum from private to public. The far boundaries of the continuum on both ends fade into fantasy.

What shall we say, then, about a decision of the will? Certainly it is private knowledge. Is it a fact? When it is put into action, it becomes a fact. It occurs in time. When it is held in reserve, as a potentiality ready to respond to circumstances, it is what Gilbert Ryle calls a disposition.

Why introduce an extra term – the will – into the discussion? Ryle denies the usefulness of the term, but I disagree. My will is the most important designator of who I am, what I do, how I respond. I can say the same about we-groups in which I participate. Our will is the most important designator of who we are, what we do, how we respond.

In the physical sense, things are known through mechanism. What then are the mechanisms associated with the will? This is a false question. It succumbs to the para-mechanical view that Ryle rejects. I reject it, too.

“If there is no mechanism, then it’s not real,” asserts the physicalist. The will, lacking a mechanism, must therefore be unreal. Several hundred years ago, those who followed Leibniz would have said the will lacks Sufficient Reason. Now they say it lacks mechanism.

In the same chapter in which he disputes the usefulness of the term “will,” Ryle devotes the last section to “The Bogy of Mechanism.” Here are his words:

I have spoken of Mechanism as a bogy. The fear that theoretically minded persons have felt lest everything should turn out to be explicable by mechanical laws is a baseless fear. And it is baseless not because the contingency which they dread happens not to be impending, but because it makes no sense to speak of such a contingency. Physicists may one day have found the answers to all physical questions, but not all questions are physical questions. The laws that they have found and will find may, in one sense of the metaphorical verb, govern everything that happens, but they do not ordain everything that happens. Indeed they do not ordain anything that happens.[7]

Two more quotes from Ryle may help to clarify his meaning:

Words like ‘explanation’, ‘law’, ‘rule’, ‘principle’, ‘why’, ‘because’, ‘cause’, ‘govern’, ‘necessitate’, etc., have a range of typically different senses. Mechanism seemed to be a menace because it was assumed that the use of these terms in mechanical theories is their sole use; that all ‘why’ questions are answerable in terms of the laws of motion. In fact all ‘why’ questions of one type are perhaps answerable in those terms and no ‘why’ questions of other types are answerable merely in those terms.[8]

Ryle concludes –

The discoveries of the physical sciences no more rule out life, sentience, purpose or intelligence from presence in the world than do the rules of grammar extrude style or logic from prose.[9]

Although the will lacks any mechanism, it may help to characterize the will, or more specifically effects of the will, among categories of experience. Here I shall turn to a phrase borrowed from Paul Tournier, whose book, The Meaning of Persons, still ranks as one of the most influential in my life. Tournier spoke of “the unique fact.” Effects of the will are unique facts.

Ryle Oatbran omelet 2

Of course there are many ‘unique facts’ in our lives. You did not have a spinach oatbran omelet garnished with ham and cheddar for breakfast as I did on December 19, 2015, in a certain room of a house in Durham, North Carolina. Too bad for you!

There is a discernible track of physical causation for almost all ‘unique facts.’ Almost all. But there is a world of difference between all and almost all. The physicalists declare that all facts have physical causation. Yet we can attest to at least one unique fact that lacks physical causation:

  1. The world exists.

By this statement I mean not only that the laws of physics in the universe (or multiverse) exist, but also that something has happened to instantiate those laws, to “breathe fire into the equations” in the words of Stephen Hawking. It is logically impossible that physical laws can explain either the existence of physical laws or their instantiation.

From my personal experience I am going to add a second primordial unique fact:

  1. I find myself alive and engaged with the world in a particular time and place and under particular circumstances.

How about you? Would you consider making a similar kind of statement?

Fact #2 is what Martin Heidigger called dasein. Paul Tournier called it recognition of la personne. Arthur Schopenhauer gave the name Vorstellung to these two facts together, which constitute the presentation of the world to the Subject.

Effects of the will, or the choices we make, can be acknowledged in the same way that we acknowledge these 2 inescapable, inexplicable unique facts. We do not understand why the world exists or why we move in it. Yet we acknowledge these facts. Likewise we shall not say that we understand the will, even our own will, but we can acknowledge the effects of the will.[10] The effects of the will make no less a contribution to knowledge than the results of physical causes.

Recognizing that decisions of the will belong to the same category of experience as the world and its presentation, Arthur Schopenhauer throughout his life’s work remained remarkably consistent with the goal chosen while he was still a student:

We demand and rightly demand that Metaphysic should give support to Ethics: and now arises the difficult problem to show that, contrary to all experience, the physical order of things depends upon a moral one, and to find out a connection between the force which by acting according to the eternal laws of nature, gives the world stability, and the morality which has its seat in the human breast….[11]

Gilbert Ryle was right. There is no duality of experience. The world is both will and presentation.


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Header image:  The world and my place in it – mountains in western U.S., family photo. Oxford University, Christ Church College Meadow Building, by Bernard Gagnon (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Breakfast in Durham, family photo.

[1] Tanney, Julia, “Gilbert Ryle”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <; accessed 5/28/2017.

[2] Ryle, G. The Concept of Mind. Hutchinson’s University Library, London, 1949. From the Kindle edition, New University of Chicago Press 2002, location 2148.

[3] Ibid. Location 1285.

[4] Ibid. Location 1412.

[5] Augustine. On Free Choice of the Will, transl. Williams, T. Hackett, Indianopolis, 1993, p. 105.

[6] Smart, J. J. C., “The Mind/Brain Identity Theory”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =, accessed 12/26/2015.

[7] Ryle, G. The Concept of Mind. Kindle location 1523.

[8] Ibid. Location 1566.

[9] Ibid. Location 1575.

[10] That is, we shall not say that we understand the will in a para-mechanical sense.

[11] Schopenhauer, A. On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, pp. 372-374.


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