Gilbert Ryle and the Proper Referents of Psychological Vocabulary

When we say “Bob sees a cat” or “I see a cat”, what does the term “see” refer to? If you are of a scientific bent, then you might say that verbs like “see” refer to internal physiological events such as patterns of brain activity. Alternatively, if you are of a psychologistic bent, you might think that the term “see” refers to internal mental events of some kind. Gilbert Ryle thinks both of these positions are mistaken.

Ryle uses the example of winning a race to illustrate his point. Imagine a hard-nosed materialistic scientist who was conducting a study of the physiological processes and cognitive functions intrinsic to a runner’s natural makeup. He studies the runner’s muscle tissues, brain fibers, sweat glands, heart function, etc. in painstaking detail. But now he begins to investigate whether or not that runner has won a race. He puts tissues under the microscope and inspects the entirety of the runner’s intrinsic physiological and psychological makeup but he just cannot find out whether or not the runner has won a race or not.

Ryle thinks that the scientist fails in his investigation of whether the runner has won a race because he is looking in the wrong place and the wrong way. The proper thing to do to tell if the runner has won a race is to investigate into whether the runner recently competed against rivals, did not cheat, and crossed a socially-recognized finish line. Likewise, Ryle thinks that, in determining whether or not Bob has seen the cat, one does not need to open up Bob’s body and brain to discover whether or not seeing has occurred. For Ryle, to look for “seeing” as if it were an internal physiological event or process would be like looking for “winning” by opening up the body and brain of a runner. A big motivation for Ryle’s view is the fact that a person ignorant of the physical details of his or her own brain can clearly still determine whether he or she is successfully seeing a cat. So, Ryle thinks, the verb “see” does not refer to inner physiological processes. Thus, Ryle thinks that seeing is not a process at all, but something else.

Ryle contends that because facts about psychological verbs like “see” are not discovered in the same way as facts are about physiological processes, it is a “mistaken assumption that perceiving is a bodily process” (109). There are at least two ways to read this claim: strong and weak. The strong version is that Ryle is making a bold metaphysical claim about how critters actually perceive the world. On this strong reading, internal bodily processes are just not involved in perceiving at all. This reading is untenable because Ryle probably did not mean to overturn any neurophysiological facts of perception. The weak reading is more plausible. It says that Ryle thought that psychological discourse is of an entirely different sort than physiological discourse. On the weak reading, when Ryle says “Perceiving is not a bodily process”, he means to say that talk about perception is not on par with talk about bodily processes.

In my opinion, the philosophical force of the weaker claim is reduced given the fact that psychological discourse is not fixed or stable or even universal. Given the almost certain possibility that human languages will continue to evolve, what is the philosophical significance of saying that right now the folk psychology of English speakers is different from our scientific psychology? Is this a necessary truth or a contingent historical fact? Following a Sellarsian line, if we could coherently imagine a society of techno-elites growing up with portable brain scanners permanently attached to their skulls and the schooling necessary to effortlessly interpret the scanning analyses displayed on their wrist-computers, then we could imagine a society where the way facts are discovered about the psychological world would essentially be no different from the way facts are discovered in the physical world.

Replicating such technology in the here and now isn’t completely fantastical either; it would only be a matter of sophisticated biofeedback making information available in a format accessible by our brains. However, if you were inclined to accept a higher-order theory of consciousness, then in a way we already have biofeedback of our brains insofar as what makes higher-order thought special is our brain’s way of reacting to itself, of perceiving its own perceptions. There is an analogous point to be made about thinking itself insofar as in some scientific circles it is fashionable to talk about conscious thought as overt speech that has been sufficiently internalized.

It seems then that Ryle’s contention that perceptual verbs do not refer to internal physiological processes and cognitive functions could turn out to be both metaphysically and grammatically incorrect given we specify the relative technological sophistication of the society in question. If we lived in a more scientifically literate society, we could easily imagine (à la Richard Rorty’s Myth of the Antipodeans) psychological verbs referring to internal physiological processes (available to view through portable brain scanners). And if this is true, the philosophical force of Ryle’s argument is diminished, for what else is Ryle doing except pointing out the merely sociological fact that right now our language games about psychology are dissimilar from our language games about physiology? If this is only a contingent fact of history, I take it that, following Sellars, the interesting philosophical point is not that we have such language games, but that the language games are not fixed, and in fact indicate an evolutionary trajectory. Just as a child eventually internalizes overt speech into conscious thought, a scientifically literate society could internalize computer generated analyses of brain scanning data.

It would only be a matter of adjusting to new methods of information extraction. If Ryle only wants to point out a sociological fact about current linguistic practice, then that is fine, and might still be philosophically illuminating in some respect. But such sociological commentary does nothing to diminish the metaphysical force of the physiologists who insists that perception is nothing but a bodily process in reaction to internal and external perturbations. And since we could imagine such bold metaphysical claims about perception catching fire and eventually establishing itself throughout the world’s language games, the facts Ryle discovers about psychological discourse are not necessary, but contingent.

