Gilbert Ryle and the brain

During a recent Twitter conversation I was urged to read philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s book The Concept of Mind, written just after WW2. ryle

The conversation was about the purpose of speech and evolved into a discussion of brain function. I enjoyed reading Ryle’s book – he thinks incisively, has a dry sense of humour and a strong sense of the absurd – and I think I grasped at least the key points of his argument.

On the mind

If I’ve understood him correctly, Ryle is saying:

1. When we talk about bodies and minds as if they are the same sort of thing, we make a ‘category error’. Even if we talk about bodies and minds as if they are the same sort of thing, we can’t infer that the mind exists in the same way as the body exists. A body is a publicly observable thing; we can see it, touch it, measure it, weigh it. We can’t do any of those things to minds; a surgeon couldn’t dissect out someone’s mind from their body. Ryle illustrates the point by comparing the clause ‘she came home in a flood of tears’ with ‘she came home in a sedan chair’; both clauses might be true, but they are true in different ways.

2. We use the term ‘mind’ to refer to a particular set of things that people do – thinking, feeling, knowing etc. But thinking, feeling and knowing are characteristics of people, in the same way as brittleness is a characteristic of glass. We might say ‘the glass broke because it was brittle’, but we don’t mean that the fact that the glass was brittle caused it to break; something else was the cause – like a stone striking the glass, or it being dropped.

3. Similarly, when we say “Jill stormed out of the room because she was angry” we don’t mean that Jill felt anger in her mind and the anger caused her to storm out of the room, we mean that something happened to make Jill feel angry and also to make her storm out of the room – someone was rude to her, perhaps. We don’t have to introduce a hypothetical construct like ‘mind’ in order to explain Jill’s feeling or her behaviour.

Having demonstrated that the concept of mind itself is flawed – it isn’t a thing inside human beings but a label that we attach to certain human activities, Ryle goes on to explore the far-reaching implications for the way we construe knowledge, will, emotion, sensation, intellect etc. I was with him up to this point.

On the brain

What was noticeable about The Concept of Mind is that Ryle hardly mentions the brain, except in respect of psychologists studying patients with brain damage. One could argue, with justification, that Ryle isn’t writing about the brain, he’s writing about the mind, or more accurately, the non-existence of the mind. Others have argued that the brain and the mind are the same thing, but that idea poses a problem if you don’t think the concept of ‘mind’ is necessary to explain thinking, feeling, knowing or behaving. So where does the brain come into all this?

Philosophers, brains and education

Philosophy isn’t my field, but I had come across Ryle previously. When my son started school, he was identified as having ‘special educational needs’. Years ago, when I was teaching, I’d taught kids like my son, and even more years ago had gone to school with kids like him, and I was puzzled as to why his not uncommon difficulties with literacy and numeracy seemed to be posing such a challenge for the education system. So I started reading up on the subject. One book I read was Deconstructing Special Education and Constructing Inclusion by Gary Thomas and Andrew Loxley, published in 2001. We were getting along swimmingly until chapter 4, ‘Thinking about learning failure, especially in reading’. Here, the authors questioned the existence of phonological awareness, a key concept in some models of learning to read, and they drew on the ideas of Ryle, Willard Van Orman Quine and Ludwig Wittgenstein, all philosophers of language, in support. Thomas and Loxley appeared to acknowledge the involvement of the brain in learning, but didn’t seem to know much about what happens in the brain during learning. They claimed, for example, that “When we learn to drive, we do just that: learn to drive – and we do so in a car, on a road” (p.69). From the perspective of a casual observer, maybe. But at the level of the brain, there’s a great deal of complex activity going on whilst learning to do something like drive a car. And of course some people don’t learn to drive however hard they try, and others can’t because of brain damage or physical disability.

