Jennifer Szalai on Gilbert Ryle's <em>Dilemmas</em>

My introduction to the philosophy of Gilbert Ryle began in a cramped, airless seminar room bounded by fluorescent lights and a carpet of synthetic weave, where voices of complaint about the glare from above were efficiently dulled by the dreadful carpet below. I was in my final year of undergraduate studies, as were most of the other students in the room; some of us, such as myself, had majored in the so-called "social sciences", while others were finishing degrees in English or biology.

All of us, however, had enrolled in an obscure course entitled "20th-Century Humanism", seduced by a reading list that included Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Gilbert Ryle's Dilemmas (Cambridge University Press). Despite the harsh lights, the muffled voices and the lack of air in that horrid little room, we were encouraged to explore ideas we had not even considered, and to examine connections between those ideas that we had not thought possible. Reading Ryle pushed against the prejudices of our intellectual horizons and then swiftly demolished them, forcing us to confront the infinite possibilities of a world at once benign and indifferent to our varied attempts to understand it.

As an edited version of the Tarner Lectures delivered by Ryle in 1953, Dilemmas begins with a statement of intent: Ryle writes that he is attempting to examine those philosophical quandaries where a commitment to one theory seemingly forces us to reject another theory, even though we feel inclined to admit the merits of both. In analogies ranging from the banal to the bizarre, Ryle takes apart apparently trivial problems to show us how dilemmas often arise when what seem to be competing answers to the same question are exposed as different answers to different questions.

Ryle eventually turns to dilemmas of greater significance, where we feel compelled to choose between options with similar appeal. Are we sentient human beings, or are we biological organisms that operate according to the chemistry of our brains and the physiology of our bodies? Do we have free will, or do we act in accordance with an economic imperative? More information would not allow us to "solve" either one of these dilemmas; I might be aware that I often make choices, but I might also be aware that, in some situations, illness or financial considerations impinge on that ability to choose. Taking apart the dilemma, however, I can see that I need not follow my urge to choose one way or another. The biologist is addressing a different question from the economist, and the economist is addressing a different question from the existentialist; the answers to those questions are, in a sense, determined by the individual questions themselves. I can say that a "dilemma" arises from, to use Ryle's phrase, "wrongly imputed parities of reasoning", where I attempt to harness the existential question of free will with the economist's concepts of market transactions and self-interest.

Economists of the more zealous variety would no doubt like all of us to use their concepts whenever possible, applying them indiscriminately to questions of not only economic, but also political and social, well-being. This kind of economic fundamentalism is reductionist in its most grotesque form, with its insistence that economic theory can explain every aspect of human behaviour in a way that overwhelms other theories and renders them obsolete, and barely distinguished from biological determinism, except through the concepts it employs. What is remarkable, however, is the extent to which it currently enjoys political support in the industrialised world, among public officials and private citizens alike. The welfare state is rolled back because "the market mechanism" will not allow for it; wages are cut because the same mechanism dictates that it must be so. Economics, it seems, has achieved the status of a cosmology, where everything and anything is reducible to its laws of supply and demand. Borrowing terms such as "mechanism" and "efficiency" from the language of engineering, the economic fundamentalist tries to rephrase the question and then provide us with an irrefutable logic that kindly answers it for us.

Although Ryle reserved most of his barbs for the biological determinists of his day, he cautioned against the temptation to turn a specialist's theory into a philosophical apparatus. To assume that one particular theory has the answer for everything implies both arrogance and cowardice. Muddling through a dilemma does not point to a third way of "polite compromise". Muddling through is muddling through, feeling uncomfortable and uncertain, with nothing to guide us but our reason and our freedom to choose.

In just 129 pages, Ryle succeeds in saying what all of those existentialists were trying to say in that opaque language of theirs: that we are "condemned to be free" (although this condemnation is not as awful as it sounds), and that the only way to make choices between different theories is to draw "uncompromising contrasts between their businesses". The "middle-of-the-road solution" is not a "solution" at all.

After reading Ryle for the first time, I felt emboldened and frightened; the world did not contain a "theory of everything" awaiting our discovery. The possibilities for understanding our world are infinite, and the freedom to choose means the freedom to misunderstand and, ultimately, the freedom to fail. On my wall, I have a reproduced portrait of Samuel Beckett by Tom Phillips. Actually, it is a portrait of the back of Beckett's head. He is sitting in front of a stage, watching the slave character Lucky from Waiting for Godot slouch under the weight of the basket and the suitcase forced upon him by Pozzo, the master who "rules" him with a piece of string. Underneath are the words "No Matter - Try Again - Fail Again - Fail Better". The mantra is despairing, because Lucky is given yet another opportunity to fail, but also optimistic, because Lucky is given yet another opportunity to fail. Or not to fail. Or simply to "try again". The choice is up to him.

Jennifer Szalai is an editor of Harper's magazine

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2002 issue of the New Statesman, A kosher conspiracy?