Ryle, Gilbert (1900–76)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD060-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 20, 2024, from

1. Early influences

Gilbert Ryle was born in 1900 in Brighton, England, and went to the Queen’s College, Oxford, as a Scholar in Classics. He read Literae Humaniores (Classics and Philosophy) and then Modern Greats (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). In 1924 he became a Lecturer in Philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford, and was to remain at Oxford University for the whole of his academic life.

In a deliberate attempt to avoid sinking into what he felt was a rather parochial philosophical atmosphere at Oxford, in the first few decades of the twentieth century Ryle deliberately directed his academic gaze outwards. He travelled to Cambridge to hear Moore, Russell and Wittgenstein, and set himself the task of reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as well as dipping into Russell’s Principia Mathematica. Ryle also set out to gain some knowledge of contemporary continental European philosophy. He taught himself German and read Husserl’s Logische Untersuchungen, as well as some Croce, Gentile, Meinong, Brentano, Bolzano and Frege. Against the prevailing fashion he offered at Oxford ‘an unwanted course of lectures, entitled “Logical Objectivism: Bolzano, Brentano, Husserl and Meinong”’, which became known as ‘Ryle’s three Austrian railway stations and one Chinese game of chance’. Indeed Ryle’s first published pieces of philosophical writing were book reviews of works by the Polish philosopher Ingarden (a follower of Husserl) and Heidegger.

As with the Cambridge school, so with the Continentals, Ryle was principally interested in their philosophical logic, and this is reflected in the titles of his earliest papers, ‘Negation’ (1929), ‘Are There Propositions?’ (1930) and following shortly after, ‘Imaginary Objects’ (1933a), ‘About’ (1933b) and ‘Internal Relations’ (1935).

In the introduction to his Collected Papers, Ryle remarks that ‘to elucidate the thoughts of a philosopher we need to find the answer not only to the question “What were his intellectual worries?” but, before that question and after that question, the answer to the question “What was his overriding worry?”’ (1971: ix). Ryle himself declared that his overriding worry concerned the nature and function of philosophy itself. This question has arisen from time to time in philosophy but, through the influence both of the scientistic doctrines of logical positivism and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and also because of the remarkable inroads which natural science seemed to be making into the subject matter of philosophy, the question became particularly insistent in the 1920s.

Ryle gave his answer in the seminal paper, ‘Systematically Misleading Expressions’ (1932). His uncompromising and restricted view of philosophy, as ‘the exercise of systematic restatement’, became one of the major influences on the style and content of mid-century English-speaking philosophy. It led to those who felt sympathetic to Ryle’s (and to some extent Wittgenstein‘s) view of philosophy being dubbed ‘Ordinary Language Philosophers’ and to their movement, if it could be called that, being called ‘Linguistic Analysis’ (seeOrdinary language philosophy, school of §§2–3).

When Ryle came to the task of working out his programme of ‘systematic restatement’ in more detail, it turned out to consist mainly of two subsidiary tasks, a positive and a negative one. The negative task was concerned with exposing and correcting conceptual mistakes perpetrated by philosophers’ mishandling of ordinary language in the course of propounding and defending philosophical theories. The positive task consisted in what he later described as ‘conceptual cartography’ or the job of getting clear about the basic categories that were or should be operative in some area of knowledge.

These views were among the influences that shaped the style of English-speaking philosophy in the twentieth century. He believed that the ‘growing passion for ratiocinative rigour’ was to be satisfied by ever more careful, step-by-step conceptual analysis. Great emphasis was to be placed on getting clear about the exact meaning of terms and, in consequence, on the exact usage of them. Ryle’s views about the nature of philosophy also influenced the subject matter of philosophy, because he felt, with Wittgenstein, that philosophers should eschew theorizing and be content with the logico-linguistic analysis of concepts. In turn, this meant that for several decades philosophy in much of the English-speaking world became heavily weighted towards the analysis of language.

For most of the Second World War Ryle was engaged in intelligence work. In 1945, he was elected to the Waynflete Chair of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford, which had lain vacant since R.G. Collingwood’s death in 1943. In his Inaugural Lecture, entitled ‘Philosophical Arguments’, Ryle expanded on his views about the nature of philosophy. ‘Philosophical reasoning,’ he proclaimed, ‘separates the genuine from the erroneously assumed logical powers of abstract ideas by using the reductio ad absurdum argument as its flail and winnowing fan,’ and philosophers of genius are those who have the insight to see, then flail and winnow, new abstract ideas which then become the core of some new area of enquiry or some new way of making sense of an old area of enquiry.

Citing this article:
Lyons, William. Early influences. Ryle, Gilbert (1900–76), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD060-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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