Thomas and Loxley’s model of learning appears to be one in which the brain is an amorphous mass. For example, they cite Wittgenstein’s observation of seeds where he says;

nothing in the seed corresponds to the plant which comes from it: so that it is impossible to infer the properties or structure of the plant from those of the seed … so an organism might come into being even out of something quite amorphous, as it were causelessly; and there is no reason why this should not really hold for our thoughts.” (p.69)

Wittgenstein made this observation in 1947, two years before Ryle wrote The Concept of Mind. He prefaced his comment by being quite explicit about brain function:

No supposition seems to me more natural than that there is no process correlated with associating or thinking; so that it would be impossible to read off thought-processes from brain-processes. I mean this: If I talk or write there is, I assume, a system of impulses going out from my brain and correlated with my spoken or written thoughts. But why should the system continue further in the direction of the centre? Why should this order not proceed, so to speak out of chaos?” (Klagge p.98)

Thomas and Loxley also base their claim for the non-existence of phonological awareness on work by Karl Lashley and Antonio Damasio (p.70). In the 1950s Lashley had concluded that the ‘engrams’ he believed encoded memory were distributed evenly across the brain. Antonio Damasio’s work is much more recent, but the authors appear to have misunderstood it. They say “current knowledge of the brain provides a picture of indissoluble interconnections in which it is impossible to disaggregate, for example, the relationship of that which we call affect from that which we call reason” (p. 70). It’s certainly true that Damasio’s work showed that ‘affect’ and ‘reason’ aren’t clearly demarcated in the brain, but that’s as much to do with our constructs ‘affect’ and ‘reason’ as it is to do with the way the brain functions. You can’t deduce from that that the brain as a whole consists of ‘indissoluble interconnections in which it is impossible to disaggregate’ things the brain does.

Thomas and Loxley aren’t the only authors I’ve encountered who appear to have concluded that thinking, feeling and knowing aren’t an outcome of processes in the brain. I once ploughed through PMS Hacker’s Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience (2003). What Hacker seemed to object to was neuroscientists referring to the brain as if it were an agent; as in ‘the brain detects…’ or ‘the brain responds by…’. I could see what he was getting at; one of the points Ryle makes about the mind is that if we have to construct it in order to explain what causes thinking, feeling and knowing etc., we then have to ask what causes the mind to cause thinking, feeling and knowing etc, and so on and so on in an infinite regression. I suspect Hacker sees the brain in the same way; that if we assume the brain causes thinking, feeling and knowing etc, we have to ask what causes the brain to cause these activities in another infinite regression. It makes more sense to construe thinking, feeling and knowing etc, as characteristics of people, as things people just do. But I think there are two problems with the arguments put forward by Hacker, Thomas and Loxley and Wittgenstein. The first is that they are making another category error and the second is that they have overlooked how the characteristics of things contribute to the causes of events.

Another category error

Ryle might not have been writing about the brain, but some of the people who are applying his reasoning to the brain are doing just that, and I think they are making exactly the same kind of category error that’s a key point in Ryle’s argument against the existence of the mind. Ryle, rightly, pointed out that even though we talk about the body and the mind as if they are the same type of thing, it doesn’t follow that they are the same type of thing. Indeed we know they’re not the same type of thing because bodies are publicly observable but minds aren’t. But bodies and brains are the same type of thing; brains might usually be hidden by the skull, but they can be dissected out, weighed, measured and made publicly observable. In other words, although there’s no evidence that the mind exists, the brain indisputably exists, is the same sort of thing as the body and is inextricably linked to it.

The characteristics of things

Ryle refers several times to the analogy of glass being brittle to show why we can’t argue that the mind must cause things to happen. He sees brittleness as being a ‘disposition’ of glass, something inherent in its nature that means it shatters rather than bends when certain causal events occur, such as it being hit by a stone. In the same way people have dispositional characteristics that result in them thinking, feeling or behaving in certain ways when certain causal events occur – they feel angry when people are rude to them, or sad when someone dies. Although I can see Ryle’s point, what he overlooks is the process that occurs when glass shatters.

