P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 126
12th April 2007
I. 'Wallace Stevens: The Impossible Possible Philosophers' Man' by Aine Kelly
II. 'Levinas, Totality and the Other' by Martin Jenkins
III. 'The contribution of Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind to the
study of Philosophy of Language' by Munamato Chemhuru
On the surface, there is little connection between the poet Wallace Stevens,
the Continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and the British analytic
philosopher Gilbert Ryle. However, study of their work reveals several
criss-crossing themes including that of the relation between the literal and
the metaphorical, the nature of philosophy and the nature of language.
Aine Kelly, a PhD student at Nottingham University, UK has contributed an
insightful essay on the poetry of Wallace Stevens, citing the American
philosopher Richard Rorty and the later work of Martin Heidegger as evidence of
the blurred line between poetry and philosophy.
Pathways mentor Martin Jenkins writes about the central theme of the philosophy
of Emmanuel Levinas, the recognition of our unthematisable ethical relation to
the Other -- the aspect of human relationship which cannot be assimilated into
any scheme or theory -- as a necessary counterpoint to the systematic pursuit
of scientific and philosophical knowledge.
Munamato Chemhuru is a BA student at the University of Zimbabwe. His overview
of the main themes of Gilbert Ryle's epoch-making book The Concept of
Mind brings out what was most valuable about linguistic analysis, its
Gordian-knot cutting capacity to dissolve traditional problems by uncovering
misleading metaphors and misuses of language.
I. 'WALLACE STEVENS: THE IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBLE PHILOSOPHERS' MAN' BY AINE KELLY
Of the major modernist poets, T.S. Eliot received the most extended academic
training in philosophy, yet it is Wallace Stevens whose work has been most
worried from a philosophical perspective. Stevens's poetry, in its recurrent
engagement with the epistemological nexus of subject, object and language, is a
testament to the deep affinities between theoretical positions usually described
as philosophical and concerns or themes that inform poetry at its most ambitious
and powerful. It is hardly surprising that Stevens's work has demonstrated a
remarkable productivity when presented in the philosophical contexts of
phenomenology (during the sixties), deconstruction (roughly from the
mid-seventies through the eighties), and American pragmatism (most notably in
However, the genre of poetry cannot simply be subsumed within philosophical
discourse and conceptual critique. In the case of Stevens, specifically, it is
crucial to remember that he is a poet, first and foremost and only secondarily
a philosopher. Stevens did engage with philosophical issues but only for the
purposes of writing poetry. In its constellating around philosophical issues,
however, we may still suggest that Stevens's work weaves a rich and elusive
epistemological texture, a texture that simultaneously sidesteps and exceeds
the traditionally philosophical. His poetic philosophizing thus offers fertile
ground for an examination of the central debates in academic philosophy and
literature. Foremost among these debates is the very question of philosophical
writing. What exactly does it mean to 'write philosophy'? What, if anything, is
the difference between a philosopher who writes poetically and a poet who writes
philosophically? Most importantly of all, if the writing of philosophy is
central to its achievement, where does the literary end and the philosophical
begin? The work of Stevens, both in its poetic example and its theoretical
prose, allows us to recast these questions in a fresh and illuminating manner.
In his 1942 essay, 'The Figure of the Youth as a Virile Poet', Stevens argues
that philosophers and poets pursue different forms of truth; logical truth and
empirical truth, respectively. Whereas people read philosophy for logical
possibility, they read poetry, he said, for fact: not 'bare fact' but 'fact
beyond their perception in the first instance and outside the normal range of
their sensibility'. With this pronouncement, Stevens echoes Eliot, whose
discussion of Dante led him to similar conclusions. Similarly, in 'A Collect of
Philosophy', Stevens argues that poets and philosophers are united in their
devotion to 'probing for an integration' of experience, but they differ in
their ends: 'The philosopher intends his integration to be fateful; the poet
intends his to be effective'.
In Stevens's view, then, the poet's theorizing is to be judged not on the basis
of its final and comprehensive truth, but rather by the pragmatic test. In
seeking to distinguish between the ends of the poet and the ends of the
philosopher, Stevens has here strayed into distinctions that are made within
the discipline of philosophy itself -- distinctions between representational
and pragmatic theories of truth.
On the pragmatist theory of truth, a theory inaugurated by Charles Sanders
Peirce and developed by William James, we entertain ideas as fictions or
hypotheses, or provisionally adapt them as beliefs, because they help us get
through the world in certain ways, other than by accurately depicting it (as on
the representational model). If we accept the pragmatic test of thought or, at
the very least, recognize its philosophical viability, then the distinction
between merely poetically playing with ideas and philosophically affirming them
is considerably blurred.
On a purely thematic level, the connection between Stevens's poetry and
pragmatist philosophy has been well made. Comparisons between Stevens's thought
and that of William James are explored by Margaret Peterson and Frank
Lentricchia, while David La Guardia's study, Advance on Chaos
focuses on the similarities between Stevens, James and Emerson. Joan
Richardson's recent publication A Natural History of Pragmatism places
Stevens in an American pragmatist heritage, beginning with Jonathan Edwards and
continuing with Gertrude Stein. The pragmatist connection has also been made on
a more stylistic/ linguistic level. Richard Poirier's analysis is foremost
among this critical practice. His Poetry and Pragmatism discovers a line
of linguistic scepticism that runs from Emerson through James and into the
twentieth century, there to infuse the poetry of Stevens and Frost, the work of
Gertrude Stein, the criticism of Kenneth Burke and Poirier's own critical
The pragmatist strain in Stevens's work certainly demands a re-thinking of
whether or not his poetry succeeds as philosophy. However, when making
connections between Stevens and Emerson or between Stevens and James, there is
a danger of over-stating the case. Proving that Stevens is a pragmatist, in
other words, is not tantamount to establishing him as a philosopher. Even
though William James's philosophy certainly strays outside the stylistic
parameters and Emerson's writing may, as Richard Poirier suggests, betray a
linguistic scepticism, these revelations perhaps tell us more about Emerson and
James as 'literary' philosophers than establish a case for Stevens as a
philosopher. The philosophy of pragmatism, while complicating the question of
poetry versus philosophy, doesn't completely collapse it. And in the case of
Stevens, the question remains: Is his poetic philosophizing capable of carrying
genuine philosophical weight?
