The Ghost in the System:

In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of ‘category mistake’ by the eminent British philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Ryle was an ardent opponent of Rene Descartes’ view of mind-body dualism. Ryle also came up with the phrase ‘the ghost in the machine’ to mock the idea of dualism. Cartesian dualism is the idea that mind and body are two separate entities. Descartes was perhaps influenced by his religious beliefs. Our bodies are physical entities that will wither away when we die. But our minds, Descartes concluded are immaterial and can “live on” after we die. Descartes noted:

There is a great difference between mind and body, inasmuch as body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible… the mind or soul of man is entirely different from the body.

Ryle called this idea the official doctrine:

The official doctrine, which hails chiefly from Descartes, is something like this. With the doubtful exceptions of idiots and infants in arms every human being has both a body and a mind. Some would prefer to say that every human being is both a body and a mind. His body and his mind are ordinarily harnessed together, but after the death of the body his mind may continue to exist and function.

Ryle referred to the idea of Cartesian dualism as the dogma of the ghost in the machine – the physical body being the machine, and the mind being the ghost. Ryle pointed out that Descartes was engaging in a category mistake by saying that mind and body are separate things. A category mistake happens when we operate with an idea as if it belongs to a particular category. Loosely put, it is like comparing apples to oranges, or even better, comparing apples to hammers. The two items do not belong to the same category and hence, a comparison between the two is a futile and incorrect attempt. The mind is not separate from the body. In fact, the two are interconnected and influence each other in a profound manner. Ryle talked about the idea of dualism as the absurdity of the official doctrine:

I shall often speak of it, with deliberate abusiveness, as ‘the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine’. 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 mistakes. It is one big mistake and a mistake of a special kind. It is, namely, a category-mistake. It represents the 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. The dogma is therefore a philosopher’s myth.

Ryle explained the category mistake with some examples. One of the examples was that of a foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge:

A foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge for the first time is shown a number of colleges, libraries, playing fields, museums, scientific departments and administrative offices. He then asks ‘But where is the University? I have seen where the members of the Colleges live, where the Registrar works, where the scientists experiment and the rest. But I have not yet seen the University in which reside and work the members of your ‘University’. It has then to be explained to him that the University is not another collateral institution, some ulterior counterpart to the colleges, laboratories and offices which he has seen. The University is just the way in which all that he has already seen is organized. When they are seen and when their co-ordination is understood, the University has been seen. His mistake lay in his innocent assumption that it was correct to speak of Christ Church, the Bodleian Library, the Ashmolean Museum and the University, to speak, that is, as if ‘the University’ stood for an extra member of the class of which these other units are members. He was mistakenly allocating the University to the same category as that to which the other institutions belong.

The foreigner committed the category mistake by assuming that the university is a material entity just like different buildings he saw. He could not understand that the university is a collective whole made up of the different buildings, the students, the staff etc. I will discuss one more example that Ryle gave:

The same mistake would be made by a child witnessing the march-past of a division, who, having had pointed out to him such and such battalions, batteries, squadrons, etc., asked when the division was going to appear. He would be supposing that a division was a counterpart to the units already seen, partly similar to them and partly unlike them. He would be shown his mistake by being told that in watching the battalions, batteries and squadrons marching past he had been watching the division marching past. The march-past was not a parade of battalions, batteries, squadrons and a division; it was a parade of the battalions, batteries and squadrons of a division.

Similar to the foreigner, the child was looking for a separate entity called “the division”. He could not understand that the division is what he is seeing. It was not a parade of battalions, batteries, squadrons and a division; it was a parade of the battalions, batteries and squadrons of a division.

Ryle also gave another example of a visitor who was getting an explanation of the game of Cricket. He saw and understood the different players in the field such as the batsman, the bowler, the fielder etc. After he looked at each one of the players, he asked who is in charge of the team spirit. “But there is no one left on the field to contribute the famous element of team-spirit. I see who does the bowling, the batting and the wicket-keeping; but I do not see whose role it is to exercise esprit de corps.” Ryles explained:

Once more, it would have to be explained that he was looking for the wrong type of thing. Team-spirit is not another cricketing-operation supplementary to all of the other special tasks. It is, roughly, the keenness with which each of the special tasks is performed, and performing a task keenly is not performing two tasks. Certainly exhibiting team-spirit is not the same thing as bowling or catching, but nor is it a third thing such that we can say that the bowler first bowls and then exhibits team-spirit or that a fielder is at a given moment either catching or displaying esprit de corps.

