February 1, 2005
1. The ‘official doctrine’. So far, we have considered Descartes’ ‘first-person’
approach to the mind, an approach that starts with one’s own mind and with our
own, first-person reflection on it. But
starting this week, we’ll consider ‘third-person approaches’ that start in
the objective world, not with the individual.
There are good reasons for going for third-person approaches in their own
right, and thinking aout the diference can show us some problems with
first-person approaches like Descartes’.
Ryle’s view, in particular, is a linguistic approach.
It starts by asking about the meaning of the language that we use to
describe mental and physical life, and suggests that if we pay attention to the
way this language works, we can understand the mind better.
In particular, we can see that the Cartesian, dualistic picture is false,
and is based on a large-scale misunderstanding of the language of the mental.
Ryle’s main goal is to dispute the “official doctrine” of Cartesian dualism. He will begin by characterizing it, and then he will point out some big problems with it. Ryle describes the official doctrine as follows:
“With the doubtful exceptions of
idiots and infants in arms every human being has both a body and a mind.
Some would prefer to say that every human being is both a body and a
mind. His body and his mind are
ordinarily harnessed together, but after the death of the body his mind may
continue to exist and function.” (p. 32)
This is the view that Ryle will also call the view of the
“ghost in the machine”. He will
also call it the “double life theory.”
It holds that our lives are divided between two separate streams or
strata, two separate “biographies” – mind and body – that go along in
parallel but are not descriptions of the same thing.
Ryle goes on to describe the implications of the standard
view, in a way that is very reminiscent of Descartes. According to the official doctrine, “human bodies are in space
and are subject to … mechanical laws.”
But minds are not in space. The
events that happen with the body are public: that means that anyone can
see them or know them. But the
events that happen to the mind are private: only I can know them for
sure. I know what is happening in
my own mind by a special ability, that is something like visual seeing but also
different: this ability is called “introspection” or inward-looking.
Again, the life of the mind is characterized as the “inner”
life and the life of the body as the “outer” life.
What happens in the “inner realm” of the mind is known immediately
and directly. And we can be
immediately certain of what happens in the inner realm, with a certainty
greater than anything we can know of the outer.
2. Problems with the ‘official doctrine’.
This official view, dualism, is very familiar to us, and it has become
part of our everyday language and ordinary thinking through the influence of
metaphors and turns of phrase. But
there are various problems with it. One
big problem is the one we have already discussed: the problem of causality, of
how mind causes things to happen in the body and how body causes things to
happen in the mind. Ryle thinks
that is already sufficient to show us that the official view is probably false. But there is also another problem, concerning our ways of
knowing about other minds.
Suppose I hope that I will pass my test.
According to the official view, I can know my own mental state
immediately and with certainty. But suppose you hope that you will pass your test.
According to the official view, this is a private mental state in your
mind, and I have no way of knowing it directly.
I can observe your behavior; perhaps I see you pacing back and forth, and
hear you saying again and again ‘I hope I will pass the test!’.
But for the dualist, all of this is just behavior: I still can’t
know for sure what is going on in your mind.
In a very real sense, I can never know what anyone else is thinking,
feeling, or sensing. All I get are
signs, which may or may not correspond to anything:
“The verbs, nouns, and adjectives, with which in ordinary
life we describe the wits, characters and higher-grade performances of the
people with whom we have to do, are required to be construed as signifying
special episodes in their secret histories, or else as signifying tendencies for
such episodes to occur. When
someone is described as knowing, believing, or guessing something, as hoping,
dreading, intending or shirking something, as designing this or being amused at
that, these verbs are supposed to denote the occurrence of specific
modifications in his (to us) occult stream of consciousness.”
On the official doctrine, the mental lives of others are in
themselves hidden to me, hidden as if behind a veil. The things people do or say can, at best, be signs of these
things. In fact, if dualism is
true, it is impossible for me even to know that anyone – besides myself –
actually has a mind at all. Because
all that shows up to me is the behavior of their bodies, they could always be
faking it, or just carrying out actions mechanically.
“Yet the explanation given presupposed that one person
could in principle never recognize the difference between the rational and
irrational utterances issuing from other bodies, since he could never get access
to the postulated immaterial causes of some of the utterances.
Save for the doubtful exception of himself, he could never tell the
difference between a man and a robot.” (p.
If dualism is correct, then it is at least possible that
everyone else, besides myself, actually has no mind at all: that everyone else
is a robot, with no mind or conscious life at all.
There is no way for me to exclude this, since all I have knowledge of is
the “public” side of everyone else’s life.
3. The Official Doctrine is a category-mistake.
According to Ryle, the official view is a mistake.
But he also wants to show how it arises, and how it has come to be so
influential. According to Ryle,
this particular category-mistake comes from misunderstanding the way that we
talk about ourselves and understand other people.
“My destructive purpose is to show that a family of
radical category-mistakes is the source of the double-life theory.
The representation of a person as a ghost mysteriously ensconced in a
machine derives from this argument. Because,
as is true, a person’s thinking, feeling and purposive doing cannot be
descried solely in the idioms of physics, chemistry and physiology, therefore
they must be described in counterpart idioms.
As the human body is a complex organized unit, so the human mind must be
another complex organized unit, though one made of a different sort of stuff and
with a different sort of structure.” (p.
According to Ryle, Descartes and his contemporaries already
knew how to understand bodies in general, and the human body in particular, as
mechanical systems made of matter, governed by physical laws.
They saw the language of physics and chemistry could be used to describe
a great deal of what goes on in the world.
But they also saw that the language of physics and chemistry alone could
not describe people’s beliefs, hopes, intentions, motivations, etc.
So they thought that the mind must be another kind of stuff, in addition
to the body and connected to it causally.
But this is a mistake.
It is like the mistake Ryle describes of a student who goes to the
university, and sees all the individual buildings, stadiums, and libraries
(etc.) and then asks where the university itself is. The student is making a logical mistake: he doesn’t see
that the building, stadiums, etc. and the university itself are not items on the
same level. Rather, the university
is made up of these buildings, stadiums, etc.
In the same way, the person who thinks that we are made up of both a mind
and a body is making a confusion of levels. He is describing two things that are on different logical
levels as if they were on the same level, and mutually interacted.
For Ryle, when we describe someone’s “mind” or mental life, we
are really just describing things that happen to them or that they do – things
that happen in the physical world, and not in some other, ghostly world of the
mind. This does not mean that
we are really speaking the language of physics when we talk about other
people’s minds or behavior. But it does mean that we are not describing some separate,
shadowy realm behind the scenes.
This has the effect of solving the problem of “other minds” that troubles the dualist. For on Ryle’s view, to say that you are hoping you passed your test is not to say something about your mysterious and occult mental states, but just something about the way you are actually behaving or likely to behave. There is now no special problem about how I know this: I know it in just the same way I know anything about things in the world, by perception and observation. Of course, my observation can be wrong: but this is generally true with observations. Instead of construing the phrase “he hopes he passed his test” as referring to a mysterious, obscure mental object, Ryle construes it as referring to the ordinary ways people behave: the behavioral criteria for hoping, wanting, etc. Construed this way, our knowledge of “other minds” is no more mysterious than our knowledge of anything else we know about the world outside ourselves. It is just part of our ordinary ways of understanding and operating with the world, a world that includes, beyond ourselves, other people as well.