Glass (mainly consisting of silicon dioxide) shatters rather than bends if hit by a stone, due to its molecular structure. And its molecular structure is an emergent property of the arrangement of the sub-atomic particles that make up silicon dioxide and that function according to the laws of physics. Biological organisms have structures that are much more complex than glass and they behave very differently to glass, but ultimately they are also made up of configurations of sub-atomic particles that conform to the laws of physics. It’s the configuration of the particles that makes glass behave like it behaves and allows human beings to behave as they behave; obviously because the configuration in humans is much more complex, we have constraints placed on us and affordances open to us that glass doesn’t have.

At one level, you could say that glass shatters if it’s hit by a stone because that’s just what glass is like; but at another level, being hit by a stone causes a reaction in the molecules of the glass that results in it not maintaining its structure and falling into fragments. Similarly, at one level you could say that people just get angry or feel sad when certain things happen, and you don’t need to invent some hypothetical thing called a ‘mind’ to explain it. At another level, that’s a cop-out, because it completely overlooks what happens in people’s bodies when they do get angry or feel sad in response to something happening.

Moving back to Bowlby

It was instructive to compare Ryle’s chapter on emotion with John Bowlby’s chapter on feeling and emotion in Attachment, published 20 years later. Bowlby applies Ryle’s line of reasoning to feelings. (He refers to ‘feelings’ rather than ‘affect’ or ‘emotion’ because ‘feelings’ encompasses the other two and is self-explanatory.) Bowlby doesn’t see feelings as having an independent existence but as characteristics of physiological processes, in exactly the same way as Ryle saw thinking, feeling and knowing as being ‘dispositions’ of people. Bowlby quotes philosopher Suzanne Langer;

“When iron is heated to a critical degree it becomes red; yet its redness is not a new entity which must have gone somewhere else when it is no longer in the iron. It was a phase of the iron itself, at high temperature.

As soon as feeling is regarded as a phase of a physiological process instead of a product of it – namely a new entity physically different from it – the paradox of the physical and the psychical disappears.” (Bowlby p.108)

Like Ryle, Bowlby concludes that people’s feelings and dispositions aren’t things with an independent existence in the ‘mind’, nor are they what causes people to behave in certain ways. But what he does recognise is that physiological processes are involved in feelings, and Bowlby appears to know a good deal more about those physiological processes than Ryle, Thomas and Loxley, Hacker and Wittgenstein.

Why does any of this matter, anyway? Isn’t it all a storm in a philosophical teacup? It matters because Ryle’s reasoning is being applied, and applied wrongly, to child development and education.

Child development and education

Something that’s intrigued me in my recent exploration of the child development and education literatures is their focus on theoretical frameworks developed prior to the 1950s. Lev Vygotsky died in 1934, Sigmund Freud in 1939, Wittgenstein in 1951 and Lashley in 1958. The Concept of Mind was published in 1949. But the 1950s saw a sea-change in our understanding of both genetics and brain function. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick published their work on the structure of DNA and in 1959 David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel figured out the basic mechanism for sensory processing from their work on the visual cortex of the cat. These two discoveries alone essentially spawned the modern sciences of genetics, molecular biology and cognitive neuroscience that have transformed biology and medicine. But these discoveries have implications for child development and education of which people working in child development and education often seem blissfully unaware.

I suspect that lack of awareness is because of the increased specialisation that’s taken place alongside a rapid increase in human knowledge over the past century or so. People studying child development or education have their work cut out getting a good knowledge of their own field, never mind studying genetics, molecular biology and brain science as well. But you don’t need a vast knowledge of genes, molecules or neurons to understand the principles of how they function, and if our understanding of those principles has changed in the last sixty years, it’s important to know how it’s changed. It’s disastrous to carry on using models of child development and education devised before we knew how genes or brains functioned.

