Saturday, 21 May 2016

Ryle’s The Concept of Mind, Chapter 2 – Knowing How, Knowing That

In this chapter Ryle seeks to convince us that there is no Ghost in the Machine. The intuition that there is some mental ‘inner’ precursor to external actions is wrong. “…When we describe people as exercising qualities of mind, we are not referring to occult episodes which their overt acts and utterances are effects; we are referring to those overt acts and utterances themselves” (Ryle 2000, p26).

Ryle seeks to move us from thinking about an inner mental life, some of which leads to or initiates external behaviour. Instead, the view (as I understand it) that he wants us to develop is that our mental life is either expressed in a way observable to an external observer, or in a way that is not. When we talk we are vocalising our thoughts, and when we merely think (in words at any rate) we are doing the same activity a talking but not vocalising it. The introduction of the Category Mistake in the previous chapter was intended to prepare us for this move. Ryle gave an example of the visitor to Oxford University seeing the colleges and libraries, but wondering where the university is. Public thought (e.g. talking to someone) and private thought (e.g. talking to yourself without vocalising) are like the colleges and libraries, and the mind is the university.

Knowing How and Knowing That

Ryle draws a distinction between knowing how and knowing that. This distinction appears to map onto declarative and procedural knowledge.

Misunderstandings and Feints

“Misunderstanding is a by-product of knowing how. Only a person who is at least a partial master of the Russian tongue can make the wrong sense of a Russian expression” (Ryle 2000, p58). Feinting also requires knowing how. It is the “art of exploiting”, or provoking, your opponent’s premature conclusion of what course of action you are following (Ibid.).

Saturday, 23 April 2016


"They ridiculed questions, for fear it would make their ignorance plain"

The Judging Eye, Scott Bakker

Ryle's The Concept of Mind, Chapter 1 - Descartes' Myth

The Official Doctrine

In Chapter 1 Ryle outlines the ‘Official Doctrine’ of the Mind, that mind and body are distinct (substance dualism). Bodies are in space and time, and are ‘mechanical’ (roughly, they are causal systems). Bodies are public, in that their activities can be scrutinised by other parties. Minds on the other hand are in time, but belong in a kind of ‘mental space’ that is linked to the relevant body but isolated from other things in the physical universe. We are blind to the minds of others, and take it on a sort of faith that other people also have minds as we cannot observe them directly.

We have a privileged access to our own thoughts and feelings, and access that nobody else enjoys. This privileged access gives us a direct appreciation, we sort of watch and observe them. While we might be wrong or uncertain about things that occur in the external world, we cannot be mistaken about the happenings that we observe in our internal world.

Ryle calls this the Official Doctrine, as it was the dominant and explicitly/implicitly held belief about minds at the time the book was published in 1949. Ryle refers to the official doctrine “abusively” as the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine.

Can you tell Ryle isn’t a fan of the Official Doctrine?

(Another wonderful turn of phrase about the Official Doctrine is Daniel Dennett’s ‘Cartesian Theatre’).

Category Mistakes

Ryle introduces the idea of a ‘category mistake’, whereby someone has incorrectly categorised an entity and then proceeded to treat it as though it belonged to that category. His famous example is of a visitor to Oxford or Cambridge university being shown various aspects of the university, e.g. various colleges and libraries, but then asking “But where is the university?”. The visitor has committed a category mistake, he has already seen the university (or at least parts of it) but is expecting something more because he considers universities to belong to the same category of things as colleges and libraries. Another example is the Home Office and the British Constitution both being ‘institutions’ but being radically different. Or expecting the ‘average family’ to be a similar sort of entity to an actual family (you can’t actually live next door to the average family).