The reader would have noticed that I titled the post – The Ghost in the System. I am alluding to the category mistakes we make in systems thinking. Most often we commit the category mistake of assuming that the system is a standalone objective entity. This is an ontological error. We talk of a hospital system or a transportation system as if it is a physical entity that is visible for everyone to see and understand. We talk about optimizing the system or changing the system as if it is a machine that we can repair by changing out a faulty part with another. In actuality, the system we refer to is a mental construct of how we imagine the different chosen components interact with each other producing specific outcomes we are interested. When we talk of the issues haunting the hospital system, we might be meaning the long waits we have to endure, or the expensive tests that we had to go through. Each one of us construct a version of a “system” and yet we use the same term “system” to talk about different aspects. It is a category mistake to assume that we know what the others are saying. Coming back to the example of the hospital system, when we speak of a hospital system, we point to the hospital buildings, the equipment in the hospitals, the waiting rooms, the doctors, the staff, or the patients. But that is not a hospital system, not really because a system is mental construct that is entirely dependent on who is doing the observing. The observer has a specific thing in mind when they use that word. It is a category mistake to assume that you know what was said. The artifacts are not the system. 

Ryle viewed category mistakes occurring due to problems in vocabulary. He wrote:

These illustrations 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 University, division and team-spirit. Their puzzles arose from inability to use certain items in the English vocabulary.

Wittgenstein famously wrote – The limits of language are the limits of my world. Our use of language limits what we can know or tell about the world. To go further with this idea, I am looking at the idea of systems from West Churchman’s viewpoint. Churchman advised us that a systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another. We live in a social realm and by social realm, I mean that we live in a world where “reality” is co-constructed with the other inhabitants of the realm. We define and redefine reality on an ongoing basis through continual interactions with the other cocreators. We should have a model or an image of what we are trying to manage. But if social realm is cocreated, we need to be aware of others in the realm and treat it as a cocreation rather than an objective reality that we have access to. Systems do not have an objective existence. Each one of us view and construct systems from our viewpoint. Thus, how we define a system is entirely dependent on us, the observers. What we have to do is to seek understanding before we rush in to change or optimize a system. The first step is to be aware of the others in the realm. The next step is to seek understanding and see how each one of them views the world. We have to better our vocabulary so that we can speak their language.

There is no ghost in the machine. There is only the machine.

I will finish with a wonderful reflexive nugget from Ryle:

In searching for the self, one cannot be the hunter and the hunted.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Please take vaccination, if able. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Cybernetics of Complexity:

This post is also available as a podcast – https://anchor.fm/harish-jose/episodes/The-Ghost-in-the-System-e169men

5 thoughts on “The Ghost in the System:

  1. Man is a machine, albeit a seeming complex one, but what are the mechanisms that are manifest within him? This blog points out a wonderful secret — “me for the other.” Seeing the other person in me can inform me about my self. And the same for the other.

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  2. Off course, Descartes made an error. It makes him human. I think that he was not a “Cartesian”.

    In Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience Bennett and Hacker https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/369939.Philosophical_Foundations_of_Neuroscience call “mind” a mereological fallacy: taking a part for a whole, attributing a thing to a process.
    They stress that brain don’t think (nor bodies), but human beings think; using their brains (and body). We tend to attribute the part to the whole. We don’t say that the movement of a car is in the engine, yet we usually say that the thought (or the mind) is in our brain.

    They also stress, that we base ‘having a mind’ on certain behaviour. Based on observing machines behaving, I have to conclude that they don’t have a mind. And also, that animals (including human beings) are not machines.

    They also write that “having a mind” differs from “having a car”. I can give you my car, and then I don’t have it any more. When I give you a piece of my mind, I still have it.

    All categories can be mistaken for reality, as I will prove.

    We make categories out of use – category ‘chair’ comes from sitting on … something, using a coherent system of parts as a ‘chair’. (“system” comes “to stand together” https://www.etymonline.com/word/system ) Useful uses, usually become habits.

    (I once saw Van Kooten, a comedian, asking his partner De Bie to come with “a concept of a chair”. The latter came with a stool, then a kitchen chair, then a poof. Again and again, Van Kooten said: “that’s not a concept of a chair”. Desperately De Bie asked: “why not?” Van Kooten: “you sit on those chairs, one cannot sit on the concept of a chair.”)

    We then are taught to use words to designate the category, based on using language, jargon from our group. Use – in my experience – preceded categories and category precedes words.

    In using words, we run into trouble, because we assume that we can define categories, as-if they really exist. As if they exist “in reality”, ‘out there’. You have to be an insider – inside the category of insiders – to know the category of the category.

    In categorizing, you cannot be the category and the categorizer. Or, to invoke Russell: “who categorizes the categorizer?”.

    As the use of words becomes useful, we can substitute words for categories. But a useful word, should not be mistaken as a real attribute of the category.


    In my experience, it has not to do with our vocabulary, but with using a vocabulary – and language – to both designate a category and the categorizer. I can only be accepted as systems thinker by using the categories accepted (‘right’) by the system thinking community. We may tolerate ambiguity, even an heretic but draw a line with schismatics. But then again, I’m a great pretender.

    Category comes from “to speak against the assembly (agora)”, https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=category , in a way, to “disassemble”. Funny that one can deny something categorically. Where do we categorize the things categorically denied?

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  3. Not sure about “There is no ghost in the machine. There is only the machine.”
    Perhaps it is “There is only the ghost” – we are so enamoured by order and understanding – perhaps the real answer is that we don’t understand enough at all. Then, we are all ghosts!

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