I recognise that some people see brain science as the answer to everything – when it isn’t. We don’t need to know what’s happening in children’s brains to know whether a particular method of teaching reading or arithmetic has been effective, or to have to do a brain scan to demonstrate that maltreatment in infancy might have been harmful. But what happens in children’s brains is crucial to their development and learning, and the better we understand the processes, the better we will understand how to best support development and learning. If thinking, feeling, knowing and behaving are being construed, wrongly, as ‘just happening’ in children, and brain function and physiological processes are simply being overlooked, or worse, denied to be happening, we’re missing an important piece of the human jigsaw puzzle.

Bennett, MR & Hacker, PMS (2003) Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, Blackwell. Bowlby, J (1982) Attachment (2nd edition), Basic Books.
Klagge, J(2010) Wittgenstein in Exile, The MIT Press.
Ryle, G (1949) The Concept of Mind, Peregrine Books.
Thomas, G & Loxley A (2001) Deconstructing special education and constructing inclusion, Open University Press.

Acknowledgement: photograph of Ryle from Philosophy Pages


1 thought on “Gilbert Ryle and the brain

  1. I found your argument interesting but suggest you also read Rom Harre, “Molecules and meaning – psychology for the 21st century” and Dan Dennett’s “intuition pumps”. As some one who takes huge interest in neuroscience and how it can be applied I do share your excitement at the developments that have been made.

    However, to illustrate the futility of breaking down the brain to discover what it does I want to share an analogy that colleague of mine shared recently. Mark McKergow is a solution focused practitioner in London who gave a presentation in which he deconstructed a spade. First into a handle and a blade, then into its component molecules and arguably subatomic particles. The further into the deconstruction we got the less apparent the purpose of the spade became. Deconstruction is not necessarily the right thing to determine the purpose or “aboutness” of the brain. To assume that by taking it to pieces we will learn its functions seems highly unlikely to me.

    Harre argues in much the same way in his book, and Dennett makes the statement and asks the question, “The task of figuring out how to put all the familiar things in our manifest image into registration with all the relatively unfamiliar things of the scientific image is not a job that scientists are particularly well equipped to do. Please tell me, Dr Physicist, just what colour is. Are there colours according to your theory? Dr Chemist can you provide the chemical formula for a bargain?”

    “Could you ever frame a clear concept of a bargain, or a mistake, or a promise…”

    Then there is the problem of epigenetics. We now know that brains alter according to environment and switch genes on and off change the way the brain responds to stimuli. This highly adaptive mechanism means that not only are we adaptable in terms of behaviours but that our brains are dynamic in a genetic fashion as well, ever changing to meet new needs and demands – unfortunately not always effectively.

    Where does this leave me? Well, in my work in psychotherapy and as an engineer and psychologist it has taught me some painful lessons about not making assumptions based upon brain models (I am familiar with quite a lot of this work) because we cannot make predictions based upon what we know of the brain thus far. in view of all the variables, it may never be possible to make predictions because of this adaptability and variability. For example I have worked with people who have (to all intents and purposes) no hippocampus following viral infection and are able to continue to process and recall memories. I have worked with someone whose adrenal circuits have been turned off by medication yet find ways to function in what to them is a now almost emotionless world. The brain is a vastly flexible and awe inspiring piece of organic matter, but to me it is nowhere as near as inspiring as mind – whatever that is! But the tool we can most effectively use to explore it is language and behaviour. while we may map these activities on to the brain in some form the sheer flexibility of processing means we can never be deterministic about what parts of the brain do what particular activity.

    Please don’t ever think I want to stop exploring – I don’t. as Richard Feynman said, “The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt…. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty– some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.”

    This, I think, will always be the position of brain science.

    So, in my work I prefer to stay as Mark also said, “in the space between the noses” with what I can observe and respond to with some certainty. I do this whether it is the behaviour of a child (for they have their good reasons) or a drug addict wanting to stop abusing or a chief exec wanting to improve his or her performance. I ask, for example, “what will it look like when it is working better?” “how will you know?” “when is it already happening? ” and “how can you do more of it”. A very simple set of questions based upon the words and actions of the person, not upon some abstract “expert” version of what may or may not be going on between the ears. Something the person can understand and question too.

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