Gilbert Ryle contra Descartes

Anoop asked:

What does Descartes mean by saying that ‘human mind is better known than the body’? How does Gilbert Ryle challenge Descartes’ mind body dualism?

Answer by Danny Krämer

Descartes’ aim was to find a foundation for the new emerging sciences. He wanted truths that are so certain that they can guarantee the truth of the superstructure of science. Therefore, Descartes used his method of general doubt. He questioned everything he ever believed in his life.

First he questions sense experience. Our senses can mislead us. There are illusions and therefore it is conceivable that everything we know by sense experience is just wrong. Just think about ‘Matrix’. The humans who live in the matrix think that they know a lot of things by sense experience. But in fact, they know nothing like ‘there is a cup of tea’. Everything is just an illusion. Descartes goes even further. Also our knowledge of mathematics and geometry — so to speak a priori knowledge — could be wrong. Maybe the matrix just lets us think that ‘2 + 2 = 4′ is a true proposition. Of course for Descartes an evil demon plays the role of the matrix. So if everything is an illusion — matter, mathematics, geometry, sense experience — then everything you know of your body could be wrong. In the matrix I could have blonde hair even though in reality I have brown hair and so on.

Then there is Descartes’ famous phrase ‘cogito ergo sum’ — I think, therefore I am. That is Descartes’ answer to the question what the foundation of all our knowledge is. Even though I doubt everything, I cannot doubt that I think.

Gilbert Ryle now writes in The Concept of Mind that Descartes was misled by the ‘ghost in the machine’ myth. Ryle uses the concept of a ‘category mistake’ for his critique. Take this famous example of a category mistake: A foreign student comes to Oxford and asks where the university is. You show him the class rooms and the library and all the stuff. Then he asks you ‘But where is the university?’ He just uses the category of a university like a category of a room.

For Ryle, Descartes makes the same mistake. He uses mental vocabulary as if it is the polar opposite of ‘body-talk’. Therefore, he buys in every problem that ever emerged out of dualism. (The question of the interaction of the substances etc.) Ryle suggests, that what we call the mind are dispositions of the our body. He is therefore a behaviorist. Sugar has the disposition to dissolve if you put it into water. Your body has dispositions to intelligent behaviour in certain circumstances. There is no mental ghost that steers the body. The mind are just the intelligent dispositions of your body.


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