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Ghost in the machine

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The Ghost in the Machine is British philosopher Gilbert Ryle's derogatory description for Rene Descartes' mind-body dualism. The phrase was introduced in Ryle's book, The Concept of Mind, written in 1949. The phrase was meant by Ryle to emphasize that mental activity is of a different category from physical action, and that their means of interaction are unknown.

Much of the following material is from Arthur Koestler's discussion in his 1967 book which uses Ryle's phrase, The Ghost in the Machine as its title. The book's main focus is mankind's movement towards self-destruction, particularly in the nuclear arms arena. It is particularly critical of B. F. Skinner's behaviourist theory. One of the book's central concepts is that as the human brain has grown, it has built upon earlier more primitive brain structures, and that these are the "ghost in the machine" of the title. Koestler's theory is that at times these structures can overpower higher logical functions, and are responsible for hate, anger and other such destructive impulses.

The official doctrine Edit

"There is a doctrine about the nature and place of the mind which is prevalent among theorists, to which most philosophers, psychologists and religious teachers subscribe with minor reservations. Although they admit certain theoretical difficulties in it, they tend to assume that these can be overcome without serious modifications being made to the architecture of the theory." Ryle believes that the central principles of the doctrine are unsound and conflict with the entire body and what we know about the mind. With the doubtful exceptions of the mentally-incompetent and infants-in-arms, every human being has both a body and a mind. The body and the mind are ordinarily harnessed together, but after the death of the body, tradition holds that the mind continues to exist and function. According to the official doctrine each person has direct and unchangeable cognisance. In consciousness, self-consciousness and introspection, one is directly and authentically apprised of the present states of operation of the mind.

Private and public histories Edit

Bodily processes and states can be inspected by external observations. Thus a person’s bodily life is as much a public affair as are the lives of animals. But minds do not exist in space, nor are their operation subject to mechanical laws. The workings of the mind are not witnessable by other observers; its career is private. A person therefore lives through two collateral histories: one consisting of what happens to and with the body (public); the other consisting of what happens to and in the mind (private).

Ryle’s estimation of the official doctrine Edit

Ryle's philosophical arguments in his essay [1] largely consist of the suggestion that to speak of mind and body as a substance, as a dualist does, is to commit a Category-mistake. Ryle attempts to prove that the official doctrine is entirely false, not in detail but in principle, by asserting that it arises out of incorrectly confusing two logical-types, or categories, as being compatible; it represents the facts of mental life as if they belonged to one logical type/category, when they actually belong to another. The dogma is therefore a philosopher’s myth.

Category mistakes Edit

Category mistakes such as the ones in Ryle’s example are made by people who do not know how to properly wield the concepts with which they are working. Their puzzles arise from the inability to use certain items in human language. The theoretically interesting category mistakes are those made by people who are perfectly competent to apply concepts, at least in the situations with which they are familiar, but are still liable in their abstract thinking to relocate those concepts to logical types to which they do not belong.

One paradigm set forth by Ryle that is exemplary of an archetypal category mistake, is that of a foreign student visiting a university. As the student is shown the various campuses, buildings, libraries, fields, et cetera, the student asks, "But where is the university?" This is to equate the level of existence of the university with that of buildings, libraries, and campuses. However, the being of the university exists above such a level, as an encompassing whole or essence of such things, extending beyond mere plant and buildings (to include faculty, students, curricula, etc.), and not among them (i.e., on the same categorical level). The student commits a category mistake, by presupposing that the university exists on the same level as the buildings, when the university certainly exists on a quite different level.

The dualist doctrine establishes a polar opposition between mind and body. At the language level, the mental properties are logical negations (in Aristotelian sense) of the physical properties. So they belong, in accordance with the concept of category, to the same logical types, given that the expressions that are used for the descriptions of mental events are always mere negatives of the expressions used for the descriptions of material events. Ryle then says that such use implies a 'categorical mistake' for the descriptions of mental events that do not properly belong to the categories used for describing the corporeal events. Such mistake turned out to be, from the Rylean standpoint, the dogma of the mental ghost in the corporeal machine. Then, dualist doctrines are mythic in an analytical sense.

Origin of Cartesian category mistake Edit

Descartes, as a man of scientific genius could not but endorse the claims of mechanics, yet as a religious and moral man he could not accept, like Hobbes did, the discouraging rider to these claims, namely that human nature differs only in the degree of complexity from clockwork. (see God the Watchmaker). Descartes and subsequent philosophers naturally but erroneously believed they availed themselves of the following escape-route. Since mental conduct words are not to be construed as signifying the occurrence of mechanical processes; since the mechanical laws explain movements in space, other laws must explain some of the non-spatial workings of the mind. (The Ghost in the Machine)

In order to dissolve the Cartesian myth embedded in all philosophical speculations on the nature of mental events, Ryle had suggested the logical analysis of natural language and the correction of the categorical mistakes that are sunk in the ordinary discourse. Mental events properly belong to the category of relations, instead of belonging to the category of substance. From the dissolution of the Cartesian myth follows the dissolution of the mind-body distinction and, hence, the dissolution of the mind-body problem, since from the logical analysis of language, no real problem remains. There was only a pseudo-problem.


  1. [2] See "Descartes' Myth". This is the central article in which Ryle lays out his notion of the mistaken foundations of mind-body dualism conceptions (i.e. "The Ghost in the Machine" doctrines).

See also Edit

References Edit

  • The Ghost in the Machine, by Koestler, Arthur, Penguin 1990 reprint edition: ISBN 0140191925
  • "Descartes' Myth", in The Concept of Mind, by Gilbert Ryle. University Of Chicago Press: New Univer edition (2000)
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