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.