Gilbert Ryle: The Concept of Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1949, 2002)
...car il n'objecte pas un seul mot contre ce que j'ai écrit, mais me fait dire des sottises auxquelles je n'ai jamais pensé, afin par après de les refuter, qui est user de mauvaise foi d'une façon très honteuse pour un particulier....Descartes, Letter to Mersenne, July 1640.
A virulently bad sort of philosophical writing that consists in suggesting a philosophical doctrine and triumphantly demonstrating its faults, is a peculiar property of the English as it has been pretty much ever since philosophy began to appear in the vernacular. You might call this the Empty Scarecrow Fallacy, for it is not quite the equivalent of a straw man argument, although straw man arguments play a great role in the unfolding of the fallacy. The scarecrow is a scarecrow because the doctrine under attack is so vile, so brainless, so thoroughly inconsistent and unsupportable – at least as it is described by the attacker - that one wonders that any sane person would dare advocate such a position. The scarecrow is empty because the attacker most often neglects to mention exactly who if not what it is that he is attacking (A favorite term for the benighted opposition was “the gentleman who advocate...”), or else the references are vague, coming down to what in many cases is no more than a suspiciously referent-free proper name. English philosophers are not embarrassed by this characterization, or they wouldn’t be if it occurred to them, just as they don’t seem to be embarrassed by the apt characterization of so many of their confreres as pasty, flabby two-legged animals with bad teeth. Rather, like the bully on the block, they put the fallacy on display, daring anyone to call them to account and perhaps privately amazed that, with sufficient bravado, you can get away with anything. The list of practitioners of the Empty Scarecrow Fallacy is illustrious. Locke’s attack on innate ideas, Hume’s attack on our concepts of causality and Moore’s attack on some vaguely defined group who didn’t practice common sense form something of a tradition of vagueness. The practice is, of course, hugely rhetorical and overrun with ethnocentric winks and nods. The gentlemen propose outlandish theories that no down to earth Englishmen would be tempted to entertain. Not really rousting out or quoting the gentlemen is part of the game. We know who they are.
Ryle is a proud practitioner of the Empty Scarecrow Fallacy in The Concept of Mind, though we should give him credit for taking the trouble name his adversary as “the Cartesian stage,” implying thereby that the doctrine he attacks was in fact advocated by Descartes.
A defense of the Empty Scarecrow Fallacy might be mustered to the effect that it mirrors the accepted practice in scientific writing. The reviews scientists record of the history of their subject, or else the views of their immediate predecessors that their findings or theorizing have shown to be false, are more often than not mere distortion or caricature. Nevertheless science is advanced by the good findings of that kind and it makes little difference whether the scientific pioneer distorted the views of the past. The important thing is we now have his results. The problem is that philosophy is not experimental science in this sense. The subject of a science is its subject matter and its primary relationship is to the observations and experimental results relevant to its subject. The subject of philosophy, however, is never so precisely defined, but its primary relationship is to existing philosophical texts. So to be vague about a philosophical doctrine you are attacking is to be vague about your subject. The philosophical practitioner of the Empty Scarecrow Fallacy is not doing the same thing as the biologist who garbles Aristotle’s views about fish. Rather he is messing with the data. It is more as if Dale and Loewi neglected to publish their records, or even keep records, but simply reported that they saw liquid and no electricity at all in transmissions between nerve cells. Or, in a non-experimental vein, it is as if Gödel did not write out his entire undecidability results but simply suggested that we look at the formulas of a system.
Indeed the accusation of succumbing to the Empty Scarecrow Fallacy does not of itself impugn a philosopher’s actual conclusions. Hume’s views on causality are valuable despite his vagueness as to his philosophical opponents might be. And the cavil one might have with Ryle is that he did not go far enough (though there is much room for disagreement about his individual linguistic analyses, his extreme vagueness about categories and kinds, and his confusion in his treatment of Hobbes and Gassendi between mechanism and materialism). (However, the views that Locke and Moore attack are, as they describe them, so out of bounds, that one wonders who in his right mind would ever advocate them, unless as in so many other matters this is the work of perfidious Gaul.)
Again, one might retort, what matter that some philosopher actually held or didn’t hold ideas we have attributed to him as long as our points our valid? At the very least it does no harm, and now we have the extremely interesting results of the attacker. But the consequence is that in philosophy we end up not with a clean line of an accumulation of knowledge that the sciences like to imagine for themselves. Rather we end up with a series of jostling systems whose interrelation is mightily unclear. It is, if I can resurrect the specter of the schoolmen, a battle of the books where accusations are hurled though we are not quite sure what the argument is about. And this methodological fault obfuscates good argument.