At this point, it may be helpful to put aside the question of difference and
focus instead on the very idea of philosophical writing. In Consequences of
Pragmatism, Richard Rorty argues that there is no way in which one can
isolate philosophy as occupying a distinctive place in culture or concerned
with a distinctive subject or even proceeding by some distinctive method. There
is no 'essence' to academic philosophy. Rather, philosophy is 'a kind of
writing'. It is delimited, as is any literary genre not by form or matter, but
by tradition. Rorty continues:
All that 'philosophy' as a name for a sector of culture
means is 'talk about Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Kant,
Hegel, Frege, Russell... and that lot.' [...] It is a family
romance involving Father Parmenides, honest old Uncle Kant,
and bad brother Derrida.
Rorty's essay draws a further contrast between philosophy in the Kantian vein,
what Rorty terms 'a self-eliminating kind of writing', and a more Hegelian
writing, a form of philosophy that is 'self-extending'. The distinction here
is between a form of writing that seeks closure, a resolution to theoretical
difficulty, and a form of writing that is dialectic, that doesn't seek to 'get
it right'. This latter kind of writing doesn't seek to put an end to writing
(as Rorty charges the former does) but revels in its practice; Rorty's primary
example is the literary philosophy of Derrida.
Is it possible to extend the Rortian model of philosophy as a 'kind of writing'
to philosophical poetry? Certainly, the idea of writing as 'self-extension'
accords with the meandering and interrogative style of the later Stevens. If
one accepts philosophy as a self-extending aesthetic practice, one no longer
sees the need for a 'first philosophy', a coherentist picture, a view of all
possible views. One no longer sees the need, in other words, for conclusion or
closure. And on this model, is Stevens's poetry of the 'as if', his unity of
poetic fragments, his linguistic ability to keep contradictory possibilities in
suspension, a valid form of philosophical expression?
One of the markers of Rorty's holistic desire to conceive of philosophy as a
form of literary criticism is his tendency to refer to the major philosophers
as 'strong poets'. Rorty appropriates the term from Harold Bloom and
establishes the case for Heidegger, Nietzsche and Dewey; writers who open up
the paths of knowledge and seek to rejuvenate the paradigmatic philosophical
vocabulary. In exploring the template of strong poet and its relevance for
Stevens, it is perhaps more insightful to turn to Heidegger, one of Rorty's
philosophical heroes. For Rorty, the strong poet is epitomized by the figure of
Heidegger, a writer continually aware of the contingency of his own vocabulary
and the subsequent need for self re-description.
In his attempt to transcend the scientism of Western metaphysics, Heidegger
believed that a renewed 'poetico-philosophical' discourse was possible and,
indeed, necessary. His later work is curiously language-specific, increasingly
expressed in poetic and figurative terms. In the collection of essays entitled
Holzwege, Heidegger's commitment to intellectual 'wandering' was
inextricably linked to his conviction that language does not necessarily have
to function rationally or logically.
In his late essay, 'What are Poets For?', Heidegger's programmatic use of a
question, borrowed from the German poet, Holderlin, questions the need for
questions (while also imposing interrogation as an essential mode of relating
to metaphysical concerns) and so urgently interrogates the way in which we read
and live through language. At this point, the incessant questioning of the later
Stevens comes to mind. Indeed, Heidegger's essay resonates strongly with several
of Stevens's own musings in The Necessary Angel. Heidegger's prose is
meandering and figurative, moving from logical persuasion to an almost biblical
Poets are the mortals who, singing earnestly of the
wine-god, sense the trace of the fugitive gods, stay on the
gods' tracks and so trace for their kindred mortals the way
toward the turning. The ether, however, in which alone the
gods are gods, is their godhead. [...] To be a poet in a
destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of
the fugitive gods.
For Heidegger, thinking is not the positing or the putting together of
something but the receiving of truth, the 'letting be'. Truth is not revealed
through representation but in the disclosure of worlds through an existential
'openness'. Philosophy (or, rather 'thinking') is creative rather than
representational, a work of art and an ontogenesis. For Heidegger, the
ultimate poet-thinker is the philosopher, a thinker who breaks the paths and
'opens the perspectives of knowledge'. Far from leaving language as it is,
the thinker adds to it new possibilities of thought and feeling. He thereby
opens up new experiences to those who speak it and are sensitive to its
nuances. Indeed, Heidegger's conception of the poet-thinker resonates strongly
with Rorty's ideal of the strong poet; the thinker who continually re-creates
himself through re-description. For Rorty, as for Heidegger, it is the poets
and thinkers, not the priests or scientists, and certainly not the academic
'philosophers', who are receptive to new language. It is the poets and
thinkers, finally, that promote and stabilize new ways of being.
However, while a case can be made for Stevens as a pragmatist thinker, while
Rorty can privilege the 'self-extending' discourse of Heidegger and Derrida,
and while Heidegger himself can privilege meditative over calculative thinking,
these models do not, by themselves, establish the philosophical weight of
Stevens's verse. There is still a gap, in other words, between the rousing
rhetoric of Emerson's essays and the linguistic gaming of Stevens's poems. In
Heidegger's terminology, there is still a gap 'between metaphor and
At this point, it is helpful to turn to the work of Paul Ricoeur. In his 1975
study, The Rule of Metaphor, Ricoeur continues Heidegger's explorations
of the relation between poetry and thinking. Indeed, Ricoeur's analysis of
metaphor, and his subsequent debate with Derrida, questions not only the
philosophical enterprise as it is traditionally conceived but the very
foundations of philosophy in language. Ricoeur's provocative thesis is that
with the appearance of a 'live metaphor', a new experience comes to language.
