On Thinking 
by Gilbert Ryle, edited by Konstantin Kolenda.
Blackwell, 160 pp., £7.95
Show More
Show More

Gilbert Ryle, who died in 1976, was for many years a professor of philosophy in Oxford. He was a man of genially military appearance, with a knobbly, cubic head; rather soldierly in speech and manner, he punctuated his sentences with an abrupt half-cough, highly characteristic of him and much imitated. He was an exceptionally nice man, friendly, generous, uncondescending, unpretentious, and, for a well-known professional philosopher, startlingly free from vanity. He affected an amiable Philistinism, which to some degree was also genuine: ‘no ear for tunes,’ he was disposed to say, if music was mentioned. He was often amusing. He once said of a philosophically-disposed senior Tory politician that he stood like a light out to sea, firmly beckoning ships on to the rocks.

He gave very sensible advice, telling his pupils, for instance, not to do a PhD unless they had to, since it was ‘better to write a short good book later than a bad long book earlier’. He also gave excellent advice in philosophy, and communicated some good philosophical habits. His example was borne along on a certain anti-theoretical breeziness, but he showed philosophy to be a serious subject, and he conveyed a sound contempt for ‘isms’, schools, and mechanical party loyalties. He told a story, which he claimed to be true – and he was a truthful man – to the effect that when he had lectured in Germany after the war, a young man came up and said: ‘Doctor Ryle, I admired your lecture, and should like to join your school: unfortunately I am a Kantian.’

I first encountered Ryle myself as a student, around the time that he published his major book The Concept of Mind in 1950. The book had considerable influence, creating both a style and a focus of discussion. It was a professedly anti-Cartesian tract, aimed at ‘the ghost in the machine’, and against theories which represented the mental life as a hidden immaterial process duplicating or paralleling observable doings (as Ryle was disposed to put it). In pushing against such models, it inclined, to put it mildly, in a behaviourist direction. It seemed to suggest that there was no conscious inner life at all. This impression was not intended by Ryle, and was denied by him, but it was encouraged both by the general style of the argument and by the briskly commonsensical tone in which the mental life was treated. Along with the philosophical aim of reducing, so far as possible, the hidden inner to the obvious outer, Ryle seemed to have a more general project of replacing the less workaday with the more workaday.

Ryle had started out, in the late 1920s, with an interest in Phenomenology. He even wrote a quite favourable review of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit when it first appeared. There are historical connections between these interests and some features of The Concept of Mind, but by the time he wrote that book his methods had become ‘linguistic’, and his style one of those that constituted what has been called ‘linguistic philosophy’. He dealt in uses of words, and his arguments rested heavily on considerations of what did and did not make sense. Since he wrote in English, it was a question of what did and did not make sense in English, but he always dissociated himself from the minute interest in fine points of usage which some of his colleagues displayed. He claimed that any sound argument of the kind that he used reached below the level of a particular natural language, and could be translated. The Concept of Mind has indeed experienced, and perhaps survived, translation into other languages, most recently – very recently – into French.

The idea that the results transcended any local language was expressed in The Concept of Mind in terms of a notion of categories, which allowed Ryle to say that certain terms stood for dispositions, or processes, or occurrences, and so forth; and he thought that the errors underlying the dualistic view of mind stemmed in good part from what he called ‘category mistakes’ – in particular, from a tendency to interpret as a hidden or inner occurrence something that was correctly understood as an overt or behavioural disposition. Many of Ryle’s results took the form of allocations of concepts to categories, a style of conclusion memorably parodied by a student at the time in the dictum: ‘shop-lifting is not a feat of strength.’

In later years, Ryle became suspicious of the category machinery, feeling, as he was disposed to feel with any technical machinery, that it created its own problems. By the time he wrote the pieces collected in this volume, he had largely given it up. This book gathers together seven papers and one review all concerned with the topic of thinking, and also a fragment about another philosopher’s views of Wittgenstein. Three of the papers have not been published before; all the papers form part of the work Ryle had done for a book on thinking which he was planning when he died.

The central question, variously and often obliquely approached, is one that he felt that he had left unsolved in The Concept of Mind: how to characterise that sort of thinking which consists in silent meditation or reflection, the activity, as Ryle constantly puts it, of Rodin’s Penseur. The Concept of Mind had effectively attacked any idea that mental activity typically takes such a form, or that intelligent action is action monitored by such an internal process. The book gave no account, however, of what that activity itself might be, and indeed left little room for its existence. In pursuit of this question, Ryle takes up such subjects as talking to oneself, teaching oneself, and thinking as soliloquy.

The apparatus of categories did earlier provide some rationale, if an obscure and insecure one, for the linguistic arguments. If one thinks that there is a basic, universal framework of categories, then it is a sensible procedure, by examining language, to try to relate various concepts to that framework. In the absence of that apparatus, however, Ryle’s linguistic arguments are scarcely tied to anything, and it is a persistent failing of these essays that it is quite unclear why given linguistic considerations are supposed to count for particular philosophical conclusions. Many of the arguments here fail, because they rest on no coherent conception of the relation between mental phenomena and the language that describes them.

