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Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Concept of Mind

The Concept of Mind
Gilbert Ryle
Routledge (2009; First published: 1949) 

Gilbert Ryle’s main target in The Concept of Mind is Descartes’s doctrine of dualism, which states that the mind (which is not in space and is not subject to mechanical laws) and the body (which is in space and obeys the mechanical laws) are two separate entities, and that the mind may continue to exist and function after the body dies. Ryle says that the Cartesian doctrine is essentially preaching that a non-material mind inhabits the body as a “ghost in the machine.”

The Cartesian doctrine leads to all kinds of ontological, epistemological and semantic problems. Its ontological commitments lead to the mind-body problem, and its epistemological commitments lead to the semantic problems and the problem of other minds.

According to Ryle, the Cartesian doctrine makes a basic category-mistake, when it analyzes the relationship between “mind” and “body” as if they are part of the same category. He points out that the other theories of mind also make basic category-mistakes—the idealist theory makes a basic category-mistake when it tries to reduce physical reality to mental reality, and the materialist theory of mind makes a basic category-mistake when it attempts to reduce mental reality to physical reality.

The mental processes cannot be rejected from the physical processes. The operations of the mind are not merely represented by the intelligent acts; they are the intelligent acts. The acts of learning, remembering, imagining, knowing or believing are not just the pointers to the intellectual operations and mental processes; they are the intellectual operations and mental processes.

In chapter 2, “Knowing How And Knowing That,” Ryle tackles the problem of distinction between theory and practice. He writes: "Efficient practice precedes the theory of it; methodologies presuppose the application of the methods, of the critical investigation of which they are the products.” You don’t need to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of how a motor vehicle works in order to be a vehicle mechanic.

The idea that intelligent action is based on intelligent theory can lead to infinite regression of theorizing. “The regress is infinite, and this reduces to absurdity the theory that for an operation to be intelligent it must be steered by a prior intellectual operation.” Ryle points out that human understanding can be best explained as a form of “knowing how.”

“To be intelligent is not merely to satisfy criteria, but to apply them; to regulate one’s actions and not merely to be well-regulated. A person’s performance is described as careful or skilful, if in his operations he is ready to detect and correct lapses, to repeat and improve upon successes, to profit from the examples of others and so forth. He applies criteria in performing critically, that is, in trying to get things right.”

Ryle deals with the knotty subject of “will” in chapter 3, “The Will.” He says that if we accept Cartesian dualism we are led to believe that the mind or soul has three parts—thought, feeling and will. This in turn leads to the idea that “the Mind or Soul functions in three irreducibly different modes, the Cognitive mode, the Emotional mode and the Conative mode.This traditional dogma is not only not self-evident, it is such a welter of confusions and false inferences that it is best to give up any attempt to re-fashion it. It should be treated as one of the curios of theory.”

He rejects the idea of “volition” which he believes leads to the problem of infinite regress. If a case of volition, or an act of choosing, is describable as “voluntary," than it must be the result of a prior choice to choose, and that from a choice to choose to choose and so forth.

Gilbert Ryle's Portrait by Rex Whistler
While proving that dualism is a myth invented by Descartes, Ryle proposes that the doctrine known as philosophical (and sometimes analytical) behaviourism offers a better solution to the problem of mind-body relationship. He says that the mind is incorporated with various abilities or dispositions which explain behaviour such as learning, remembering, knowing, feeling, or willing. He warns that personal abilities are not the same as mental processes or events, and to evaluate abilities as if they are mental occurrences is to make a basic kind of category-mistake. However, he also criticizes the behaviourist theory for being rigid and mechanistic like the Cartesian theory.

In chapter 4, “Self-Knowledge,” Ryle offers an interesting perspective on the widely believed concept of introspection which makes the claim that it is possible for mind to observe and analyze its own working, and that we are conscious of what is happening to us and at the same time we are able to introspect about what is happening to us. He points out that it is not possible for the human mind to focus on two things at the same time. If I am conscious of something, then I cannot be conscious of the fact that I am conscious of that thing. You can either laugh or introspect about why you are laughing. Therefore introspection is a post-event phenomenon—to be accurate it should be called “retrospection.”

“The fact that retrospection is autobiographical does not imply that it gives us a Privileged Access to facts of a special status. But of course it does give us a mass of data contributory to our appreciations of our own conduct and qualities of mind. A diary is not a chronicle of ghostly episodes, but it is a valuable source of information about the diarist’s character, wits and career.”

First published in 1949, The Concept of Mind is regarded as a great classic. The book is worth reading primarily because of the radical arguments which it offers for refuting the Cartesian doctrine of dualism.

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