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Gilbert Ryle
Portrait by Rex Whistler
Born 19 August 1900
Brighton, England
Died 6 October 1976 (aged 76)
Whitby, England
Alma mater The Queen's College, Oxford

Gilbert Ryle (1900–1976) was a British philosopher.[4] He was a representative of the generation of British ordinary language philosophers who shared Ludwig Wittgenstein's approach to philosophical problems,[5] and is principally known for his critique of Cartesian dualism, for which he coined the phrase "the ghost in the machine". Some of his ideas in the philosophy of mind have been called "behaviourist". Ryle's best-known book is The Concept of Mind (1949), in which he writes that the "general trend of this book will undoubtedly, and harmlessly, be stigmatised as 'behaviourist'."[6] Having engaged in detailed study of the works of the philosophers Bernard Bolzano, Franz Brentano, Alexius Meinong, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger, Ryle suggested that the book instead "could be described as a sustained essay in phenomenology, if you are at home with that label."[7]


Ryle was born in Brighton, England, on 19 August 1900, and grew up in an environment of learning. His father, Reginald John Ryle, was a Brighton doctor, a generalist who had interests in philosophy and astronomy, and passed on to his children an impressive library; he was a son of John Charles Ryle, first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool.[8][9] The Ryles were Cheshire landed gentry; Gilbert's elder brother, John Alfred Ryle, of Barkhale, Sussex, became head of the family. Their ancestor John Ryle, a silk merchant, was a friend of the theologian and evangelist John Wesley; members of this Ryle family include the silk manufacturer ('father of the United States silk industry') John Ryle and his nephew and business partner William. Gilbert Ryle's mother, Catherine, was daughter of Samuel King Scott (younger brother of the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott) by his wife Georgina, daughter of William Hulme Bodley, M.D., and sister of architect George Frederick Bodley, himself a student of Sir George Gilbert Scott. Cousins of the Ryle family thus include the haematologist Ronald Bodley Scott, architect George Gilbert Scott Jr., founder of Watts & Co., and his son, Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of the Battersea Power Station.[10]

Ryle was educated at Brighton College, and in 1919 went up to The Queen's College at Oxford to study classics but was quickly drawn to philosophy. He graduated with a "triple first": first-class honours in classical honour moderations (1921), literae humaniores (1923), and philosophy, politics, and economics (1924), and was appointed lecturer in philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1925. A year later, he became a student (fellow) and tutor at Christ Church, where he remained until 1940.[11]

In the Second World War he was commissioned in the Welsh Guards. A capable linguist, he was recruited into intelligence work and by the end of the war had been promoted to the rank of Major. After the war he returned to Oxford and was elected Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy and Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. He published his principal work, The Concept of Mind in 1949. He was President of the Aristotelian Society from 1945 to 1946, and editor of the philosophical journal Mind from 1947 to 1971. Ryle died on 6 October 1976 at Whitby, North Yorkshire.[11]

His brothers John Alfred (1889–1950) and George Bodley (1902–1978), both educated at Brighton College, also had eminent careers. John became Regius Professor of Physic at the University of Cambridge 1935–1945 and physician to King George V. George, after serving as Director of Forestry first for Wales and then England, was Deputy-Director of the Forestry Commission 1963–1965 and appointed a CBE.[12]


The Concept of Mind

In The Concept of Mind, Ryle argues that dualism involves category mistakes and philosophical nonsense. Category mistakes and nonsense as philosophical topics continued to inform Ryle's work. Students in his 1967–1968 Oxford audience would be asked rhetorically what was wrong with saying that there are three things in a field: two cows and a pair of cows. They were also invited to ponder whether the bung-hole of a beer barrel is part of the barrel or not.[13]

Philosophy as cartography

The philosophical arguments which constitute this book are intended not to increase what we know about minds but to rectify the logical geography of the knowledge we already possess.[14]

Ryle thought it no longer possible to believe that a philosopher's task is to study mental as opposed to physical objects. In its place, Ryle saw a tendency of philosophers to search for objects whose nature was neither physical nor mental. Ryle believed, instead, that "philosophical problems are problems of a certain sort; they are not problems of an ordinary sort about special entities."[11]

Ryle offers the analogy of philosophy as like cartography. Competent speakers of a language, Ryle believes, are to a philosopher what ordinary villagers are to a mapmaker. The ordinary villager has a competent grasp of his village, and is familiar with its inhabitants and geography. But when asked to interpret a map for the same knowledge he has practically, the villager will have difficulty until he is able to translate his practical knowledge into universal cartographal terms. The villager thinks of the village in personal and practical terms, while the mapmaker thinks of the village in neutral, public, cartographical terms.[15]

By "mapping" the words and phrases of a particular statement, philosophers are able to generate what Ryle calls "implication threads": each word or phrase of a statement contributes to the statement in that, if the words or phrases were changed, the statement would have a different implication. The philosopher must show the directions and limits of different implication threads that a "concept contributes to the statements in which it occurs." To show this, he must be "tugging" at neighbouring threads, which, in turn, must also be "tugging." Philosophy, then, searches for the meaning of these implication threads in the statements in which they are used.[16]

Knowing-how and knowing-that

A distinction deployed in The Concept of Mind, between knowing-how and knowing-that (e.g., knowing how to tie a reef knot and knowing that Queen Victoria died in 1901), has attracted independent interest.[17] This distinction is also the origin of procedural (knowing-how) and declarative (knowing-that) models of long-term memory.