In a way then, I have not shown that Ryle is wrong in his analysis of ordinary English use of verbs like “seeing”. Obviously Ryle is right that a peasant farmer is not referring to his or her inner brain states when proclaiming “I see the cows in the field”. But this is a contingent fact of history. If the farmer had been born in a different technological society, it is plausible that the facts might be different. Ryle’s point is that the current criteria for successful perception do not depend on any knowledge of physiology; we can know we or others have seen something without knowing anything about brain states. Acknowledging this, my point is that despite this current fact of how we understand the concept “seeing”, it does nothing to diminish the philosophical force of the materialist who insists that perceiving really is just an internal bodily process. The thing standing in the way of the materialist changing our language games then is not metaphysical truth, but only convention and inconvenience.



Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy

7 responses to “Gilbert Ryle and the Proper Referents of Psychological Vocabulary

  1. I agree Ryle doesn’t want to deny physiological processes in the brain, so what you call the “weaker reading” of his position is right. I also agree that language-games can and do change over time, and scientific advances sometimes play a part in this. However, I think the implications of your proposed reduction via elimination need looking at in more depth.

    It seems to me this hinges on the distinction you propose between “folk psychology” and “scientific psychology”. The implication here is that “folk psychology” is a rough and ready approximation to the truth, but “scientific psychology” gives us the real thing. I think that a very dubious notion. “A fool and his money are soon parted” IS a piece of folk psychology. “I see a cat” is a statement of fact.

    The distinction is more radically undermined by something your post readily admits: the scientist and the ordinary person are playing two different language-games. The word “see” in the ordinary game is not an approximation of the more accurate word in the scientific game. It means something completely different.

    On this account, moving from “I see a cat over there” to “X is happening in my brain” is not to substitute a more accurate account for a less accurate one, it is simply to choose one language-game rather than another. However, if we do make that choice then it would be best to avoid using words like “see” in both cases because this would suggest a false connection between them.

    So, lets assume, in our world of brain-scanners etc, we decide to use “soo” instead of “see”. I scan my brain, read the results, and say “I soo a cat”. Except that what is the word “cat” doing here? “Cat” belongs to the OLD language game. So we’d better have a new word for that as well – and a new one for “I” while we’re about it (we’ll leave “a” because I’m in a generous mood). Let’s choose “cit” for “cat” and “Y” for “I”. So now, instead of saying “I see a cat” we say “Y soo a cit”.

    Er, what, exactly, do we gain from any of this?

    • Gary Williams

      Hi Phil,

      I don’t think the point is about what we gain practically by switching to a materialist vocabulary. The point is that in the world of elite brain-scanners, the facts about psychology are just as public and objective as facts about the physical world. If Bob says “I see a cat”, but I am skeptical and think Bob is lying, I could, in principle go over and look at Bob’s brain scans and figure out that he in fact did not see a cat, but is merely lying or confabulating. So in the world of the brain scanners, the way facts are discovered about the physical world are, in principle, no different from the way facts are discovered about the inner world of experience. This is why I emphasized the point about higher-order theory. When we report on our experience now by saying “I see a cat”, this is possible because some part of our brain is reacting to another part. You could call it a biologically evolved brain-scanner. Except it’s one part of the brain scanning other parts of the brain in the way the scanned parts scan the external world. Brain scanning technology is just an evolution of this ability for self-perception, but I don’t think it marks a radical epistemological shift (I think this is a Sellarsian point). In a world of brain scanners, the old concepts of “privacy” would begin to break down. It might achieve the same practical goal of communication as our current language games, but the erosion of the concept of psychological privacy would surely have some large effect on our conceptual schemes.

      • Hi Gary

        I think it’s important to note that “I can tell he sees a cat because of x” is not the same as “‘seeing a cat’ means x”. The brain scanner might well allow us to verify all sorts of new things and I’m sure that would have an impact on our concepts and vocabulary (such changes are pretty commonplace; just think of the telephone and the internet). But it wouldn’t tell us what seeing a cat really is any more than a 100% reliable lie-detector would tell us what a lie really is.

        If “I see a cat” is a piece of folk-psychology that stands in need of scientific clarification, then what about THIS piece of folk-psychology: “My brain-scanner is telling me that I see a cat”? How do you verify THAT?

        The important thing is that language is bound up with activity. That’s where it gets its purpose from. And so long as we’re going to interact with objects such as cats then we’re going to need a syntax that’s more or less like the one we have. Of course, something like a brain-scanner could change what we DO (and that would in part change our syntax) but changing what one does is not the same as finding out what one really does.

