Gilbert Ryle V. Rene Descartes Essay

Ryle V. Descartes Concerning Dualism Dualism – 1. The view that the world consists of or is explicable as two fundamental entities, such as mind and matter. 2. The view that substances are either material or mental. Materialism – 1. The theory that physical matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena. 2. Theory that regards matter and its motions as constituting the universe, and all phenomena, including those of mind, as due to material agencies.

Descartes is hailed as the person who could link the spiritual world and the physical world together, when religion ruled all. Gilbert Ryle is considered to be a pioneer in the ‘anti-Cartesian’ movement, and a materialist. These men lived in completely different worlds. They were born over 300 years apart from each other, and had very different ways of life, and yet they both spent years of their lives devoted to a similar theme of philosophy: the existence, or non-existence, of a mental/spiritual world.

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Rene Descartes was born in 1596, known as the ‘Father of Modern Philosophy’. He lived in a time when nearly all the people of the world believed in ‘God’ or a spiritual world, so in a sense, he was a product of his environment. In his writing Discourse on the Method, he attempted to lay down a foundation of thoughts and principles which could not be disputed as true or not. He utilized methodological skepticism by proving that any theory that could be doubted was untrue. Therefore he had to make sure that his reasons were concrete and indisputable.

Descartes compares the body to a machine, full of physical motions working together under the laws of physics. The ‘Human Soul’ or ‘Mind’ is what Descartes says is the other part of a human, and that this part does not abide to the laws of physics, and can even take over our own body’s physical actions, ex: acting irrationally out of ‘love/lust’. In a different writing titled Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes uses this same technique, methodological skepticism, to prove, among other things, the existence of God (Meditation III).

His writing is very fluid, sometimes redundant, this makes the reader feel like they were a part of the meditations. Feeling as if you were in a room, pondering the existence of God all day with no communication, you begin to believe what he is saying. This feeling of presence along with his writing style has the potential to sway even the most ardent non-believer. Descartes makes very strong points when he writes about this other, ‘mental’ part of a human, this law-breaking spirit which no one at his time could identify or define.

He understood, or believed he understood, the connection between physical and spiritual interaction. One must recognize the fact that Descartes was alive in a time when it was socially unacceptable, and even punishable by death, to denounce a spirit/god or even mention the possibility of its non-existence. Now, this does not mean that Descartes wrote what he wrote out of fear, it simply means that his entire life he was never given the opportunity to discuss and debate the probability of how wrong or unlikely the validity of The Church was.

Out of all the philosophers who try to bridge the gap between material and spiritual, Descartes does it the best by using texts from the Holy Bible to support his theories, thus making the clergy happy, even while disputing some of their beliefs. Gilbert Ryle, a 20th century British philosopher, could not have disagreed with Descartes more. According to Ryle, Descartes idea of a spiritual world existing in harmony with the material world was a ‘fundamental mistake’.

He wrote The Concept of the Mind in 1949 as a response to Descartes overwhelming power and influence over ‘theorists and even… laymen’. In other words, Ryle believed that Descartes’ thoughts on dualism were so widely accepted as true, that he sarcastically dubbed Cartesian Dualism as ‘The Official Doctrine’. This ‘Official Doctrine’, according to Ryle, consists of a ‘public world, and a private world’, the material being the public world, and the mental being the private.

A main argument of Ryle’s in The Concept of the Mind, under the heading ‘The Absurdity of the Official Doctrine, is what he calls ‘the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine’, of course referring to Descartes analogy of a human body to a machine. The ‘ghost’ is of course the ‘human spirit’ which Ryle claims he can denounce as a mere ‘category mistake’. A category mistake is ‘a special kind. It represents the facts of mental life as if they belonged to one logical type or category…, when they actually belong to another. He goes on to make a number of examples which strengthen his argument. Ryle attempts to find the origins of this mistake. He goes back to the time of Rene Descartes to try and discover why a man of his intelligence would argue against practical, empirical facts. He mentions Galileo, a man who was sentenced to house arrest for ‘showing that his methods of scientific discovery were competent to provide a mechanical theory which could cover every occupant of space’. Descartes was an educated man, but he was also a man of fierce Christian faith.

He found it hard to choose between the two, just as many people living in the world today do. I think Ryle viewed himself as a spectator to the world. He viewed his ideas and judgments of humanity as objective. I think he also considered the majority of the world’s population as similar to Descartes in the sense that they all long for a mysterious world, a world where some answers are impossible to find. They long for a world in which humankind is a super-species, and not in the sense of ability, but in the sense of possessing traits far superior to other species.

Ryle, in my opinion, has a much more humble approach to life. It is an approach which somewhat levels the playing field of all life on Earth. He says, ‘…a man’s bodily life is as much a public affair as are the lives of animals and reptiles and even as the careers of trees, crystals and planets. ’ Maybe Gilbert Ryle was a product of his environment as well. He grew up in a culture which was fresh off of Darwinism and in the midst of British eastern imperialism and colonialism.

Maybe his view of the world was a more practical one, full of ‘yes and no’ answers, a world of ‘black and white’, where there was, or could be, an explanation for anything. His generation was not much younger than the one of Sigmund Freud, who obliterated previous misconceptions about the human brain and its ability to control physical occurrences through a series of physiological actions. As the author of this paper, I too have a place in time, a bias and an education to support and mold my beliefs.

Everyone, to an extent, is a product of their environment. However, it is the people who come before us, the people who question and discover who create the environments in which we live and grow. It is a cycle of humanity, and it is ever-changing. Mark Twain once wrote, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. ’ I believe this means that nothing is ever the same, but because we are all human, because we all have a similar range of emotions and opinions, life is ‘destined’ to repeat itself to a degree.


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