Ryle's notion of thick description, from "The Thinking of Thoughts: What is 'Le Penseur' Doing?"[18] and "Thinking and Reflecting", has been an important influence on cultural anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz.[19][20]

The Concept of Mind was recognised on its appearance as an important contribution to philosophical psychology, and an important work in the ordinary language philosophy movement. But in the 1960s and 1970s the rising influence of the cognitivist theories of Noam Chomsky, Herbert A. Simon, Jerry Fodor, and others in the neo-Cartesian school became predominant. The two major postwar schools in the philosophy of mind, Fodor's representationalism and the functionalism of Wilfrid Sellars, posited precisely the 'internal' cognitive states that Ryle had argued against, but philosopher and former Ryle student Daniel Dennett has said that recent trends in psychology such as embodied cognition, discursive psychology, situated cognition and others in the post-cognitivist tradition have provoked a renewed interest in Ryle's work. Dennett provided a sympathetic foreword to the 2000 edition of The Concept of Mind.[21]

The author Richard Webster endorsed Ryle's arguments against mentalist philosophies, suggesting in Why Freud Was Wrong (1995) that they implied that "theories of human nature which repudiate the evidence of behaviour and refer solely or primarily to invisible mental events will never in themselves be able to unlock the most significant mysteries of human nature."[22]


  • The Concept of Mind (1949)
  • Dilemmas. The Tarner Lectures 1953 (1954), a collection of shorter pieces
  • Plato's Progress (1966)
  • Contemporary Aspects of Philosophy (1977), editor
  • On Thinking (1979)[23]


  1. Stuart Brown, Diane Collinson, Robert Wilkinson (eds), Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Philosophers, Routledge, 2012: "Paton, Herbert James."
  2. Edmund Husserl, Logical Investigations, Volume 1, Routledge & Keegan Paul, 2001: Introduction by Dermot Moran, p. lxiv: "Husserl... visited England in 1922 intent on establishing relations with English philosopherss.... He delivered a number of lectures which were attended by Gilbert Ryle...."
  3. Michael Dummett, Origins of Analytical Philosophy, Bloombury, 2014, p. xiii; Anat Biletzki, Anat Matarp (eds.), The Story of Analytic Philosophy: Plot and Heroes, Routledge, 2002, p. 57: "It was Gilbert Ryle who, [Dummett] says, opened his eyes to this fact in his lectures on Bolzano, Brentano, Meinong, and Husserl."
  4. "Gilbert Ryle | British philosopher" (in en). Encyclopedia Britannica. 
  5. A. C. Grayling (Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, (Oxford), 1988, p.114) is certain that, despite the fact that Wittgenstein's work might have possibly played some "second or third-hand [part in the promotion of] the philosophical concern for language which was dominant in the mid-century", neither Gilbert Ryle nor any of those in the so-called "Ordinary language philosophy" school that is chiefly associated with J. L. Austin (and, according to Grayling, G. E. Moore, C. D. Broad, Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer) were Wittgensteinians. Grayling asserts that "most of them were largely unaffected by Wittgenstein's later ideas, and some were actively hostile to them"
  6. Ryle, Gilbert.The Concept of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Pp. 327.
  7. Gilbert Ryle, "Phenomenology versus The Concept of Mind," in Collected Papers, London: Hutchinson, 1971, p. 188.
  8. Ryle ('Modern Studies in Philosophy' series), ed. Oscar P. Wood and George Pitcher, Doubleday & Co. Ltd, 1970, p. 1
  9. Faith in the Age of Science: Atheism, Religion, and the Big Yellow Crane, Mark Silversides, Sacristy Press, 2012, p. 157
  10. Burke's Landed Gentry, 18th edition, vol. 1, 1965, ed. Peter Townend, p. 615, 'Ryle formerly of Barkhale' pedigree
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Tanney, Julia (Winter 2003). "Gilbert Ryle". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford, CA: The Metaphysics Research Lab. Retrieved 5 March 2008. 
  12. "George Bodley Ryle C.b.e" (in en). 1978-01-01. pp. 187–188. Digital object identifier:10.1093/forestry/51.2.187. ISSN 0015-752X. 
  13. "Ryle: The concept of mind (Summary)" (in en-US). 
  14. Concept of Mind p 1
  15. Ryle, Gilbert (1971). "Abstractions". London: Hutchinson. pp. 440–442. 
  16. Ryle, Gilbert (1971). "Abstractions". London: Hutchinson. pp. 444–445. 
  17. Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson, "Knowing How", Journal of Philosophy, 98(8): 411–444, 2001.
  18. Ryle, Gilbert (1968). "The Thinking of Thoughts: What is 'Le Penseur' Doing?". Retrieved 25 June 2008.  Reprinted in his Collected Papers. 2. London: Hutchinson. 1971. pp. 480–496none , and (linked) in "Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}". Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing. 21 August 1996. ISSN 1363-1098. 
  19. Geertz, Clifford (1973). "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture". The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. Basic Books. pp. 3–30. Retrieved 25 June 2008. 
  20. "Gilbert Ryle". 
  21. Dennett, Daniel C. (2002). "Re-Introducing The Concept of Mind". Retrieved 20 December 2007. 
  22. Webster, Richard (2005). Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. Oxford: The Orwell Press. pp. vii, 483. ISBN 0951592254. 
  23. "Gilbert Ryle Collection | Linacre College" (in en). 

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