      • Gary said: I think it’s important to note that “I can tell he sees a cat because of x” is not the same as “‘seeing a cat’ means x”.

        The word “tell” makes me a touch worried, but lets simplify the language a touch.

        To say “I see that he sees a cat” is to claim “I see that he is doing whatever it is that ‘seeing at cat’ is”.

        Or at least there are very good approaches to psychology and philosophy willing to make that move. It is a dead end to claim that I can know nothing about your seeing, and so I must pass over it in silence. Much better to admit that I see your seeing all the time, and try to determine what (exactly) it is that I see under those circumstances. Yes?

        This is a common thread, I think, between William James, Ryle, Holt, and (though I know it much less well than you, so I would love to know your reaction) late Wittgenstein.

    • Charles Wolveron

      So, Phil, we meet again!

      I agree with the thrust of your comment, but think your example of an alternative vocabulary obscures “what we gain” by having one.

      Put into language I prefer, I take your argument to be that folk psychology is a language game played with one vocabulary, formal psychology is a language game played with a different vocabulary. The point of different vocabularies is to allow alternative descriptions of some “salient causal pattern in the world” [see Note 1 below] where each description is especially suited to particular purposes. The vocabulary of folk psychology is suited to the purposes of quotidian life, that of psychology to specialized purposes. Similarly, Gary’s hypothetical vocabulary of physiology is suited to yet other specialized purposes.

      The vocabularies are “different” in the sense that they are not mutually reducible – ie, translatable – one into the other. [See note 2 below.] But although I take it that you didn’t mean it to be, “Y soo a cit.” appears to be no less translatable to the folk idiom than is “Ich sehe eine Katze.” I tried to answer Gary’s question (in my mind) in an existing vocabulary that doesn’t appear to be translatable into folk idiom. So, I asked myself what sorts of high level changes occur in a person upon seeing a cat? One type of change is modification of dispositions to act, an obvious example being to become disposed, under some conditions, to utter “I see a cat.” The seer may also be disposed to pet it, chase it away, etc, depending on extant conditions.This descriptive vocabulary, which addresses behavior, seems well suited to purposes of formal psychology, but not to folk psychology. One might also describe the changes in terms of state changes in the brain using a vocabulary suited to physiology but clearly not translatable into a folk idiom.

      Hopefully, this way of looking at the relationship between vocabularies suggests that at least for now, something is indeed gained by having multiple options depending on present objectives. Although perhaps not when we all become Antipodeans.

      Note 1. This language is pirated from Ramberg;s essay “Post-ontological Phil of Mind: Rorty vs Davidson” in “Rorty and his Critics” (highly recommended).

      Note 2. Untranslatability is what I take to be the “definitional irreducibilty” aspect of Davidson’s anomalous monism. I don’t yet adequately understand what his final position on the “nomological irreducibilty” aspect was, but at least for now I remain a skeptic re that aspect.

  2. a scientifically literate society could internalize computer generated analyses of brain scanning data.

    I think that there is a ‘concievability-is-not-possibility’ criticism to be leveled, here. Neural processing of visual input is fairly intelligible at early stages (V1, V2) but later stages become increasingly baffling, and as I understand it we don’t even have a working theory of what the hell is going on in V4. Simply referring to ‘brain scanning data’ is unhelpful, here: the very idea of this kind of ‘data’ presupposes a well-tested theory, one which we don’t have. Furthermore, even if you assume that such a theory is on its way, you would have to show how, given the psychological makeup of human beings, such neuro-speak could actually be taught to children, given the way they learn language.

    Just as dualists aren’t free to posit the possibility of zombies, the rest of us aren’t allowed to assume that Rorty’s scenario is possible without a lot more argumentation.

    • Gary Williams

      Hi Nick,

      Just recently some brain scientists were able to decode brain scanning data into movies:

      Ok, so this is still pretty primitive. But take this technology, and now imagine a billion years of sustained improvement in the technology (assuming that human society sticks around for another billion years). Now apply a kind of “extended mind” argument whereby intimately growing up with technology allows for an augmentation of the mind and you have a case where children (with a billion years of co-evolution with technology) can plausibly internalize brain-scanning data to the point necessary to establish my Rortian scenario.

      Of course, it’s also plausible that human society will never sustain it’s technological growth for a billion years; we might wipe ourselves out long before then. But I assume it’s at least possible. Look at the growth of sophistication brain scanning analyses in the last 20 years. Is it really so impossible that in a billion years children could soak up neural speak in the way current children soak up folk psychological discourse? Take the “movies of the brain” technology we have right now, make a billion years of progress, add a billion years of co-evolution with technology, and you have a recipe for eliminative materialism. I agree this is wildly implausible and speculative, but I think it’s at least possible, and that’s all I need.

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