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Where is 'I'?

by D.R. Khashaba

Thanks to Professor T. R. Miles, a previously unpublished lecture of Gilbert Ryle's has appeared in the journal, Philosophy. "Courses of Action or the Uncatchableness of Mental Acts" encapsulates Ryle's philosophy of mind in an attempt to explain why both Cartesian Introspectionism and behaviourism fail to 'catch' mental acts. I seek to show that, while Ryle adequately explains why Introspectionists and behaviourists necessarily fail to 'catch' any mental act, there is a more fundamental reason which Ryle, as an Empiricist, has no place for. If mind and body are two dimensions of one thing, then all actual human doings can be represented in terms of bodily happenings, yielding linguistic formulations. Subjective reality remains ineffable because language deals only with objective things and happenings, not with subjective realities. To deny or to forget those realities and to believe that the actually existent is all there is, is a grave error.

Prefatory note

Thanks to the generous initiative of Professor T. R. Miles, an important, previously unpublished, lecture of Gilbert Ryle's has appeared in Philosophy (Vol: 75, no 293, pp.331-351). "Courses of Action or the Uncatchableness of Mental Acts", prepared only two years before his death in 1976, continues Ryle's lifelong concern to exorcise the Cartesian 'ghost in the machine' and encapsulates Ryle's philosophy of mind in a fresh attempt to explain the reason why both Cartesian Introspectionism and behaviourism fail to 'catch' mental acts. In examining Ryle's important paper, I seek to show that, while the reason advanced by Ryle adequately explains why Introspectionists and behaviourists and others are ever doomed to fail to 'catch' any mental act, there is a more fundamental reason which Ryle, with his Empiricist approach, has no place for in his philosophy.


Ryle begins by depicting the problem of the uncatchableness of mental acts from an introspectionist perspective. When we try to describe 'the ways in which we had been mentally occupied' while thinking, our attempts 'are always total failure.' Why? Ryle rejects en passant the Freudian explanation of the elusiveness of mental acts by inventing a Subconscious or Unconscious Mind in which they hide away. He then suggests it might be 'our ideas of act-description or process-chronicling that [are] the source of the trouble'. To illustrate this suggestion he offers an allegory. A camera-proud boy at the zoo after happily snapping a variety of the zoo's denizens, follows a finger-post marked 'Mammals' and takes photos of a lion, a wolf, an otter, but looks in vain for a mammal. The boy sees 'Danger' notices displayed here and there, but cannot have a photo of Danger to keep on his album. 'The term 'danger' is semantically too sophisticated or of too High an Order to permit it to occupy sentence-vacancies that welcome specific terms like "lion", or even generic terms like "mammal" and "danger".'

Ryle then promises 'to show, in partial analogy, that our powers of thought-description can be baffled by their would-be objects being, like dangers, semantically of too High an(d) Order'. He is to find a place 'for the notion of Thinking, between our so-called "outer" and our so-called "inner" lives, between reductionism and duplicationism about "mental acts" and "mental processes".' So, by analogy to the distinction between the lion and the otter, on the one hand, which the boy could snap, and, on the other hand, the Mammal and the Danger that he could not locate, Ryle now draws a distinction, with an abundance of illustrative examples, between an action, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a course of action or chain-undertaking or Super-action. An example of action is eating this piece of cake or whistling to your puppy; an example of a chain-undertaking is dieting or puppy-training. Dieting, puppy-training, exploring, researching, are not actions but 'purposive Higher Order chain undertakings under which various actions proper are tactically conducted.'


I will now offer some comments to show why I find this explanation interesting, instructive, enlightening, but not completely satisfactory, because it offers to give us Hamlet, leaving out the Prince.

Gilbert Ryle is right about the uncatchableness of mental acts, and he is right in holding that neither reductionism nor duplicationism about 'mental acts' and 'mental processes' can give us the understanding we need. However, Ryle's own position is a species of reductionism. In common with all Analytical philosophers, he thinks that when we have created a conceptual distinction, that's where we have to stop. They are interested in 'mental acts', 'mental processes' — as acts and processes — and the conceptual pigeon-holes in which we can conveniently range those acts and processes. The activity itself which does all that, which is truly uncatchable because unobjectifiable, is of no practical importance and can be left out of the account.

Ryle, speaking of chain-undertakings, says, 'A snapshot cannot, but a cinematograph-film might show an explorer exploring.' I would say that neither would a cinematograph-film, nor anything in any way objective, show an explorer exploring. The cinematograph-film would show what Ryle calls 'variegated infra-acts' (which he emphatically and correctly distinguishes from the overall chain-undertaking), but only the idea of exploration in the explorer's mind can make of those infra-acts an integral part, a meaningful moment, of the activity of exploration.

