Russell vs. Ryle–A Philosophical Spat

As is well-known, Bertrand Russell wasn’t too keen on the “ordinary language philosophy” that was popular among Oxford philosophers in the middle of the twentieth century. This meant that when the sociologist Ernest Gellner wrote a book, Words and Things (pub: 1959), that was highly critical of the approach, Russell was only too happy to write its Preface.

At this time, the editor of Mind was Gilbert Ryle, a leading exponent of the Oxford approach, and he refused to allow Words and Things to be reviewed in the journal on the grounds that it was abusive and could not therefore be regarded as a serious contribution to academic debate.

This annoyed Russell, who promptly penned a letter to The Times, which resulted in a philosophical spat that played out in the newspaper’s letters pages during November 1959.

I reproduce it below.

Russell’s First Letter


Letter 2

Ryle’s Response


Letter 3


Letter 4


Letter 5

Letter 6


Letter 7


Letter 8


Letter 9


Letter 1


Letter 11


Times Editorial

Times Editorial

Leave a comment ?


  1. What I find interesting is not so much the spat, that may or may not have its merits. But the choice to do so in public.

    Ryle’s, and his supporters, argument is that the author is uncharitable. The author and Russell’s argument is that this is not a requirement, and they seek a public audience for their “revenge” statements.

    An argument conducted this way is one not seeking a resolution or a change of mind, rather it is seeking an embarrassment or a professional wounding. It has the tang of a revenge feud, or a mudslinging fight, by the erstwhile ivory towered and powdered dons.

    How very human we all are that seek to understand the human condition, when we are scratched in our sensitive parts. Then the blood pumps red and hot in us as much as our subjects!

  2. It is not a one off event. Consider…

    “A disagreement between the twin giants of genetic theory, Richard Dawkins and EO Wilson, is now being fought out by rival academic camps in an effort to understand how species evolve.

    The learned spat was prompted by the publication of a searingly critical review of Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth, in Prospect magazine this month. The review, written by Dawkins, author of the popular and influential books The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker and The God Delusion, has prompted more letters and on-line comment than any other article in the recent history of the magazine and attacks Wilson’s theory “as implausible and as unsupported by evidence”.”

  3. Its a long time since I read Gellner and he was rather abusive but no more iconoclastic than internal critics like Morris Lazerowitz fro example.

  4. I’ve just read this hostile critique of Gellner:
    Rather long, but I found the discussion of OLP and Wittgenstein very interesting.

  5. Bertrand Russell’s foreword to ‘Words and Things’

    1960 ‘Economist’ editorial on ‘The hatreds of philosophers’

    and a review of the book in the same paper

    (all via this page belonging to Professor F.J. Pelletier at the University of Alberta where there are links to all sorts of interesting things)

  6. Hmm, I wonder how these fellows would blog?

  7. I thought this was going to end with him defending himself and in so doing giving them all the review that they wanted.

  8. A few thoughts, not having read Gellner’s book, and with the warning that I’m broadly sympathetic to OLP.

    I gather that one of Gellner’s main criticisms of OLP is that it denies the possibility of answering many philosophical questions. The book quotes an earlier remark by Bertrand Russell:

    “The later Wittgenstein … seems to have grown tired of serious thinking and to have invented a doctrine which would make such an activity unnecessary. I do not for one moment believe that the doctrine which has these lazy consequences is true.”

    Given the failure of philosophy to settle such questions after many centuries of trying, or even to have any settled idea of how to go about answering them, perhaps it would be worthwhile giving OLP a hearing. Surely industry is only a virtue when it has the possibility of achieving something. The passage above was originally followed by this one:

    “I realize, however, that I have an overpoweringly strong bias against it, for, if it is true, philosophy is, at best, a slight help to lexicographers, and at worst, an idle tea-table amusement.”

    Russell’s frankness is admirable. But in philosophy the evidence never speaks clearly enough to overcome an overpowering bias, so it’s no surprise that Russell is unpersuaded. Only by seriously questioning our deeply felt intuitions can we hope to make progress.

    I would add that Russell’s fear is too extreme. Philosophy is a very broad and fuzzy category, covering a huge range of different subjects, and the “lazy” consequences don’t apply to every question that could possibly be called “philosophical”. Indeed, to claim so would be self-defeating, since the claims of ordinary language philosophers can themselves be called “philosophical”, and ordinary language philosophers have continued to do philosophy of some sorts. Moreover, to treat “philosophy” as a well-defined category goes against the OLP principle of “family resemblances”.

