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).