Ryle argues that the behaviourist would be wrong in concluding that dieting is an action or an activity, since it is a course of action. These distinctions are useful but they can never be hard and fast; besides, we don't need that for showing that behaviourism does not give an adequate account of mental events. No action, however simple, however seemingly instantaneous, is actually an irreducible particle of action. The reception by the eye of a ray of light (I intentionally put it as naively as possible) is no more susceptible of being reduced to atomic constituents than our good old solid matter has proved to be.

He admits: 'We have no regulations to fix what shall and what shall not count as a single action rather than as a combination or sequence of numerically different actions; and we have no regulations to fix what shall count as an action and not as a mere reaction, reflex, output of energy, automatism, or spasm.' This admission virtually negates the distinction. It is, strictly speaking, impossible to find any 'single' action that is truly single. I have a cup of coffee before me. Not even each single sip is a single action: I stretch my arm, hold the cup, raise it to my lips, sip, swallow: each of these 'simple' acts in turn can be broken down into others. A single instant, a single impression, a single reflex, a single spasm, are all fictions, useful and indispensable fictions, but fictions nonetheless.

While rightly seeking to show the inadequacy of behaviourism and reductionism in dealing with chain-undertakings, Ryle reduces the chain-undertaking or supra-action to a token word without any content. After giving a long list of examples 'of familiar kinds of things in our adherence to which we are engaging in courses of action o[r] chain-undertakings', he says, 'A person follows a programme of any of these and other kinds ... only by regularly or duly (etc.) conducting his appropriate infa-actions in intentional subordination to the programme.' Where does that leave the programme? The programme of course is an idea, but an idea which is and must be of very poor specificity. No infra-action is included in all its minute details in the programme, and yet it is not a chance happening or an arbitrary action. It is shaped by the programme in virtue of a plasticity in the programme; but that plasticity would be impossible if the programme were nothing but an abstract idea; the plasticity comes from the creativity of the mind in which alone the programme has its being.

The behaviourist, when he finds that 'the student's supposedly unique action of studying the German language cannot be equated' with this or that particular action, is driven to identify it instead 'with some particular but jellyfishy, "internal" act or process', and this, Ryle finds, is absurd. 'The category-difference of, say, the particular action of eating a piece of toast from the Higher Order course of action of dieting was misconstrued as the supposed mere "sortal" difference of doing a particular overt or bodily thing from doing a particular crypto or "mental" thing.' But the fault lies not in propounding a distinction between an overt or bodily thing and an internal or mental thing, but in regarding that 'thing', as an act, and, equally seriously, in seeking to identify the 'Higher Order course' with anything whatever. The supra-action, chain-undertaking, programme, or however you name it, is not to be identified with this or that, but is to be found in the mind, as a creative issue of living intelligence.


Ryle believes that the uncatchableness of mental acts is explained by their being thought-complexes involving subordinate clauses. That is a good piece of logical analysis. But what sustains those injunctions (programmes, etc.) comprising the subordinate clauses? What gives them the virtue of unfolding, realizing themselves in a manifold of related particular acts, processes, etc? It is that they inhere in a living, active, creative mind, that itself is uncatchable not because it is a phantom or a slippery jellyfish or a second- or third-order logical entity, but because it is a reality that, since its nature is to be the arche and aitia of all existence, cannot itself exist (ex-sist).

Second-order concepts have no existence. Empiricists conclude that they are nothing but words. No; they are not mere words: they are realities without which existents do not exist for us. They constitute the reality of our being as intelligent beings.

Further on we read, 'Waiting for a train, like keeping a secret o[r] postponing writing a letter, is not an action. ... Rather it is a course of action or a chain-undertaking with a negative supra-purpose tactically governing its infra-actions and inactions.' Ryle's argument, in common with all Analytical philosophy, suffers from a mental blind spot. When Analytical philosophers have succeeded in giving a good analysis of a concept, they are no longer interested in the meaningfulness of the concept. Being fundamentally Empiricists they are not only ready to, but are determined to, forget about the mind behind the meaning.


Under the rubric 'Application', Ryle sums up what he means to achieve. I will quote this short paragraph in full:

I want, in the end, to achieve an impartially anti-Dualist and anti-Reductionist categorial(,) re-settlement of at least some 'mental acts' and 'mental processes', including, especially, the cogitations of Le Penseur. I am hoping to have found, in this notion of courses of action, a hitherto unsponsored categorial hostel in which the logical grammarian may, at once unmysteriously and unreductively, at once unprivately and publicly house the notion of pondering. In this hostel it will be under the same roof as (though on a higher and airier floor than) such notions as dieting, waiting, wheat-growing, exploring, spring-cleaning, studying, puppy-training, etc.

I have already stated the view that Ryle's 'anti-Reductionist' position is itself a species of reductionism. By 'anti-Dualist', moreover, Ryle obviously means to indicate a position opposed to the assertion of the reality of subjective states — in other words, the reality of the mind, hence the scare-quotes wherever the word 'mental' occurs.

