The philosophical behaviourism of Gilbert Ryle

Philosophical behaviourism grew out of the psychological behaviourism of Watson, Skinner, et al. and the logical positivism of Russell, Wittgenstein, and Carnap. Perhaps the most influential philosophical behaviourist account of the emotions was presented by Gilbert Ryle in 1949 in The Concept of Mind.

The Concept of Mind is a sustained and vicious attack on what Ryle called "The dogma of the ghost in the machine"; namely, Cartesian dualism and variations thereof. In Chapter Four of this work Ryle sets forth his anti-Cartesian account of emotions.

The first thing Ryle does is to draw out the distinctions between four different uses of the term "emotion". Emotion can be used to refer to inclinations (or motives), moods, agitations (or commotions), or feelings. This categorisation goes some way to answering the sixth question posed earlier—What is the relationship between emotional states, moods, and temperament? Ryle views inclinations, moods, and agitations as various types of dispositions. Inclinations are permanent dispositions to behave in certain ways. So, if a person is inclined to be vain, this means nothing more than that he has a disposition to vain behaviour such as boasting. In contrast, if a person is in an irritable mood, this means they have a short-term disposition to display angry behaviour. Agitations are likewise dispositions; in fact, they are merely moods of certain sorts. The only non-dispositional, and thus qualitatively different, category is that of feelings. By these Ryle means things like twinges and pains and butterflies in the stomach. In Ryle's account, such feelings are nothing more than signs of agitations; so, if we have a bodily feeling and we describe it as fear, this is because it is a sign that we are in a fearful mood, which itself is nothing more than a disposition for fear-related behaviour.

It can be seen, then, that Ryle's account offers no more than the other behaviourist accounts already discussed. So, if emotions are defined as dispositions to behaviour, we must distinguish emotions by reference to such behaviour and, as we have seen above, this analysis will not really wash.

An interesting point about behaviourist theories of emotion is how anyone would know whether they were in an emotional state. Somewhat bravely, Ryle suggests a possible answer:

... the bored man finds out that he is bored, if he does find this out, by finding that among other things he glumly says to others and to himself "I am bored" and "How bored I feel". (1949, p. 99)

If this does not seem peculiar to the reader, then perhaps a version of it suggested by Phil Johnson-Laird in which two behaviourists are indulging in post-coital pillow talk may have more appeal: "One behaviourist said to another: 'that was fine for you, but how was it for me?' ..." (1988, p. 18)

In summary, neither philosophical nor psychological behaviourist theories of emotion seem able to withstand close scrutiny. In our view, they are unable to address satisfactorily any of the questions posed at the beginning of this chapter, especially those concerning the distinction between different emotions (Q.3) and between emotions and non-emotions (Q.1). Ryle does attempt to provide a framework for understanding the relationship between dispositions, moods, and occurrent emotions (Q.6) but his arguments are so infected with his anti-Cartesian stance that we feel cheated of our own private experience, as illustrated so well by Johnson-Laird. It seems, then, that some notion of an internal state is essential to our understanding of what an emotion is, although we have argued that the feeling theory notion of such internal states is fundamentally flawed. In the next section we develop further another notion of internal states: the cognitive account of emotions, starting with the work of Aristotle mentioned at the beginning of the chapter.

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