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Friday, February 10, 2012

Stanley on Ryle: A Criticism

I have some more critical remarks to make about the first chapter of Jason Stanley's new book, Know How.  I've read a bit more of the chapter, thanks to amazon's "search inside this book" function, but it won't let me read the whole thing.  (Funds are tight and shipping to Poland ain't cheap, and neither is the kindle edition.)

Reading Stanley on Ryle reminds me of the parable about blind men describing an elephant, but in this case, it's more like blind men describing various species of bird, but being told that they're all elephants.  I often feel like Stanley isn't talking about Ryle at all.  Even when he uses direct quotations, he sees birds instead of elephants.

On page one, Stanley introduces Ryle's The Concept of Mind (1949) as "the most systematic attempt to prove what philosophers and laypersons typically assume, that what guides us in action is a distinct cognitive capacity from what guides us in reflection."

That's fascinating, since Ryle explicitly and clearly says the exact opposite.  According to Ryle, reflection is one species of intelligent action among many.  That is what allows him to make the following regress argument (see Ryle, pp. 30-31):

The crucial objection to the intellectualist legend is this. The consideration of propositions is itself an operation the execution of which can be more or less intelligent, less or more stupid. But if, for any operation to be intelligently executed, a prior theoretical operation had first to be performed and performed intelligently, it would be a logical impossibility for anyone ever to break into the circle. 
Let us consider some salient points at which this regress would arise. According to the legend, whenever an agent does anything intelligently, his act is preceded and steered by another internal act of considering a regulative proposition appropriate to his practical problem. But what makes him consider the one maxim which is appropriate rather than any of the thousands which are not? Why does the hero not find himself calling to mind a cooking recipe, or a rule of Formal Logic? Perhaps he does, but then his intellectual process is silly and not sensible.  Intelligently reflecting how to act is, among other things, considering what is pertinent and disregarding what is inappropriate. Must we then say that for the hero's reflections how to act to be intelligent he must first reflect how best to reflect how to act? The endlessness of this implied regress shows that the application of the criterion of appropriateness does not entail the occurrence of a process of considering this criterion.

I'm not making this up.  Ryle explicitly argues that reflection can be done intelligently or unintelligently, mistakenly or appropriately, just like any other sort of action.  And on that basis Ryle concludes that intelligent reflection cannot be a prerequisite for intelligent action. This is one of the most important and influential arguments of Ryle's career, and Stanley got it wrong.  Not just wrong, but backwards.

This calls for some sort of explanation.  It cannot be a lack of intelligence or effort.  Moreover, Stanley has got plenty of colleagues nearby to object to his take on Ryle.  So what happened?  What it suggests, though certainly doesn't prove, is that there is a deep ideological bias against Ryle in the profession.

Moving on . . . After that first howler, there's Stanley's claim that Ryle's argument relies on a variety of verificationism.  I've recently countered this accusation at length already, but Stanley is willing to ignore the point.  Just as soon as he has made the accusation, he offers to "prescind from the charge of verificationism" (Stanley, p. 7) without explanation.  Considering just how misguided the accusation was in the first place, this should give us pause.  It could indicate a deeper misunderstanding of Ryle's argumentative strategy.

My claim, which is in no ways novel or controversial, is that Ryle was developing a pragmatic view of meaning in a style which is now identified as part of the ordinary language philosophy movement.  Stanley is aware of this, and even mentions it.  In The Concept of Mind, Ryle sets out to explore the logical behavior of many of our key mental-conduct terms.  The goal is to identify some of the category errors that lead philosophers and psychologists into confusion about the nature of mind and mental faculties.  He looks at how people talk about minds and thereby evaluates the currency in which our mental idiom circulates.  It is an exercise in philosophical pragmatism, not verificationism.

On the one hand, Stanley says (p. 7) that Ryle "assumes a theory of meaning which connects linguistic meaning to verifiability."  Then, immediately after offering to prescind that claim, Stanley indirectly accuses Ryle of making the following assumption: "the only way to make the applicability of mental-conduct concepts knowable is to characterize them as dispositional properties."  Stanley thinks that Ryle settled on dispositionalism because Ryle didn't know there were other ways people could know the correct application of their mental-conduct concepts.  For Stanley, Ryle's argumentative aim is to find a way to make the applicability of our mental-conduct concepts knowable.  If Ryle had been applying a verificationist view of meaning to ground our knowledge of the mind, maybe that's the sort of thing he would have been aiming at, but that's not what Ryle was doing.  It's birds instead of elephants.

Ryle wasn't doing epistemology.  His aim was to figure out just what people mean when they use mental-conduct concepts.  More specifically, he wanted to explain why people get so muddled when they try to understand the relationship between the mind and the body.  True, Ryle is interested in what is or is not knowable, and Stanley points to some passages where Ryle discusses knowability.  Ryle's aim in these passages is not to account for knowability, but simply to recognize it as one of the salient aspects of our discourse.  Ryle takes it as a given that we apply criteria when we make judgments about minds and intelligence.  He then wonders:  What sorts of criteria could we be applying in these cases?  Knowable criteria would certainly trump unknowable criteria--not because the applicability of criteria is a prerequisite for meaning, but because it is a prerequisite of it being criteria in the first place.  Ryle approached dispositionalism (but didn't fully embrace it, at least not any naive version of it:  see here) because it seemed to him the best way to understand the mental idiom.  Ryle wanted to explain the criteria itself, not what allows people to apply the criteria correctly.

