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Notes by RBJ on

Systematically Misleading Expressions

by Gilbert Ryle

This is the most influential paper written by Ryle in his early "occamising" phase. Relevant influences on Ryle at this time are:
  1. The idea, from Russell and Wittgenstein, that a sentence has a logical form which may not be the same as its apparent syntactic structure.
  2. The specific examples of this addressed by Russell's theory of descriptions, in which a method is shown for explaining the "true" logical structure of sentences containing a definite description which may fail to refer.
  3. Russell's evolving ontological attitude, which moved from almost Meinongian liberality to various doctrines (incomplete symbols, logical constructions) intended to minimise ontological commitments.
  4. Probably something from Ryle's dealings with Wittgenstein, who was then in transition from his earlier to his later philosophical positions.
Ryle took the view that there are a wide variety of idioms in use which incorrectly appear to make ontological commitments which disappear when the true logical form underlying the idiom is revealed. These idioms he described as systematically misleading expressions. It is the main purpose of his paper (and of philosophy) to identify these misleading expressions and, by revealing their true logical form, eliminate the apparent ontological commitments.

He identifies four kinds of "systematically misleading expressions":

I. Quasi-ontological Statements
II. Statements seemingly about Universals, or quasi-Platonic statements
III. Descriptive expressions and quasi-descriptions
IV. Systematically misleading quasi-referential "the"- phrases
1. the King of France the use of definite descriptions in contexts where, even if there is nothing satisfying the description the use in context is meaningful, e.g. "Poincaré is not the King of France".
2. the labour party
3. the whale


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