    A general character of many of the criticisms of OLP seems to be that they take its claims to such extremes that they appear absurd. But to do this is to ignore OLP’s own assertions about the nature of language, and also in some cases to ignore the express statements of OLP’s proponents. It’s impossible to fairly criticise OLP without having understood it. And it’s not possible to understand it fully without having accepted to some degree what it has to say about language. It seems to me that understanding OLP must be a progressive process, in which one first understands its more straightforward claims about language, and only if one accepts those can one progress to understanding the more difficult claims. This requires approaching OLP in a highly charitable and open-minded manner. No doubt that’s true for all philosophy, but probably more so in the case of OLP, where the very nature of the language (in which the debate is taking place) is in question.

    I must admit that I’ve so far read very little of the literature of OLP, and I don’t claim to have understood even half of what Wittgenstein says. (And I’m sympathetic to criticisms of Wittgenstein for being unhelpfully cryptic.) OLP’s proponents may have gone too far at times. But they should be taken seriously.

  9. Excerpt of B. F. McGuinness’ letter of 14 November, 1959:

    “Newman had to meet the following argument:’Dr. Newman teaches that truth is no virtue; his denials that he teaches this are not to be credited, since they come from a man who teaches that truth is no virtue.’ He described it as an attempt to poison the wells. A subtler form of psycho-logical warfare has been discovered. You belabour your opponents for systematic disregard of truth and consistency, but you add later that there is no question of conscious dishonesty. Thus you can safely call them both knaves and fools. If they expostulate with your account of their views and practices, you reply: ‘A typical evasion! . . . They would disown their own doctrines when criticized.’ If you are charged with being abusive, your answer is: I have accused them of nothing but error!’ In his letter . . . Mr. Gellner has even managed to use both kinds of riposte at the same time. The following are some of the phrases in his book that seem to me, in their context, tantamount to accusations of dishonesty: ‘camouflage’ (p. 163), ‘evasion’ (p. 164), ‘pretence’ (p. 169), ‘spurious modesty’ (p. 170), ‘invoking rationalizations according to convenience’ (p. 171), ‘[devices] to cow the neophyte into submission’ (p. 186), ‘[refusal to avow an opinion be cause it] would ruin one’s reputation,’ ‘insinuation’ (p. 188), ‘trick’ (p. 189).”

    - from Ved Mehta’s ‘A Battle Against the Bewitchment of Our Intelligence’ (originally published in The New Yorker in 1961) as found in his book ‘Fly and the fly-Bottle’ (1963)

  10. And from Queen’s Counsel, Sir Thomas Creed’s letter of 18 November:

    “Socrates knew that a true philosophy thrives on blunt criticism and accusations. No one, however inept, who sat at the feet of the robust Oxford philosophers of 40 years ago was ever allowed to forget the scene when Socrates, taunted by an exasperated Thrasymachus with being ‘a thorough quibbler,’ with ‘asking questions merely for the sake of malice,’ with needing a nurse to stop his drivel-ling,’ implored his accuser to abandon his proposed departure from the discussion so that a problem might be further examined between them. So far from refusing review Socrates forced further discussion on the recalcitrant Thrasymachus. … Is Socrates forgotten in modern Oxford? Is Plato’s ‘Republic’ no longer read? Many will hope that a purchase of Mr. Gellner’s book will enable undergraduates to ask those awkward questions and make those accusations and insinuations of ‘evasion,’ ‘camouflage,’ ‘pretence,’ ‘bamboozling,’ ‘trick,’ which caused Oxford philosophy tutors of an earlier generation such unfeigned delight, a delight only exceeded by the relish with which they exploded the arguments of their accusers.”


  11. Does anyone know if Ryle ever gave a considered explanation as to
    why he did not, evidently, let the book be reviewed ?

    Ask yourself this – who, if any, of the OLP school will be considered a
    major philosopher 100 years from now. Were any of them on the order
    of Kant, Plato or Aristotle ? Epicurus, Descartes, Husserl ? Scotus, Malebranche, Reid..It does not appear that any of them made the first, second or third class.

    Much of what they did seemed nothing more than the solving of rather complex, yet, dry crossword puzzles that consisted of sentences logically
    rectified and about as inspring as a tax-regulation.

  12. Philosophically vicious | Talking Philosophy - pingback on June 19, 2013 at 4:01 pm

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