Wednesday, February 1, 2012

An Objection to Stanley's Accusation that Ryle Appeals to Verificationism

As I noted in my previous post on Jason Stanley's new book, Know How, Stanley makes the troubling claim that Gilbert Ryle appeals to verificationism. It's an odd claim if only because Ryle was a critic of verificationism (as Stanley observes in a footnote) and developed a very different theory of meaning. For Ryle, meaning is a matter of use. Therefore, if we are going to accuse Ryle of appealing to verificationism, we should make sure the evidence is very strong, or else charity would warn us against it. As it stands, the evidence looks exceedingly weak.


Stanley's allegation is that Ryle supposes that mental-conduct terms would be meaningless if their correct application were not known in particular cases. That would look like a variety of verificationism, but it isn't what Ryle seems to be saying.

Here is the passage from Ryle which Stanley quotes (the original can be found in chapter 1 of Ryle's The Concept of Mind):

"According to the [Cartesian] theory, external observers could never know how the overt behaviour of others is correlated with their mental powers and processes and so they could never know or even plausibly conjecture whether their applications of mental-conduct concepts to these other people were correct or incorrect . It would then be hazardous or impossible for a man to claim sanity or logical consistency even for himself, since he would be debarred from comparing his own performances with those of others. In short, our characterisations of persons and their performances as intelligent, prudent and virtuous or as stupid, hypocritical and cowardly could never have been made."

Ryle says our characterizations "could never have been made," and not that they would be meaningless. This is a causal-historical point.  We do make characterizations; we do apply criteria; yet Cartesianism says we cannot.  If Cartesianism were true, then we would have no possible causal-historical explanation for our mental-conduct concepts. It's not that our terms would lack meaning as per verificationism, but that we would have no way of accounting for how the meaning (as use) of our terms came about. The meaning of our terms would be impossible in the sense that the use of our terms would have no possible causal-historical explanation. Ryle's claim is not that meaning requires knowing how to apply criteria in specific cases, but that having criteria is worthy of a causal-historical explanation. Cartesianism says we cannot know how to apply our criteria, which means the fact that we do apply criteria is absurd.

Ryle continues to explain his point (Stanley cuts him off in mid-sentence):

"In short, our characterisations of persons and their performances as intelligent, prudent and virtuous or as stupid, hypocritical and cowardly could never have been made, so the problem of providing a special causal hypothesis to serve as the basis of such diagnoses would never have arisen. The question, 'How do persons differ from machines' arose just because everyone already knew how to apply mental-conduct concepts before the new causal hypothesis was introduced. This causal hypothesis could not therefore be the source of the criteria used in those applications. Nor, of course, has the causal hypothesis in any degree improved our handling of those criteria."

The question Ryle raises is this: How could it be that we talk so clearly and effectively about other people's minds, when we lack the foundation that Cartesian philosophers say we need before we can apply our concepts to other people's minds? The very fact of our everyday judgments is a testament to the fact that we don't need a Cartesian foundation to talk about other people's minds.

Ryle's is a clear example of pragmatic reasoning.  To understand our discourse about minds, we have to understand how mental concepts are used, and that means understanding the behaviors which the discourse attempts to manipulate, explain and predict. But, if Cartesianism were true, then the use of our discourse would become a mystery. If our mental-conduct concepts were disconnected from observations of other people's behavior, then our entire discourse would lack a causal explanation.  By disconnecting our discussion of the mind with our perception of behavior, Cartesianism makes it impossible to account for the fact that we talk about minds at all. All talk of minds would become a great mystery (one which somebody like Alvin Plantinga would be only too happy to exploit).