The final referent of a metaphoric expression is not so much its novel meaning,
but the impact of this expression on a person's worldview. It is in this
capacity that Ricoeur will say that a living metaphor has the capacity to
change the world. The crucial point here is that Ricoeur's theory moves
metaphor beyond being a merely rhetorical or tropical device. In Ricoeur's
formulation, metaphor can generate meaning. Can we locate Ricoeur's tensional
domain, the 'poetic truth' of the living metaphor, in the poetry of Wallace
Stevens? I turn now to Stevens's late poem 'Esthetique du Mal'.
In the third section of this poem, the characteristic interaction of Stevens's
'as if' comes into play. Stevens concludes this section with the following
As if the health of the world might be enough.
It seems as if the honey of common summer
Might be enough, as if the golden combs
Were part of a sustenance itself enough,
As if hell, so modified, had disappeared,
As if pain, no longer satanic mimicry,
Could be borne, as if we were sure to find our way.
In a poem admittedly difficult and complex, these lines are particularly so. On
the one hand, the 'health of the world', the 'honey of common summer', and the
'golden combs' all combine to form a metaphorical unity. In a godless world,
these metaphors suggest a compensatory order, an order of the human, a physical
sustenance that might suffice. In this humanised order, hell is subsumed and
pain is transformed; it is possible that we might find our way. The movement of
Stevens's language here, a kind of incantation formed by repetition and
variation, is soothing and restful. A possible redemption is tentatively evoked.
On the other hand, however, the subjunctive verbs and reiterated 'as if' appear
to undercut, quietly but devastatingly, the very assertions that they posit. The
effect is to make us doubt that Steven's assertions have any power or meaning.
We begin to doubt that the 'health of the summer' actually exists, that 'a
sustenance itself enough' has not and cannot be evoked. Stevens's language, it
seems, bears no relation to actual circumstances. However, as the fourth
section of the poem helps to clarify, the conflicting possibilities of language
articulated by the 'as if's in the passage above are major concerns of the
When B. sat down at the piano and made
A transparence in which we heard music, made music,
In which we heard transparent sounds, did he play
All sorts of notes? Or did he play only one
In an ecstasy of associates,
Variations in the tones of a single sound,
The last, or sounds so single they seemed one?
Stevens's questions are deliberately confusing and deliberately lacking in
resolution; once again, an 'interaction' and 'interplay' of opposites is
invoked. Who is 'B'? How can sounds be transparent? How can sounds at once be
single and varied? Most confusingly of all, how can sounds be more or less
'single', i.e. what exactly can the phrase 'so single' mean? For
Stevens's reader, this poem is not an 'ecstasy of associates' but a perceptual
layering; a confusing jumble of sight and sound. While postponing any closure,
the various questions and perceptual confusions in this poem create again the
interplay of opposing possibilities.
In attending to the mixing of sight and sound that characterizes so many of
Stevens's metaphors, the work of Ricoeur is again insightful. In his analysis,
Ricoeur refers to 'the iconic capacity of metaphor'. This capacity is defined
It is a non-verbal kernel of imagination, that is, imagery
understood in the quasi-visual, quasi-auditory,
quasi-tactile, quasi-olfactory sense.
In Ricoeur's framework, this intuitive or iconic mode cannot be equated with a
verbal representation of sense experience. It belongs, rather, to the realm of
imagination, where sight, sound, touch and smell cannot be distinguished. Is
Ricoeur's 'iconic capacity' an apt framework within which to read Stevens?
Certainly, Stevens's 'transparent sounds', his 'deepened speech' his 'reading
the sound', accord with the perceptual layering suggested by Ricoeur's
definition; 'the quasi-visual, quasi-auditory, quasi-tactile, quasi-olfactory
sense'. Once again, the virtue of this metaphoric capacity, for Ricoeur at
least, is that it allows conflicting spheres of 'sameness yet difference' to
co-exist. Metaphor, for Ricoeur and, we may suggest, for Stevens, is thus a
complex interaction of logical, semantic and imagistic moments. Even in the
darkest section of 'Esthetique du Mal', Stevens asserts:
To lose sensibility, to see what one sees,
As if sight had not its own miraculous thrift,
To hear only what one hears, one meaning alone,
As if the paradise of meaning ceased
To be paradise, it is this to be destitute.
Here, the 'as if' asserts the possibility of meaninglessness and destitution
while simultaneously implying that 'sight' is a 'miraculous thrift', a
'paradise of meaning'. The assertion that language is meaningful and valuable,
even a paradise of sorts, is reiterated throughout this poem, though most
clearly in its final section. Even after calling speech a 'dark italics' we can
'not propound', Stevens concludes the poem with a subtle and reverberating
And out of what one sees and hears and out
Of what one feels, who could have thought to make
So many selves, so many sensuous worlds,
As if the air, the mid-day air, was swarming
With the metaphysical changes that occur,
Merely in living as and where we live.
These lines are at least as encouraging as they are discouraging, as resonating
with affirmative possibilities as they are disturbing with negative ones. The
poem ends not with the futility of human effort, nor with the futility of human
speech, but with an affirmation of what we can create through language, even as
the very language denies this affirmation. In a poem seeking, ironically, to
affirm a fundamental imperfection, such assertions, modulated with their
own contradictions, are perhaps the supreme statements of what Stevens calls
the 'primitive ecstasy', and Ricoeur bravely terms 'poetic truth'.
If we can connect the interaction of Stevens's 'as if' to the 'split reference'
of Ricoeur's theory, it is possible to establish a case for the 'poetic truth'
of Stevens's philosophy. Stevens's continual recourse to the modal 'as if'
clearly reminds us that words are not identical to the world, i.e., that there
is always a gap between language and reality. However, Stevens's phrase still
asserts the possibility of such identification. In creating this
conflict, Stevens establishes the tenuous 'relation' he continually strives to
express; in Ricoeur's terms, 'Being-as means being and not being'.
Perhaps we might suggest, finally, that Stevens's verse approaches
epistemological certainty. It appears, or sounds like, or seems to become, a
humanly informed yet trustworthy knowledge of the real. It is a form of 'poetic
truth'. The metaphoric movement of Stevens's 'as if' allows him to approach a
meaning that is not simply troped or complicated but actually generated.
Indeed, and to paraphrase Emerson, perhaps it is only through Stevens's
'complex forms of indirection' that this 'knowledge of life' can finally
appear. Stevens's tentative, suggestive, metaphorical movement, his
'intricate evasions of as', allow him finally to explore and rejuvenate
this epistemological terrain, the ground upon which philosophy and poetry meet
1. Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, p.670.
2. ibid, p. 852.
4. Wallace Stevens and the Idealist Tradition.
5. Ariel and the Police: Michel Foucault, William James, Wallace Stevens.
6. Advance on Chaos: The Sanctifying Imagination of Wallace Stevens.
7. Richard Rorty,'Philosophy as a Kind of Writing' in Consequences of
Pragmatism -- Essays:1972-1980, p. 92.
8. ibid, p. 101.
9. Heidegger,'What are Poets for?' in Jon Cook, ed. Poetry in Theory:
1900-2000, pp. 251-253.
10. For Heidegger's phenomenological method, truth is identified with
disclosure, on the basis of his translation of the Greek word'aletheia'
as'unhiddenness'. He contrasted this interpretation with the traditional
definition of truth as 'correctness'. (See Being and Time, Introduction,
Section II (7B) pp. 55-58).
13. Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, pp. 257-315.
14. ibid, p. 187.
15. See also the concluding section of Stevens's long poem,'An Ordinary Evening
in New Haven', where he refers to'little reds','lighter words','legible meanings
16. The title of Stevens's poem, literally translated, is'The Aesthetics of
16. Ibid, p. 306.
17. 'As the musician avails himself of the concert, so the philosopher avails
himself of the drama, the epic, the novel and becomes a poet; for these complex
forms allow for the utterance of his knowledge of life by indirection as well as
by the didactic way.' -- Joel Porte, Emerson in his Journals, p. 217.
19.'The theory / Of poetry is the theory of life, / As it is, in the intricate
evasions of as' --'An Ordinary Evening in New Haven'.
Cook, Jon, ed. Poetry in Theory: An Anthology 1900-2000. Oxford:
Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004.
La Guardia, David. Advance on Chaos: The Sanctifying Imagination of Wallace
Stevens. London: Brown University Press, 1983.
Lentricchia, Frank. Ariel and the Police: Michel Foucault, William James,
Wallace Stevens. University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.
Peterson, Margaret. Wallace Stevens and the Idealist Tradition. Ann
Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.
Porte, Joel. Emerson in his Journals. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1982.
Poirier, Richard. Poetry and Pragmatism. London: Faber and Faber, 1992.
Richardson, Joan. A Natural History of Pragmatism. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2007.
Ricoeur, Paul. The Rule of Metaphor. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul,
Rorty, Richard. Consequences of Pragmatism -- Essays: 1972-1980.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.
Stevens, Wallace. Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Frank
Kermode and Joan Richardson. New York: The Library of America, 1997.
--- Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1996.
(c) Aine Kelly 2007
II. 'LEVINAS, TOTALITY AND THE OTHER' BY MARTIN JENKINS
In Philosophy, Post-Modernism could be described as that movement of thought
which challenges foundationalism and its corollary of closed, reflexive systems
of conceptions that characterise modernist thought. Closed systems of totalising
thought by and in which human beings perceive other human beings do violence
insofar as they value all others from under the horizon of 'the Same'.
Totalised thought seeks to explain and inclusively account for phenomena
totally, exhaustively and definitively. There is nothing subsequently
worthwhile outside or beyond the boundaries of the totality. We can bear
witness to this in everyday life.
For instance, one person judges the actions of another by saying 'I wouldn't
have done that if I were he' or 'I couldn't do it so why should she be any
different?' Here, what is different is substituted by and buried under
reasoning by analogy with the Self. The Other individual is not recognised as
unique, who can disclose him/ herself but instead, is buried and pre-judged
from existing pre-conceptions of the Self. In our lives we are pre-judged and
labelled by our job title -- look on quiz shows where contestants are asked
'What do you do?' as if one's job or position totally defined one. We are
labelled and pre-judged as passive consumers interested in the latest fad. We
ask others what they did on their days off from the work place applying the
totalising logic of productionism to non-work time as to work time. At its
violent extremes, whole ethnicities and peoples are pre-judged from the
standpoint of totality and valued as differing from it, are subordinated or
Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) was a thinker who developed a highly original
'Post-Modern' ethics from out of the Phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin
Heidegger, and from his readings of Jewish Theology. His famous work
Totality and Infinity was published in 1961. It was an ethics
announcing itself twenty-four years after the ending of the second world war
and the most modern attempt at mass murder by a totalising violence.
Western Philosophy and ethical systems devised within it, have practiced a
methodology of systematic foundationalism. In other words, consequences and
corollaries are developed and deduced from founding first principles
constituting a closed, reflexive system. As phenomena are categorised and
judged from within such epistemological and ontological monoliths, 'Identity'
and 'Sameness' are practiced. The system is total in its explanation and
account of phenomena -- hence Levinas' term, 'Totalisation'. Whatever is within
the system is legitimate because defined by and identical with it. Whatever is
outside the system is either incorporated into it (thus repressing its
otherness and extending the violent sameness of the same) or is denied any
Existing ethics such as Immanuel Kant's Deontology and Jeremy Bentham's
Utilitarianism operate totalisation. Kant's defence of the individual as an
end in itself intrinsically deserving of autonomy and respect, practices a
totalising sameness of the same in its emphasis on rationality inherent to each
and every individual. Utilitarianism treats the individual as an instrumental
cog in the felicific calculation of the sum total of happiness. The individual
qua individual is smothered and definitively pre-judged by prior
existing categories. As such his/ her Otherness to the totalisation of sameness
is deemed insignificant.
Although totalisation is unavoidable in its acting as an operational guide for
everyday human interaction, it is subject to Transcendence. The Other founds
the self and society as it is the primordial and original relation. It
constitutes the beginning of everything human as it is only through the Other
that I can become myself, so that the event of the Other marks the beginning of
language, of community and of course, the beginning of ethics. The sheer
presence of the Other is unavoidable: it demands my attention by charging into
my world and disrupting it in a profound way that a rock or tree does not.
Although established upon the revelation of the Other, subsequent culture
smothers the Other under the edifices and categories of totalised sameness.
The Face of the Other is not a physical appearance but an Epi-Phany.
This epiphanic event of irruption disrupts the sameness of the self and breaks
its expectation of linear totalised categories of Being constituting the world.
Its revelation demands a response and the nature of the ethical is to provide
the appropriate response. This event is so profound it evokes an Infinity which
from its exuding plenitude, overflows and transcends the existing
representational structures of totalisation. For example, the presence and
caress of a lover is such an instance of transcendence. We may use a word to
thematise the event and those involved but the sheer presence of the Other, as
lover, cannot be contained in a mere description as a theme or event.
Overflowing mere conceptual representation, it transcends totality.
This event of the Other cannot -- on pain of being re-absorbed into the
existing schemas of conceptual totalisation -- be represented. It is an event
of such magnitude and height that it discloses 'signification without content'.
Like the Ontological Argument employed by Descartes, where an initial
conceptuality may point the way, the content of the argument takes on a
momentum and life of its own which can leave the thinker quite overwhelmed in
attempting to think thoroughly and appreciate the argument; likewise the Face
of the Other initially points the way but it is a place of departure for
the revelation of the Other. Beyond representation, like the memory of a
significant dream whose content cannot be remembered, so is the event of the
Other. It demands an ethical response and because the event occurs outside
existing concepts of representation, the ethical response is more pure because
it is undetermined. Beyond possibility of limit in a concept, the Face is
unlimited. As unlimited it is not finite. As not finite it is infinite.
God or Infinity?
Translating Biblical themes into Philosophy, Levinas does not maintain a belief
in a personal God or an Afterlife. Eschatology is the situating of the ending or
break with Totality (Being) found in the transcendent exteriority of the Face of
the Other. Because it is not subject to a finite representation within the
Being of Totality, Transcendence hints at Infinity. It is the commencement of
what Levinas calls 'Illeity' or the remoteness, absent otherness of God: of
signification without content. He writes:
The Other proceeds from the absolutely Absent, but his
relationship with the absolutely Absent from which he comes
does not reveal this Absent: and yet the Absent has a
meaning in the Face.
If God is Illeity -- an absence disclosed in the Face of the Other -- this
appears to be a Negative Theology. Contrary to traditional Onto-Theology, God
cannot be known let alone any definition attempted; because of its infinity
there can only be pointers toward and against. God is not God because it is God.
Levinas extracts the 'teaching' of the Talmud of Jewish thought, purging it of
its outward, historical symbols and manifestations, and applies it to a world
now secularised and de-sacralised. In this modern context, the relation to God
is realised in relations with other people. It is this relation with people
that takes on a superior importance to that of the older, primitive
onto-theology. It is in this relation that the 'religious' is to be found.
To my reading (and I am probably wrong) despite Levinas' reconfiguration of
religious categories, his ethics are a continuation of the theme that only with
God or the Transcendent can there be ethics. The point is succinctly made by
Dostoevsky when he writes that without God anything would be permissible.
The break with Totality allows what is Other to appear and the event may alter
our ethical response but why must the event be the irruption of God, Illeity or
Absence? The face of the other may irrupt and suspend my finite representation
of the world and in that moment, the alterity of the Face calls, shows itself
whatever but, this does not have to be 'God' however construed.
Secondly, what is the correct ethical response? Some commentators criticise
Levinas for being vague on this point, as he doesn't offer any explicit ethical
prescription. If the event of the Other is beyond Totalisation we cannot
refer to existing representations to guide us in our response. As Levinas says,
the Face is an encounter with Infinity, with Illeity then perhaps like
Heidegger's disclosure of Being, the disclosure is an event so enigmatic that
is calls us to question our habitual ethical response (indicative of Totalised
structures of thought) and to think anew. So when commentators say Levinas is
not explicit in prescribing the correct ethical response to the event of the
Other, they miss the point that it is intentional on his part.
The event of the Other signifies without content, a break with Being so that
Being can be re-configured. The irruption of the Other breaks our unthinking
operation within totalisation so that we challenge it and offer a truly
original and appropriate response.
1. Totalised or Identity Philosophy (Modernism) is viewed by Post-Modernism as
the traditional Western approach of building reflexive conceptual systems upon
foundational first principles. The metaphysics of Aristotle's Final Cause where
the ends can be discerned in the beginning exemplify the approach. This
methodology can be seen in Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, the German Idealists
and their derivatives such as Marx. Onto-Theology can be seen as a similar
approach in Theology where the existence and nature of all Being is
epistemologically based on and derives from the first origin of all Being
2. Phenomenology. A movement in Philosophy which sought to base human knowing
and knowledge by going 'to the things themselves' free of any dualism between
Subject and Object. What is experienced [Phenomena] and how it is experienced
[Logos] is subject to description. See:
Edmund Husserl Cartesian Meditations. Springer Press 1977
Martin Heidegger The Basic Problems of Phenomenology. Indiana University
3. Emmanuel Levinas Totality and Infinity. Duquesne University Press 1961
4. Immanuel Kant First Section. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals
Immanuel Kant Critique of Practical Reason Everyman 1990.
5. Jeremy Bentham. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and
Legislation Penguin 2007
6. Rene Descartes. Meditation III 'Of God that He Exists' Meditations on the
First Philosophy Everyman 1987.
7. Eschatology understood as the doctrine and Biblical study of the end of
8. Illeity meaning the remote otherness of God. Deriving from the Latin
demonstrative pronoun ille, illa, meaning 'that over there'.
9. Emmanuel Levinas P. 59-60. Meaning and Sense Basic Philosophical
Writings. Indiana University Press 1996
10. Fyodor Dostoyevsky The Brothers Karamazov Penguin Popular Classics.
11. Dermot Moran highlights this point in Ch 10 op cite below
Emmanuel Levinas Totality and Infinity. An Essay on Exteriority.
Duquesne University Press 1991
Emmanuel Levinas Basic Philosophical Writings, Eds: Adriaan T.
Peperzak, Simon Critchley, Robert Berlasconi. Indiana University Press 1996
Andrew McGettigan The Philosopher's Fear of Alterity Radical Philosophy
Dermot Moran Introduction to Phenomenology Routledge 2000
Mary Jennings 'Justice and the Other in Levinas Totality and Infinity'
Pathways to Philosophy Associateship Essay
(c) Martin Jenkins 2007
III. 'THE CONTRIBUTION OF GILBERT RYLE'S THE CONCEPT OF MIND TO THE
STUDY OF PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE' BY MUNAMATO CHEMHURU
The Concept of Mind is a book by Gilbert Ryle about the philosophy of
mind. However, as a text that examines the operations of minds, it appears the
text is not only confined to the study of mind. By looking at the language that
results from the functions of minds, Gilbert Ryle sets forth to discuss how our
language can be affected or distorted by a dualist approach to the human being.
This is the approach known as the official doctrine of the 'ghost in the
machine' that Ryle attempts to discredit as compromising and distorting the way
we use our vocabulary. In this paper, therefore, Gilbert Ryle's The concept
of Mind is examined in an attempt to consider his contribution and
significance to our study of the philosophy of language.
Perhaps a consideration of what philosophy of language entails might be
valuable before an examination into how Ryle might have benefited and
contributed into such a discipline. Generally, philosophy of language is a
discipline that examines the way we use words in language. Unlike traditional
disciplines of philosophy such as metaphysics where the role of philosophy is
to come up with new knowledge and speculation, the philosopher of language
considers what we mean when we talk about the universe using propositions.
Philosophy of language is a philosophical project initiated by the analytic
philosophers in the nineteenth century who shifted attention from cosmological
speculation to attempting to look at how we can unpack the language that we use
in philosophy. According to J.F.Rosenberg and C. Travis:
Philosophy of language is concerned with philosophical
questions about language. Traditionally, it includes but is
far from being exhausted by the following questions: what if
anything is meaning? What is it for something to be
meaningful? What is it for something to mean such? What
sort of attribute is the ability to speak a language? How
does one try to acquire it? What is conventionality? What
is the relation between meaning and reference? How does one
manage to use words with pre-established meanings to refer
to or talk about particular things? (1971:2-3)
Thus, in philosophy of language, these are the sort of questions that are
addressed. It is in view of this, therefore, that it appears Gilbert Ryle too
seems to be pre-occupied with these sorts of questions in his philosophy of
mind, hence his contribution to philosophy of language cannot go unexamined.
Philosophers of language generally have one unifying characteristic. This
characteristic is in their tendency to consider 'language' as a tool for
clarifying meaning in philosophy. According to philosophers of language,
scientific language contains ambiguities that need clarification. This is not
however to lump all the philosophers of language in one single block, as some,
like the 'early' Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell rightly belong to the
logical atomist school, while J.L. Austin and G.E. Moore can be considered as
belonging to the ordinary language movement. Wittgenstein used the method of
philosophical analysis and influenced the logical positivists like A.J. Ayer,
Rudolf Carnap Otto Neurath and Schlick among others.
Gilbert Ryle also applies conceptual analysis in his philosophy of mind and
language. Thus, all these analytic philosophers are united in holding the
position that philosophy must study language, since for them, the logic for our
language is misunderstood. According to Bertrand Russell, the aim is to,
...inquire into various departments of traditional
philosophy, showing in each how traditional philosophy and
traditional solutions arise out of ignorance of the
principles of symbolism and out of misuse of language.
In this case therefore, it will be seen here that this is the project with
which Gilbert Ryle is preoccupied, that is, the clarification of our language,
hence his contribution to philosophy of language is invaluable.
Gilbert Ryle belongs to the school of conceptual analysis, as well as partly to
the ordinary language movement (as seen by D.J.O'Connor), which are the two
stages in the analytic movement of philosophy. The main argument by
philosophers of language in these camps is that the role of philosophy is to
study language, and clarify on the nature of the language that we use. Almost
all the philosophers of language reject the idea of offering new knowledge in
philosophy, but instead they try to rectify such knowledge in terms of what can
be considered as philosophically significant or nonsense, hence, in his
introduction to The Concept of Mind, it is apparent that Ryle takes an
analytic approach to the language that we use when we describe the mind in
philosophy of mind, as he states in the following:
This book offers what may with reservations be describes
as a theory of the mind. But it does not give new
information about minds. We possess already a wealth of
information about mind, information which is neither
derived from, not upset by, the arguments of philosophers.
The philosophical arguments which constitute this book are
intended not to increase what we know about minds, but to
rectify the logical geography of the knowledge which we
already possess. (1949:07)
It is against the background of these remarks therefore that Ryle's attempt in
his philosophy of mind is not so much into offering new philosophical
propositions about the operations of our minds, but to play an analytic role in
the field of philosophy as a philosopher of language, just like other
philosophers of language in the analytic movement such as Bertrand Russell,
Ludwig Wittgenstein, A.J. Ayer, W.V.O. Quine and others. Ryle is thus playing a
complementary role to our study of language although he might still be regarded
as more of a philosopher of mind.
Gilbert Ryle can be placed within the conceptual analysis movement as well as
the ordinary language movement according to O'Connor. This conceptual analysis
movement which comprises of philosophers of language like J.L. Austin and P.F.
Strawson believed in the idea that language should be a way of solving
philosophical problems, hence they were inspired by their predecessors like
Russell and Wittgenstein. According to O'Connor:
The philosophers of the ordinary language movement are in
agreement with Wittgenstein on a number of points. Both saw
the task of philosophy as critical. They believed the proper
object of its criticism to be those general propositions
about knowledge and the world in defiance of common sense,
which constituted traditional metaphysical philosophy. They
believed the proper method of criticism to be a
demonstration, by a careful attention to the ordinary uses
of words, that these metaphysical propositions both
embodied and rested upon misuses of language. (1964:546)
Following the same trend, Ryle examines the way we use mental language and he
observed that the mistakes that we make in language are the result of such use
of mental language as it appears to be metaphysical, in view of the fact that:
When people employ the idiom 'in the mind', they are
usually expressing over-sophisticatedly what we ordinarily
express by the less misleading metaphorical use of 'in the
head'. (Gilbert Ryle, 1949:40)
Ryle's contribution to our study of language is very significant. He saw
himself as attempting to map the logical geography of our concepts, by
exploding Rene Descartes' myth of the ghost in the machine. He argued that:
Descartes left as one of his main philosophical legacies a
myth which continues to distort the logical geography of the
His argument is that the dualist approach to the human being by Descartes that
the human being is made up of the physical (body) and spiritual (soul), is
actually a myth which is ill founded, and consequently distorts the way we use
our language. According to Ryle,
...a myth is, of course, not a fairy story. It is a
presentation of facts belonging to one category in the
idioms appropriate to another. To explode a myth is
accordingly not to deny the facts but to re-allocate them.
And this is what I am trying to do. (1949:08)
Ryle sees the Cartesian dualist approach to the human being as a myth, and his
attempt is to explode it such that the logical geography of our language is
mapped. Put in other words, his attempt is to consider Descartes' dualist
position as distorting the way we use our language as he remarked that:
The key arguments employed in this book are therefore
intended to show why certain sorts of operations with the
concepts of mental powers and processes are breaches of
logical rules. I try to use the 'reductio ad absurdum'
arguments both to disallow operations implicitly
recommended by the Cartesian myth and to indicate to what
logical types the concepts under investigation ought to be
In his contribution to the study of language, Ryle starts by discarding
Cartesian dualism or Descartes' official doctrine that the human being is
dually constituted. His major premise for this attack was that this 'purported'
interaction between the 'mental' and the 'body' is mysterious and absurd.
Against it, he argued:
I hope to prove that it is entirely false, and false not in
detail, but in principle, it is not merely an assemblage of
particular mistake. It represents the facts of mental life
as if they belonged to one logical type or category (or a
range of types of categories) when they actually belong to
anther. The dogma is therefore a philosopher's myth.
According to Ryle, in terms of our language, this official doctrine affects the
way we use our language because it leads to a category mistake which involves
attempting to allocate concepts to logical types to which they do not belong.
For example, such a category mistake might arise when a person visiting the
University of Zimbabwe Department of Philosophy and being shown all the various
lecturers in philosophy courses like logic, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics,
philosophy of education, social and political philosophy, asks, 'But where can
I find the Philosophy?' An example given by Ryle is a person who of assumes
that in a game, say of cricket, there is a separately identifiable thing called
'team spirit'. According to Ryle, this error is similar to the dualist
assumption that the mind and body are separate entitles, and it is a mistake of
allocating logical types to which they do not belong.
The category mistake according to Ryle leads to errors in the use of our
language. It leads to language distortions. In other words, since viewing man
as dually constituted leads as such a 'category mistake', that category mistake
will spill into the way we use words in language and how we use certain concepts
in our vocabulary, hence the temptation of his stranger in his example watching
the first game of cricket, to consider team spirit as an independent concept
from the game itself. According to Ryle:
The illustration of category mistakes have a common
feature, which must be noticed. The mistakes were made by
people who did not know how to wield the concepts... Their
puzzles arise from inability to use certain terms in the
English vocabulary. (1949:17)
It is against this background therefore that since the category mistake affects
the way we use our language, Ryle thrust attacks such a 'double life' theory
which is a result of the category mistake of allocating logical concepts to
categories which they do not belong. It compels us to think of reality from two
perspectives, that is, from what takes place in our private thought and from the
results of our physical actions. In view of this therefore, Ryle contributed
immensely to our study of philosophy of language, as he noted that dualism is
language distortion, thus according to D.J.O'Connor:
Cartesian philosophers have mistakenly reified the apparent
references of our mental vocabulary. (1964:547)
Gilbert Ryle argued that psychological vocabulary is a result of dualism, hence
according to D.J. O'Connor:
In the course of the argument he mentions among the class
of misleading referential looking expressions phrases that
appear to refer to such mental entities as feelings, ideas
and concepts. (1964:546)
These misleading referential expressions are a result of the dualist conception
of a man as seen by Ryle, hence the dogma of the ghost in the machine is an
incorrect and misleading dogma. According to E.S. Stumpf, in his analysis of
Ryle's The Concept of Mind, to say that the mind is the body is
metaphysical, and our language seems to describe mental events or activities,
yet there is no one who has direct access to these mental operations, such as
dreaming, hoping, willing and knowing. This is what Ryle is against, hence his
contribution to the study of philosophy of language is invaluable. In his
attack on psychological vocabulary, he highlighted that:
Part of the purpose of this book has been to argue against
the false notion that psychology is the sole empirical
study of people's mental powers, propensities and
performances together with its implied false corollary that
'the mind' is what is properly describable only in technical
terms proprietary to psychological research. (1949:327)
Ira Altman therefore might be justified in his position that:
Ryle's analysis is in keeping with the Wittgensteinian
thesis that mental language has no private sense. ('The
Concept of Intelligence')
Just like the later Wittgenstein, therefore, in his major contribution to
language, Ryle argued that language should be public and not private.
This is perhaps the basis for his attack on the idea of imagining things going
on in people's heads as he argued:
The phrase, 'in my mind' can and should always be dispensed
with. Its use habituates its employers to the view that
minds are queer 'places', the occupants of which are
special-status phantasms. It is part of the function of
this book to show that exercises of qualities of mind do
not save 'per accidents' take place in the head', in the
ordinary sense of the phrase and those which do so have no
special priority over those which do not' (1949:40)
Thus, following this attack on psychology by Ryle, it appears, with the
language that we use, he saw that the beliefs, ideas, thoughts which are a
result of the mind ('in my head') mislead us into thinking that 'they'
represent things in reality which are 'non-physical' (spiritual). This prompts
the mistake of looking at language as having a private sense, thus for Ryle,
using such psychological references as referring to private mental processes is
wrong. It is in view of this, therefore, the language of mental states like
these according to Ryle must be tied to publicly observable behaviour. This
also is in keeping with the early Wittgensteinian thesis that:
It will therefore be in language that the limit can be
drawn, and what lies on the other side of the limit will
simply be nonsense. (1921:03)
Like the later Wittgenstein, Ryle's contribution to the philosophy of language
was that language ought to follow certain rules that must be tested by logic in
public. There should be a common pool of publicly observable experiences where
we share experiences, hence his behaviourist stance to the philosophy of
In his behaviourist approach to intelligence, where he saw that intelligence is
a behavioural disposition, Ryle's claim is to the effect that the words that we
use to describe intelligent acts which are the verbs, actually derive their
meaning, from the way we act or behave. According to Ryle:
When a person is described by one or other of the
intelligence epithets such as 'shrewd' or 'silly' 'prudent'
or 'imprudent', the description imputes to him not the
knowledge or ignorance of this or that truth, but the
ability or inability to do certain sorts of things.
Thus, our behaviour/ actions determine how we will use language, hence
intelligent acts or unintelligent acts cannot be explained directly in terms of
'the mind', but the ability of the human body to do certain things under certain
Ira Altman, however, criticises Gilbert Ryle's dispositional analysis of the
concept of intelligence when he argues:
Gilbert Ryle's dispositional analysis of the concept of
intelligence makes the error of assimilating intelligence
to the category of dispositional or semi-dispositional
concepts. Far from being a dispositional concept,
intelligence is an episodic concept that refers neither to
dispositions nor to 'knowing how,' but to a fashion or
style of proceeding whose significance is adverbial. ('The
Concept of Intelligence')
It appears, for Gilbert Ryle on the other hand, such adverbial words are still
the outcome of our myth of the ghost in the machine. Language is thus distorted
and influenced by words which are episodic like, 'knowing that', 'aspiring'
'willing' etc as seen by Ryle who argued that:
The vocabulary we use for describing specifically human
behaviour does not consist only of dispositional words. The
judge, the teacher, the novelist, the psychologist and the
man in the street are bound also to employ a large battery
of episodic words when talking about how people do or
should act and react. These episodic words no less than
dispositional words, belong to a variety of types, and we
shall find that obliviousness to some of these differences
of type had both fostered,and been fostered by the
identification of the mental with the ghostly. (1949:117)
In view of the foregoing discussion on Ryle's contribution to our study of
language, however, it appears his critiques to the Cartesian dualism cannot go
wholly unchallenged. Ryle appears to have considered his relegation of private
language as the only way out of the problems of language, where public language
is the solution.
The problem now, might be to do with a justification for his relegation of
private language such as our inner thoughts. It still remains to be seen
whether every human activity like 'thinking', 'feeling', and 'dreaming' among
other mental activities can be explained in terms of our behaviour. It appears
that Ryle was not fully successful in convincing us of the need to dislodge the
Despite these remaining doubts, following the discussion here presented, it
might be justified to consider Gilbert Ryle as one of the analytic philosophers
who have contributed immensely to the study of language.
Altman I. 'The Concept of Intelligence'
O'Connor D.J A Critical History of Western Philosophy Macmillan
Publishing Company, New York, U.S.A. (1964)
Ryle G. The Concept of Mind Barnes and Noble Publishers, United Kingdom
Rosenberg J.F Readings in the Philosophy of Language Prentice Hall,
Stumpf E.S. Philosophy : History and Problems McGraw Hill Book Company,
New York (1989)
Wittgenstein L. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Routledge and Kegan Paul,
University of Zimbabwe
Dept of Religious Studies, Classics and Philosophy
Box M.P. 167 Mount Pleasant
(c) Munamato Chemhuru 2007
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