Again it makes no use to say that it is unimportant whether a certain philosopher held the doctrine of mind or what the details of his doctrine may be, for we know that the doctrine in some version is out there and it makes good sense to show that this doctrine is false, and indeed the rest may be of historical but not philosophical interest. Simply to make passing reference to a Cartesian dogma or a doctrine of mind, without telling us in one way or another in more detail than Ryle does what this doctrine consists of, is simply insufficient. It is like an astronomer saying there are planets out there and drawing grand conclusions from this statement without bothering to measure their distance from the sun or plot the curvature of their orbits. That astronomer would not be avoiding fussy detail; he would be a bad scientist. Indeed Ryle does not attack the doctrine of mind head on. That is, he does not provide positive reasons that there are no such things as minds (He could hardly do so, since he hasn’t really defined what he means by “mind.” If the scholarship is too burdensome, one would at least expect a statement in some detail on Ryle’s part concerning exactly what the doctrine of mind is. He does not provide that. There are references to an “official doctrine” and metaphorical statements about “stages” and “theatres,” but no satisfactory statement involving at least some attempt to define the terms of the doctrine and articulate the propositions that constitute and follow from such a doctrine. We are left unsure in a very real sense what exactly Ryle has refuted.). Rather he attacks certain arguments he says have been proposed to support what he believes this doctrine may be. He doesn’t give us reasons to conclude that mind doesn’t exist; he simply refutes reasons he says have been devised to show that it does. And yet it could be that none of the philosophers who may have proposed a doctrine of mind actually used the arguments Ryle undertakes to refute.
Let’s list some of the infelicities of the Empty Scarecrow Fallacy:
-- Aesthetic disadvantage: There is a value in precision, in getting something right. Vagueness about what or whom you are criticizing leads to vagueness about what you are saying.
-- Philosophy does not proceed, at least not at this stage, in the same way that science would like to. That is, it does not proceed by a core group of shared concepts and observations the meaning of which is universally accepted by the community, with progress measured as the accumulation of truths using those concepts and observations. The conceptual frameworks of individual philosophers are largely their personal property and largely distinct from the mental frameworks of other philosophers, even in cases where they use the same terms or appear to make the same points. When you attack “the gentlemen who say p,” you assume that it is demonstrably the case that all these “gentlemen” do indeed say p and that they all mean the same thing by p. It is analogous to attacking a scientific theory while ignoring the experimental and observational data that led up to the theory, and indeed ignoring the experimental and observational data that may falsify the theory. This obviously does not mean that philosophical theories are fundamentally incommensurable; rather, at this stage, it take an additional step of ascertaining that you mean the same thing as your opponent before you attack him. For his words are your subject, just as flowers are a botanist’s subject.
-- It is simply annoying to anyone who is trying the sympathetically evaluate what you have to say. For part of this sympathetic evaluation should be the question as to whether anyone actually held the doctrine you attack and whether my understanding of those unnamed philosophers said matches yours. Moreover, the attacker rarely states in the same detail the theory he attacks as those philosophers he may be attributing that theory to. If their theories are indeed different, how would it affect the validity of the attack?
-- It practically invites the straw man tactic, as when Locke demolishes his version of a theory of innate ideas without telling us who actually held the theory as he described it. If he hints or insinuates that Descartes, for example, held this theory (leading it to be accepted as settled fact in Ph 101 classes across the land), then he may be responsible for the baby-with-the-bathwater consequences. He may incite us to junk a perfectly valid consequence of a theory or perfectly valid portions of a theory that escape his criticism. This occurrence of unintended consequences applies (rather more to Wittgenstein’s than Ryle’s) criticism of epistemology and mind. The very valuable critical function of something like the empiricist theory of ideas could easily be seen as going overboard along with along with the dogmatic portions of the theory, with the consequence that the brakes are lifted on theological speculation masquerading as rigorous philosophy. Certain Xtian philosophers were quick to seize on the opportunity.
-- To return to the experimentation analogy: Philosophers are almost professionally plagued by the virus of impatience. They like to rush to the broadest statement and draw the most dramatic conclusions by magic so to speak, by the philosophical flash of insight that shows it all, or, in this case, invalidates at a stroke an entire theory. Philosophers do not like to do work that resembles the chemist day-to-day patiently recording data with goals rather less dramatic than the complete overthrow of the periodic table. Mathematical philosophers (or at least those who take the trouble to generate theorems within axiomatic systems) garner some prestige because their work resembles the tedious task of fact gathering. In the same way careful understanding of a text and a philosopher’s argument is not the sexiest of operations, but it does contribute to consistency of discourse and accuracy of argument. Historians succeed not by proposing new laws for historical development in the void, but by painstakingly gathering massive amounts of data. And when a philosopher attacks what he believes is a commonly held position he is partly operating as a historian. Home runs are fun but rare; what wins games is small ball.
-- Philosophers do not want to share the opprobrium of the schoolmen who were justly seen as engaging in niggling disputes about vague and largely minor issues. But intelligent criticism of the scholastics, like that of Bacon and Descartes, did not consist in complaining about the precision or the smallness of their arguments (The type of inductive research Bacon advocated was just as patient and detail oriented). Rather their complaint was that the schoolmen argued about concepts at such a high degree of abstraction that the terms of their patient syllogisms were meaningless. And this excessive abstraction came precisely from not doing the careful work of abstracting slowly from closely observations. The schoolmen too saw themselves as home run sluggers.
-- In the specific case of The Concept of Mind, Ryle’s attack is somewhat misdirected against Descartes. The doctrine he describes is better identified as Locke’s theory of ideas.
This is not to mean that philosophizing stops with scholarship. The point is not to argue about what Descartes said and leave it at that. The criticism is the point of the game. It should simply be carried out on a solid foundation.