Theories of Mind (Part 6): Ryle and Behaviorism

This post marks the sixth installment in my series on the nature of the mind. In this post, we will critically evaluate Ryle’s theory of logical behaviorism. For requisite context, it would be best to check out Parts 123, and 4, and 5. Let’s dig in!


  1. Ryle’s Logical Behaviorism

In this section, I outline Ryle’s central argument for logical behaviorism. I then critically evaluate the plausibility of this theory.

4.1 Ryle’s Central Argument

Ryle’s central argument, deriving from his book “The Concept of Mind,” is that Cartesianism with respect to the mind is a category error and that mental states are nothing but behavior or behavioral dispositions. His argument can be formulated as follows:

P1: Talk about mental concepts is correctly analyzed in terms of behavior and dispositions to behavior.

P2: If P1 is true, then we should not postulate the existence of distinctively mental states, events, etc.

C (P1, P2): Therefore, we should not postulate the existence of distinctively mental states, events, etc.

Two advantages of this theory about the nature of the mind are (i) it solves the problem of other minds (since there is no mystery in coming to know the publically accessible behavior/behavioral dispositions of others); and (ii) it is arguably simpler than rival theories insofar as refrains from postulating another type of thing in its ontology (namely, private, first-person, subjective mental states).

4.2 Critical Appraisal of Ryle’s Central Argument

Criticism One: Moorean Shift

The principal objection to behaviorism is that it seems to be straightforwardly refuted by an inward inspection of our own minds. We just know that minds are more than mere behavior — we can see this with direct and unfaltering certitude. We can (and often do) peer into the inner, qualitative character of our mental states. In doing so, however, we thereby falsify behaviorism. But surely, the behaviorist may note, this is just dogmatism — isn’t this inner, private, what-it-is-like character of mental states the very thing the behaviorist is calling into question?

On the contrary, it is far from dogmatic, as we may employ the Moorean shift here. Any argument for behaviorism only shows that some set of premises (on the one hand) and the claim that you have private, internal mental states (on the other hand) are jointly inconsistent. But this is just to say that either one or more of the premises is false, or the claim that you have private mental states is false. But now we can ask ourselves: which is more plausible, that at least one of the premises is false or that you have private mental states? Just as for G.E. Moore there could be no question that the claim “I have hands” is more plausible than the premises in a complex and convoluted argument for external world skepticism, there can also be no question that the claim “you have private mental states” is more plausible than the premises in any argument for behaviorism.


Criticism Two: Intentionality

A second problem for behaviorism is accounting for intentionality. Intentionality is the aboutness or directedness toward some object or end that is characteristic of many mental states. But how can mere behavior or behavioral dispositions be about anything? The behaviorist may respond that walking towards an apple, picking the apple up, and subsequently eating the apple is a series of behaviors that constitute a desire for an apple, which in turn is about an apple. But human behaviors are only about things to the extent that they are results of intentions on the part of the human agent. A human behavior is only directed towards an end provided that the end is consciously intended as a final outcome of the behavior. But conscious intentions are internal subjective states, which is the very thing the behaviorist sought to avoid in the first place. Thus, to preserve the intentionality of mental states, behaviorists must appeal to the very privacy they deny exists.

An example helps illustrate the crucial claim of the above argument, namely that human behavior is only directed towards an end provided that the end is consciously intended as a final outcome of the behavior. To see this, it is important to see that my picking up the apple has a whole host of behavioral and environmental effects, many of which are not the objects of my intention. So, for instance, although my behaviors ruffle leaves on the ground, my behavior is not about or directed toward the ruffling of leaves. But on the basis of behavior alone, there is no objective way to delineate between my picking up the apple as opposed to my ruffling the leaves as the intentional object of my acts. Hence, in order to determinately account for intentionality, reference must be made to conscious intentional states. Behaviorism therefore cannot account for the existence of intentionality.

Criticism Three: Circularity

Another central problem for behaviorism is that we simply cannot paraphrase away mental states by means of a purely behavioral analysis, contra Ryle’s P1. This is because any such attempt to analyze mental states solely in terms of behavior will itself invoke a whole host of mental states. To demonstrate this, consider the case of Elijah and his desire for an apple. The behavioral analysis of “Elijah wants an apple” goes something like: if you ask Elijah “do you want an apple?”, he will respond “yes”; if Elijah has apples in the kitchen, he will go into the kitchen and get one; if you offer Elijah either an apple or a peach, he will choose the apple; and so on.

But a problem now arises. For Elijah will only answer “yes” if he understands the question being asked, wants to speak truthfully, believes that you are listening to him, and so on. He will go into the kitchen and get an apple only if he believes there are apples in the kitchen, knows the layout of his house so as to facilitate walking into the kitchen, and so on. He will take the apple rather than the peach only if he correctly perceives that you are offering him a peach and an apple, and so on.

We did not, therefore, actually provide a purely behavioral analysis of Elijah’s wanting an apple. Our apparently behavioral analysis clearly presupposes a host of other mental states — and characterizing those mental states in further behavioral terms will itself presuppose still further mental states. The analysis is not behavioral at all. The problem is caused by the fact that mental states do not act in isolation; behavior only arises when there exist a whole host of mental states in conjunction. There is thus no way to give a non-circular analysis or paraphrase of a mental state in terms of behavior.

Criticism Four: Circularity Again

A yet further difficulty involved in any behaviorist analysis is that it is circular in another respect, since one cannot accurately describe behavior without reference to the private mental state which underlie the manifestations of behavior. This is because any given behavior or cluster of behaviors can be associated with a vast number of different mental states (for instance, punching the air violently can be an expression of sheer jubilance just as much as it can be an expression of frustration and anger). But if any given behavior or cluster of behaviors can be associated with a vast number of different mental states, then to accurately characterize a given behavior one way rather than another as constituting, say, anger instead of jubilance, one must make reference to the mental state (i.e. anger) of which the behavior is an expression. But if that is the case, then one cannot adequately analyze mental state M solely in terms of behaviors B, since to accurately characterize and interpret B in the first place requires reference to M.

Author: Joe



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