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Gilbert Ryle’s criticisms of Cartesian dualism

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The mind-body problem is a problem which can only be answered, and even then somewhat sketchily, by looking at the most basic components, namely the mind and the body. We know that the body is made up of matter, it takes up space, and it deals with our physical processes. The mind is much more complex, and is more easily described in negatives. It is non-spatial and non-extended, therefore having no location and taking up no space. It is not subjected to the physical laws which govern the body. It is immaterial, and to make matters worse, invisible. It is however, to do with thought and consciousness.

It allows us to have emotions, sensations, experiences and imaginings – all of which have a special elusive quality, and are utterly private to the individual mind. The body is thus the shell we present to the outer world and a means of communicating to people around us. This makes it very much public. We assume that mind and body must interact. Much of what we do with our bodies, how we move, where we move to, is a result of thought and therefore resulting from mental processing. In the same way, our bodies can receive information from the outside world through senses, and this can then affect the mind.

For example, when we view a mountainous landscape through our eyes this is relayed to our brain which deciphers the image. We may then think that the landscape is beautiful and this could change our emotional state – which I have already ascertained to be controlled by the mind. Descartes argument for Cartesian dualism is then specifically that the mind and body are distinct, but still have the capacity to interact. He accepts that they are different, describing this in his divisibility argument. The body, as a material object, can be divided into separate parts which can all then be recognised as individual parts of the body.

We can see and feel the body, and so can give each of its parts a separate space. The mind however must be different as it cannot actually be divided in this way. We can tell they are different by what we can and cannot observe, and most people have an instinctive feeling that this is so. The problem then is that if the mind and body interact, as they must, how can they do so while being so vastly different? Or perhaps the more relevant question is how different are they, and to what extent? Ryle criticises Dualism because he feels they cannot be so different that we can section each off and treat them as separate entities.

He calls dualism “the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine”, feeling the mind to be less mysterious and confused than it has been made. Firstly he ascertains that we may not be so wholly aware of our mental state as dualists may like to believe. He feels that the mind can fool it’s owner to some degree in that the person may want to believe that he wishes or desires certain things, when really how is avoiding his true feelings. This is also supported by Freud who believes that the actual reality of the mental state can be hidden from the person who does not wish to see it, making them somewhat unaware of their present state of mind.

It would however seem to follow that if this person decided to delve deeply into the working of his mind, he could, through introspection, discover his true desires, however repressed – assuming that the mind is not an uncontrollable phenomenon. Ryle argues that there is a basic contradiction in the concept of dualism, for if a mind is only viewable by itself, therefore accepting that we can know nothing about each any other mind than our own, we cannot even presume that other minds exist, let alone define them in any way. Yet we do this on a daily basis.

We judge others’ minds, laden them with traits and liken or disliken them to our own. This is simply because, through words and the exposition of our thoughts via our body many of us reveal how we feel and think. This would then explain why we are able to assume that we know people ‘inside out’. Admittedly this may be a slight exaggeration, as much of the mind may remain entirely private, but still without the benefit of seeing into each others minds we can understand and relate to other people. Whether or not we are right in these judgements can never be certain.

But with advances in psychology and seemingly precisely accurate observations into the minds of others, perhaps the brief glances we obtain into other minds become less dubious. Ryle feels that Descartes makes the mistake of thinking that the mind is over and above the actions which people take. He argues that we cannot presume that anything happens as a mental function other than the process of the action itself. We may see a person with their head in their hands and assume that they are in despair or upset, but we cannot presume that anything other than this is taking place.

Therefore it would seem that the extent of being in despair is simply that we would put our head in our hands. Ryle’s primary criticism of Descartes ‘Official Doctrine’ is that Descartes misinterprets the whole concept of the mind and body in relation to each other, making what he calls a category-mistake, or a misuse of a certain concept. He perceives that Descartes is guilty of permitting the mind to being a separate substance to the body, when he undertakes that they are just two parts to make up as whole.

He feels that the mind-body problem is one we have created ourselves through misuse of language. Only through the vocabulary used does the mind differ from a mechanical process – which he observes it cannot be by the very virtue of its early description. The difficulty then lies in how can a non-physical entity influence a physical entity, which must need some form of stimulus to provoke a reaction. So in explanation to this, Descartes points, inadvertently to the laws of mechanics.

Mind, like body must be governed by these laws in order to influence it – therefore effectively making two machines – one invisible, the other visible, and invisible in control of visible. Unless we are to accept that our mind is as transparent and explainable (and as easily re-created as a machine) there must be a flaw. So, we accept that the mind and body interact that we have mental processes and that these can be placed in the same category because they relate to the same person. But Ryle argues that Descartes, while placing both mind and body in one category, still holds them too far apart.

It would also imply, that by being so separate, the mind, the non-physical, could survive the body after death. He argues that Descartes and other dualists simply created a ‘mental’ process in order that it could differ from the physical process so it would not be subjected to mechanical laws. Mind has then gained an unnecessary stature. By allowing these ‘mental’ processes it would mean that the mind could be free and unsubjected to the mechanics which would adhere it to having no free will and thereby no “responsibility, choice, merit and demerit.

He appears to think that Descartes was too sentimental and irrational to accept that the mind, like the physical world as according to Galileo, could be determined. If Ryle’s theory were true, then the mind-body problem would be to all intents and purposes solved, for there would no longer be a problem. Statements about the mental process would be the same as statements about physical processes, which would then display themselves in our behaviour, subsequently somewhat a combination of both processes.

But the problem still remains as previously stated that the mind can actually cause a physical response. Also, in theory (and often practice) there is nothing to stop people from cheating their natural behavioural response by simply reacting differently physically to something which their mind feels totally opposed to. Accordingly, if behaviour cannot represent the true process of the mind, we are reduced to a situation in which we can be certain of very little or nothing about what causes our actions beyond a purely physical level.

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