Ryle's Critique of Cartesian Dualism

We began the last lecture with the claim

Descartes' dualism is a dualism about entities: minds and bodies are distinct kinds of entities. They form radically different categories.
While that is true, these radically different categories are nevertheless sub-categories of a yet wider category: that of entity with causal powers. Ryle, in his famous book The Concept of Mind, claims that this is Descartes' crucial error. He calls it a category mistake. According to Ryle, Descartes fundamentally misapprehends the nature of mind by treating minds as entities that causally interact with bodies. But, says Ryle, minds do not belong to the category of 'causal agent', or 'entity with causal powers'. Indeed, minds are not entities at all. We have to reconstrue or reconceptualize the mental, so that we can arrive at a better understanding of mental phenomena, mental states, mental events, mental processes, mental faculties, etc.; and, hopefully, arrive at a theory about mind that is closer to the truth than Cartesian dualism.

Before we can say what minds are, then, for Ryle, we need to explain his notion of a category mistake.

The best way to do this is to list Ryle's own examples of such mistakes. In the following table, each row represents a different category mistake. The mistake consists in assimilating the item in the second column to those in the first column. The mistake lies in not appreciating now the items in the second column are constituted by the items in the first column, or are abstract constructions out of them, or arise out of their organization or co-functioning.

Christ Church, Bodleian Library, Ashmolean Museum, ...The University of Oxford
Battalions, batteries, squadronsThe Division
Bowlers, batsmen, fielders, impires, scorersTeam spirit
Home Office, Church of England, Ministry of Defence, ...The British Constitution
John Doe, Richard Roe, ...The Average Taxpayer
A left-hand glove, a right-hand gloveThe pair of gloves

Armed now with the notion of a category mistake, we can understand Ryle's criticism of Descartes more fully: The Official Doctrine, says Ryle, is a philosopher's myth, the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine. It is generated by 'a family of radical category mistakes'.

Here is what Ryle says:

The origin of the category mistake in Descartes' thinking is to be found in two conflicting motives: to explain the workings of the mind; but to do so without making the mental a variety of the mechanical. Ryle wrote:

The differences between the physical and the mental were ... represented as differences inside the common framework of the categories of 'thing', 'stuff', 'attribute', 'stage', 'process', 'change', 'cause' and 'effect'. ... the repudiators of mechanism represented minds as extra centers of causal processes, rather like machines but also considerably different from them. Their theory was a paramechanical hypothesis. Minds are not bits of clockwork, they are just bits of not-clockwork.
According to Ryle, there are three ensuing difficulties for this view:
  1. how to account for Freedom of the Will;
  2. how to recognize the differences between rational and irrational utterances, and between automatic and purposive behavior;
  3. how to correlate over behavior with mental powers and processes.
None of these difficulties can be overcome by Cartesian dualism; so we need to fashion a different concept of mind. We examine Ryle's own positive proposals in the next lecture.