Next, Stanley accuses Ryle of presenting a crude behaviorism.  After quoting Julia Tanney, a leading Ryle scholar who warns against associating Ryle with behaviorism, Stanley quotes the following passage from Ryle:
Besides being currently supplied with these alleged immediate data of consciousness, a person is also generally supposed to be able to exercise from time to time a special kind of perception, namely inner perception, or introspection. He can take a (nonoptical) '1ook' at what is passing in his mind. Not only can he view and scrutinize a flower through his sense of sight and listen to and discriminate the notes of a bell through his sense of hearing; he can also reflectively or introspectively watch, without any bodily organ of sense, the current episodes of his inner life.
Stanley says that this view of the mind is part of what Ryle was out to reject.  True enough. Ryle rejects the idea of introspection as a mysterious, otherworldly sort of perception.  This is clear from what he says in the rest of the paragraph (which Stanley did not find relevant enough to include):
This self-observation is also commonly supposed to be immune from illusion, confusion or doubt. A mind's reports of its own affairs have a certainty superior to the best that is possessed by its reports of matters in the physical world. Sense-perceptions can, but consciousness and introspection cannot, be mistaken or confused.
But this does not amount to a denial of inner experience.  Stanley draws attention to Ryle's chapter on imagination, where Ryle claims that when we normally talk of mental images, seeing in the mind's eye, or hearing sounds in our heads, we are not necessarily talking about actual images or sounds, and there need not be any actual seeing or hearing going on.  Stanley concludes that Ryle is adhering to a "behaviorist metaphysics" which forces him to "repudiate mental images."  Yet, what Ryle says in that chapter (Ryle, p. 247) is that "imaging occurs, but images are not seen."  Ryle's point is more about words describing perception, such as "see" and "hear," and less about whether or not there is something internal going on which we might call a "mental image."

Ryle does not deny that something hidden from view is going on when we talk about seeing or hearing things in our minds, but argues that what is happening isn't seeing or hearing. His point is that we no more mean that we really see something in our minds than we mean that an actor on stage has really murdered the victim in the story. Thus, Ryle writes:  "If a person who has recently been in a burning house reports that he can still 'smell' the smoke, he does not think that the house in which he reports it is itself on fire. However vividly he 'smells' the smoke, he knows that he smells none . . ."

Ryle does not deny internal events, conscious experiences, and such.  He only denies that so-called "mental images" are actual pictures, like drawings or photographs.  When we imagine a tune, for example, we do not hear it.  Rather, we follow it ourselves, employing our knowledge of how it goes (or how it looks, in the case of a visual image).  Ryle says (p. 265): "A person with a tune running in his head is using his knowledge of how the tune goes; he is in a certain way realising what he would be hearing, if he were listening to the tune being played."  Seeing an image in the mind's eye, Ryle says, is just thinking about what something looks like; it's not actually seeing something that resembles the real thing.  So, seeing the Mona Lisa in your mind does not consist in seeing something that resembles the Mona Lisa.  It just consists in thinking about what the Mona Lisa looks like.  Ryle again, on pages 254-255:
We do picture or visualise faces and mountains, just as we do, more rarely, 'smell' singed hoofs, but picturing a face or a mountain is not having before us a picture of the face or mountain, it is something that having a physical likeness in front of one's nose commonly helps us to do, though we can and often do do it without any such promptings.
We might, with neuroscientific progress, find pictures of the Mona Lisa popping up in the brain.  That might help disprove Ryle's thesis, but not necessarily.  Such images could be a byproduct of our thinking about the Mona Lisa.  It wouldn't prove that our "seeing" the Mona Lisa consisted in us actually seeing the picture generated in our brain.

I'm not interested in defending everything Ryle says about the imagination or conscious experience, but it's clear that in The Concept of Mind, Ryle wasn't the sort of behaviorist Stanley makes him out to be.  Ryle does not deny the salience of conscious experience.  Yet, Ryle does suggest that "mental capacities are nothing over and above purely physical behavioral dispositions," as Stanley says (Stanley, p. 10).  For Stanley, this is worthy of the title "Behaviorism."  Okay.  I'll take that, but it's not the crude behaviorism Stanley was accusing Ryle of earlier in the chapter. (See here for more on this point.)  Moreover, Stanley is mistaken when he talks about Ryle's allegedly post-behaviorist period of the late 70s, when Ryle identified "theoretical thinking" as something detached from the "urgency of the moment."  Ryle has not clearly detached any sort of thinking from behavior simpliciter.  He has just detached one kind of thinking from one kind of behavior.  This is perfectly consistent with The Concept of Mind.  The Ryle of 1949 does not assume that thinking is always and only directly related to our immediate practical concerns.

I've argued before that Ryle was friendly with a certain sort of behaviorism:  epistemological behaviorism.  He approached knowledge in behavioral terms, but he included both internal and external behavior in his bag.  He didn't deny that we privately observe and experience ourselves in ways practically unavailable to other people.  However, he did analyze knowledge and the mental in terms directly relating to behavior, and nothing else.  Still, calling him a "behaviorist" requires a good deal of qualification, since the term is likely to be misleading.

I will have more to say about Stanley's treatment of Ryle.  I hope to read the rest of the chapter and complete my criticism sooner rather than later.  I haven't even gotten to what he says about knowing how and knowing that, though, as I noted earlier, he seems to have gotten something very big wrong there, as well.