Thus, supporting a conclusion of Zeno Vendler’s (a conclusion contrary to a long philosophical tradition) that knowledge is not a kind of belief – for example, true and well-founded belief – Ryle cites the fact that one can know what … , where … , whether … etc, but one cannot believe what … etc. But this does not prove anything at all. Leaving aside the important area of practical knowledge – and the tradition has not supposed that practical knowledge is a species of belief – the answer to Ryle’s point will simply be that if someone knows, for instance, who stole the jewels, then he knows of some person that that person stole the jewels: that is to say, he knows that something, and this knowledge may indeed be a species of belief. The grammars of ‘know’ and ‘believe’ are indeed different, but more than that is needed to lead one to this sort of conclusion about knowledge and belief.

Other arguments in the book are just too blunt and brisk. One of the more startling conclusions that Ryle claims is that it makes no sense to assert or deny that someone thinks in English, say, or French – or in words, come to that. If that is a truth, it is a surprising one. But the only argument Ryle offers, so far as I can see, is that an orator considering words for a speech, or a translator for a translation, does not think ‘in’ the words he is considering for his purpose, but thinks about them. No general conclusion can follow from that: he may think about those words in other words. There is probably a truth lurking in what Ryle says, but his considerations do not bring it to light.

Ryle believed in arguments in philosophy. The tiny fragment about Wittgenstein interestingly, and convincingly, makes out that Wittgenstein also did so, though it has been said that in his later work he did not (Wittgenstein seems sometimes to say it himself). Ryle shared also with Wittgenstein, and no doubt in part derived from him, certain other things. One was the important belief that the philosophy of mind had to get beyond both dualism and behaviourism: in these essays Ryle can be seen explicitly trying to do that, as he had not successfully done in The Concept of Mind.

Another thing he shared was a hatred, not of argument, but of philosophical theory. This distrust of theory was typical of much linguistic philosophy of the 1950s; with it there went a rejection of the idea that philosophy could be continuous with theoretical interests of the sciences. Ryle was open to many new philosophical ideas, but these limiting conceptions he sustained into a later time. When he found a disposition to theorise joined to an admiration for Cartesian notions of innate knowledge, every hackle was raised, and the only intemperate piece here is that in which, disagreeing now with Vendler, he attacks Chomsky for his well-known view that a child’s acquisition of language can be explained only by postulating a determinate innate mechanism for acquiring it, a mechanism which, Chomsky thinks, it is appropriate to call innate knowledge. It is a deep idea, and a powerful and illuminating debate has occurred about it. It is sad to find Ryle bluffly dismissing the whole business with a philistine diagnosis, clearly wrong, of why Chomsky thought that there was anything in it.

Ryle had a very distinctive style, marked by long lists of words, particularly adverbs, and by an epigrammatic turn. He seems to have developed the style without reflection, but he became very conscious of himself as a stylist, and the mannerisms eventually took over, and carried him at times beyond the bounds of self-parody. The most exaggerated example here is probably the first piece, in which he writes, for instance:

If Le Penseur is trying to compose a melody, then he is very likely to be humming notes and sequences of notes, aloud, under his breath or in his head – not just humming them, of course, but humming them experimentally, suspiciously, cancellingly, rehearsingly, recapitulatingly, and so on. These very notes and note sequences that he hums composingly, he might, by chance, have hummed gramophonically and with his mind on something else. Or if Le Penseur is trying to render an English poem into French, while he is unlikely to be humming notes and note-sequences, he is likely instead to be murmuring them, of course, experimentally, suspiciously, cancellingly, rehearsingly, recapitulatingly …

The mannerisms seem to have provided a substitute for the theoretical backing which he was so reluctant to give his arguments. He taught his pupils, in the most honourable and impressive way, to sift argument from rhetoric, but his own philosophy came increasingly to depend on an idiosyncratic rhetoric. Having given up the only account he had of the relations between linguistic observation and philosophical subject-matter, he was left only with common-sense and the resources of a style: a style which, to some extent, in its consciously dry jokes, expressed him, but which, under pressure of what it had to provide, was driven at the extreme to a kind of compulsive incantation which was far from the nature of this clipped, controlled man.

I knew Gilbert Ryle quite well, and liked him very much. As many others do, I owe him a lot, both personally and intellectually. I am afraid that those who did not know him, although they will get an overpowering sense of a certain style, will not find the real quality of his intellectual presence in these mannered, empty and unconvincing essays. They are late work, and he left better and perhaps more lasting material in pages of The Concept of Mind and in earlier papers. But it may be that, more generally, it was the activity rather than the product that mattered. I do not think that that would have surprised or upset him.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences