International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   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.

Geoffrey Klempner



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 the nineties).

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'.[1] 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'[2] of experience, but they differ in their ends: 'The philosopher intends his integration to be fateful; the poet intends his to be effective'.[3]

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[4] and Frank Lentricchia[5], while David La Guardia's study, Advance on Chaos[6] 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 development.

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.[7]

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'.[8] 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 rhetoric:

     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.[9]

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'.[10] Philosophy (or, rather 'thinking') is creative rather than representational, a work of art and an ontogenesis.[11] For Heidegger, the ultimate poet-thinker is the philosopher, a thinker who breaks the paths and 'opens the perspectives of knowledge'.[12] 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 metaphysics'.

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.[13] 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 ambiguous lines:

     It seems
     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 entire poem:

     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 as follows:

     It is a non-verbal kernel of imagination, that is, imagery
     understood in the quasi-visual, quasi-auditory,
     quasi-tactile, quasi-olfactory sense.[14]

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',[15] 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 question:

     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,[16] 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'.[17]

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.[18] Stevens's tentative, suggestive, metaphorical movement, his 'intricate evasions of as',[19] allow him finally to explore and rejuvenate this epistemological terrain, the ground upon which philosophy and poetry meet and part.


1. Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose, p.670.

2. ibid, p. 852.

3. ibid.

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).

11. Literally,'world-making'.

12. ibid

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 of sounds'.

16. The title of Stevens's poem, literally translated, is'The Aesthetics of Evil'.

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, 1978.

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




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.[1] 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 annihilated.

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.[2] His famous work Totality and Infinity was published in 1961.[3] 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 existence whatsoever.

Existing ethics such as Immanuel Kant's Deontology[4] and Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarianism[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11] 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 namely God.

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 Press 1995

3. Emmanuel Levinas Totality and Infinity. Duquesne University Press 1961

4. Immanuel Kant First Section. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals Hackett 1993

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 things.

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. 1999.

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 #140

Dermot Moran Introduction to Phenomenology Routledge 2000

Mary Jennings 'Justice and the Other in Levinas Totality and Infinity' Pathways to Philosophy Associateship Essay HREF="">https:---

(c) Martin Jenkins 2007




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
     subject. (1949:08)

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
     allocated. (1949:08)

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 language.

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 conditions.

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 'official doctrine'.

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' HREF="">http:---

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 (1949)

Rosenberg J.F Readings in the Philosophy of Language Prentice Hall, London (!971)

Stumpf E.S.  Philosophy : History and Problems McGraw Hill Book Company, New York (1989)

Wittgenstein L. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Routledge and Kegan Paul, Britain (1921)

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