Outline of Gilbert Ryle’s Category Mistake

This short post summarizes his main points. Good for a quick review for students in Phil. 101 and other readers.

Let’s get started, first with his description of the “Official Doctrine,” which he is about to “smack down.”

I. Official Doctrine

A. Human has both mind and body

1.. Body dies

2.. Mind lives on afterwards

B. Space and Mechanical laws

1.. Body is subject to them

2. Mind is not

C. Private history

1.. Mind is apprised of present states

2. Mind is apprised of own operations

D. Internal v. External

1.. Mind is internal

2. Body is external

3. Metaphor, so it does not contradict (B), above

E. Mutual influence

1.. Mysterious

2. Full of theoretical difficulties

3. Shuttlecock (birdie) example (mind body interact like a birdie being hit in badminton)

F. Two different kinds of existence or status

1.. Physical: subject to space and time

2. Mental: not subject to space and time

3. See (B), above

G. Polar opposition between mind and matter

1.. Matter in a common field

2. Mind is its own place

H. Knowledge of own mental states

1.. See (C), above

2. Mind has inner perception

3. Superior certainty to that of physical world

I. No direct access to another mind

J. Thus, our language describing someone else can never be certain

II. Absurdity of Official Doctrine

A. Category mistake: Ryle speaks:

[A category Mistake ] “Represents facts of mental life as if they belonged to one logical type or category (or range of types or categories), when they actually belong to another”

How I think that applies (so far): You represent the truth-claims about the mind as a nonphysical, immortal soul (wrong category), while the mind is actually just the physical brain (the right category).

B. Example of University

1. Prospective student asks to be taken on tour of a university and is shown:

Colleges (buildings)



Scientific Depts.

Playing fields

Admin. Offices

2. All these things = University

3. Then the student asks, “But where’s the university?”

4. Apparently, the student believes the university must be another building or physical object. Or maybe he believes that the university is something abstract or ethereal.

5. Answer: these physical things are the university, much like the mind = the brain and is not an invisible, incorporeal thing.

6. The student is making a Category Mistake

C. Example of a Military Division

1.. A parade of a Division goes by




2. All these things are the Division

3. But an onlooker asks, “But where is the division?” Apparently she is looking for something else, but those things are the Division

4. Payoff: she is looking for a mind that is distinct from the brain.

4. She is committing a Category Mistake. The mind = the brain. The mind is not in a separate category.

D. Example of Team Spirit in Baseball (not the Cricket!)







1..  Team Spirit is those physical objects

2. Here Ryle loses me because team spirit does not have to be physical–is not physical.

3. However, maybe his point is that calling team spirit those physical things is also a Category Mistake because spirit is nonmaterial.

4. Yet, that would support the existence of nonmaterial beings like spirit.

E. Payoff

1.. Mistakes made by those who do not know “how to wield the concepts University, division, and team spirit

2. In these examples, the questioner separates off different concepts when every element belongs together as a whole unity.

Category Mistake Correct category Category Mistake Correct Category
University University is the buildings; libraries; sports fields; museums, etc. Mind Mind is the brain
Buildings; libraries; sports fields; museums, etc. Brain
“One” category “Another” “One” category “Another”
“Represents facts of mental life as if they belonged to one logical type or category (or range of types or categories), when they actually belong to another”

III. Category Mistake by Those Who Know

A. British Constitution and inter-institutional relations (in UK the Constitution is not a written document)




Home Office


British Constitution

1.. Five parts may relate in real terms, but not to British Constitution

2.. Those  five things are the British Constitution

B. Relations between real people

John Doe (actual person)

Richard Roe (actual person)

Average Taxpayer?

1.. First two persons can relate to each other, but not to third (fictitious) “person”

2. If anyone is looking for a person in a body called the “Average Taxpayer,” he does not know how to wield the concept of this hypothetical thing.

3. This is a Category Mistake–representing one category of thing (average taxpayer) and placing it another category (real people).

IV. Origin of Category Mistake

A. Descartes was religious and moral

1.. He could not equate matter (brain) and mind

2. Words describing mental states cannot signify mechanical processes

3. Such words must be construed as signifying non-mechanical processes

B. Mind is intelligent, matter unintelligent

1.. Movement of limbs and tongue must be mechanically caused

2. Mind is non-mechanically caused

C. Differences between physical and mental

1.. They were represented inside common framework of the categories: “Thing,” “stuff,” “attribute,” “state,” “process,” “change,” “cause,” “effect”

2. As a foreigner thinks of University as an extra building, so repudiators of mechanism represented minds as extra-centers of causal processes

ARTICLES IN SERIES (alphabetical order)

Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

Clifford’s Ethics of Belief

Descartes’s Meditations I and II

Hick’s Evil and God of Love

Hume’s Argument against Design

Hume’s Theory of Knowledge

James’s Will to Believe

Kant’s Ethics

Locke’s Theory of Knowledge

Mill’s Ethics

Nietzsche’s Madman and the Death of God

Paley’s Watchmaker and Design Argument

Plato the Soul Man

Plato’s View of Justice and the Soul

Rachels’s Moral Objectivism

Ryle’s Category Mistake

Sartre’s “Existentialism and Humanism”

Socrates’s “Apology”


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