Ordinary Language philosophers seem to think that by collecting as many specimens as possible of particular instances of a given concept, they have exhausted or come as closely as is practically possible to exhausting the meaning of the concept. They have not absorbed the first lesson of the Socratic elenchus, namely, that drawing up an inventory of instances is not the same thing as grasping the meaning of the concept. Ryle again and again lists tens of examples to show us that dieting is not only not the same thing as, but also not the same kind of thing, as eating; that practising is not only not the same thing, but also not the same kind of thing as doing. That is all very good as far as it goes, and the distinction drawn between the concept of action and that of a course of action is a useful and important distinction. But that bypasses the question of what is behind not only a course of action but even the simplest action — for the simplest of actions cannot bring itself about; its antecedents cannot bring it about: Hume long ago shattered that myth; only the creativity of an autonomous mind can bring anything about.

Ryle affirms, 'Only where there is exploration, innovation, origination, enterprise or the essaying of something new, can there be experimenting; only where there is intentional repetition, acclimatisation, rehearsal, consolidation or self-drilling can there be the intention to school oneself in something.' That is well-said. But we are nowhere given any hint as to whom or to what that exploration, innovation, and intention are to be credited. Ryle at this point would of course be irritated by my stupidity: the whole point is that these things are not to be credited to anyone or any-what because they are no-thing, no-action. But I will persist in being stupid: because they are no-thing and no-action they are a higher, purer, kind of 'thing'. They are projects, intentions, etc., which will never have any actual existence — agreed! — but whose particular existent instances could never come to exist but for the mind in which they germinate and breed their progeny blessed with respectable existentiality. If our insistence on this brands us with stupidity, let us on top of that be impudent enough to say that those who deny it are simply obstinately refusing to acknowledge that they themselves are not merely existent but have a reality over and above their existence.

All of this applies pari passu to the problem of thinking. Someone trying to solve a problem, as Ryle rightly affirms, 'is certainly to be described, with hardly a tinge of metaphor, as exploring or researching.' Ryle also rightly affirms that the thinker's thinking 'does not reduce' to the 'subordinated various infra-actions, steps or moves'. What then? My point is that we cannot stop here. There is still one more thing that we need to bring out: the 'various infra-actions, steps or moves' cannot come into being, cannot happen, without the reality (which in my usage is not the same thing as, but opposed to, existence) of a mind behind them.

Ryle concludes, 'We now know one unmysterious reason why our attempts, whether introspective or behavioural, to "catch" oneself or another thinking performing the mental acts of which, while still grammatically hobbled, we expected Thought to consist is the same as the reason why we would equally vainly try to catch oneself or someone else in the here-and-now act of puppy-training' etc. I am at one with Ryle in maintaining that both introspectionists and behaviourists are equally engaged in a wild-goose chase. But I further maintain that the reason why they will never catch their goose is not for the 'unmysterious reason' that thinking is a Higher Order undertaking and that introspectionists and behaviourists fail to note the distinction between actions and courses of action, but rather the — in a sense — truly mysterious reason that we have minds whose nature is to be real but never exist.


Today, neuroscientists and philosophers of mind are like a child standing before a mirror, perplexedly saying, Here is my nose, here are my eyes, here are my arms... but where is I? The I, the mind, is not a 'ghost in the machine', for that was Descartes's gravest sin, that he broke up the whole person into a machine that could not move itself and a mind that was a mere phantom. Spinoza saw at once that that was a nonstarter: he restored the wholeness of Nature, the wholeness of Reality, the wholeness of the Person, but philosophers would not listen and continued to knock about errantly between Cartesian dualism and Empiricist phenomenalism.

Ryle, like all Analytic philosophers who share a common Empiricist background, in showing the error of Descartes's dualism did not, like A.N. Whitehead, restore the wholeness of the whole but was content with the objective half. Naturally, if mind and body are two aspects or two dimensions of one thing, as Spinoza thought, then all actual human doings can be successfully represented in terms of bodily happenings. The temptation then to forget about the 'inner' (the spatial metaphor is bad but pardonable) aspect is great, and great are its pernicious consequences.

Because the Cartesian body was confessedly a machine, the mind inhering in it could be justly pilloried as a 'ghost in the machine', but I, writing these words, know that I am I and am not a category mistake. Ryle would say that the fact that I obviously and necessarily stammer in making this statement shows that I am speaking of a chimera. I answer, No; my reality is ineffable because language has been developed to deal with objective things and happenings, not with subjective realities. The poets trick language into conveying subjective realities — love, hope, fear — and philosophers, to give articulate expression to those realities, have to clothe those in myth as Plato knew. To deny or to forget those realities and to believe that the actually existent is all there is, is the death of humanity.

© D. R. Khashaba 2003

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