Debates and Discussions(page 6 of 13)
The Concept of Mind
That Ryle Interview, In Retrospect
Watching this interview, very recently, for the first time, my initial reaction was, I confess, “Nice shirt, gorgeous scarf, hideous haircut”; and my next wasn’t much deeper: “Goodness, I was so young—and brave, too, to challenge someone as important and influential in my new profession as Ryle.” But here, of course, I must focus on the substance of Ryle’s and my discussion.
I was surprised, in retrospect, by how much Ryle conceded: that he had misinterpreted Descartes; that in The Concept of Mind he didn’t handle his thesis that sentences ostensibly referring to mental entities can be translated into sentences about behavior very well—apparently because of what he had come to see as an ambiguity in “behavior,” between mere muscular movements and intelligible conduct; and, in the course of our conversation about imagining, pretending, refraining, etc., that in his chapter on imagining “the central ice is very thin,” and he couldn’t yet say what seeing someone’s face in the mind’s eye, or running through a tune in one’s head, amounts to.
But I wished that, in places, I had pressed Ryle harder: e.g., about the “practices” or “conventions” he appeals to as a way of filling out his idea of behavior; and about the place of neurophysiology—I have long suspected that having a tune on the brain, or visualizing a friend’s face, is something like having those neurons activated that would fire if one were actually hearing the tune or seeing her face. And I wasn’t nearly tough enough on Ryle when it came to the question whether a machine could sign its will: “A machine might make a mark like the name it has been given to a document headed ‘Last Will and Testament of A. Roe Bot’,” I should have said, “but that wouldn’t be signing its will, no matter what legal conventions we built in, because a machine couldn’t have the appropriate intentions, beliefs, desires, etc. So we need an account of what these are.”
Had I pushed harder, it would have become clear that—though he had famously exorcised the Cartesian ghost in the machine—Ryle had no more explained the mind than Descartes had. Perhaps then we might have moved on to a better understanding of the enormously complex phenomenon of human mindedness: which would (I now think) certainly include the role of our multiform dispositions to behavior, but also their neuro-physiological realizations, the place of culture, conventions, language, etc.—and the complicated up-and-back interrelations among all these. But then, as the saying goes, hindsight is always 20-20!
© 2021 Susan Haack. All rights reserved.
Susan Haack is Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, Cooper Senior Scholar in Arts and Sciences, Professor of Philosophy, and Professor of Law at the University of Miami.
Related videos and essays (all links open in a new window):
- Other Minds: A. J. Ayer and Godfrey Vesey discuss the problem of other minds.
Accompanying essay by Anita Avramides.
- Free Will: Geoffrey Warnock and psychologist B. F. Skinner discuss free will and determinism.
Accompanying essay by Daniel C. Dennett.
- Mind and Brain: Charles Taylor and Anthony Quinton discuss the mind-body problem.
Accompanying essay by Tim Crane.
- Perception: Rodney Hirst and Alan White discuss perception.
Accompanying essay by Ian Phillips.