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Gilbert Ryle
Reprinted from 'University Lectures', no.18, 1968, by permission of
the University of Saskatchewan
I begin by drawing your attention to a special, but at first sight merely curious feature of the notion of doing something, or rather of trying to do something. In the end I hope to satisfy you that this feature is more thanmerely curious; it is of radical importance for our central question, namely, What is le Penseur doing?
Two boys fairly swiftly contract the eyelids of their right eyes. In the first boy this is only an involuntary twitch; but the other is winking conspiratorially to an accomplice. At the lowest or the thinnest level of description the two contractions of the eyelids may be exactly alike. From acinematograph-film of the two faces there might be no telling which contraction, if either, was a wink, or which, if either, were a mere twitch. Yet there remains the immense but unphotographable difference between a twitch and a wink. For to wink is to try to signal to someone in particular, without the cognisance of others, a definite message according to an already understood code. It has verycomplex success-versus-failure conditions. The wink is a failure if its intended recipient does not see it; or sees it but does not know or forgets the code; or misconstrues it; or disobeys or disbelieves it; or if any one else spots it. A mere twitch, on the other hand, is neither a failure nor a success; it has no intended recipient; it is not meant to be unwitnessed by anybody ; it carries nomessage. It may be a symptom but it is not a signal. The winker could notnot know that he was winking; but the victim of the twitch might be quite unaware of his twitch. The winker can tell what he was trying to do; the twitcher will deny that he was trying to do anything.
So far we are on familiar ground. We are just drawing the familiar distinction between a voluntary, intentional, and, in thiscase, collusive and code-governed contraction of the eyelids from an involuntary twitch. But already there is one element in the contrast that needs to be brought out. The signaller himself, while acknowledging that he had not had an involuntary twitch but (1) had deliberately winked, (2) to someone in particular, (3) in order to impart a particular message, (4) according to an understood code, (5)without the cognisance of the rest of the company, will rightly deny that he had thereby done or tried to do five separately do-able things. He had not both tried to contract his eyelids and also tried to do a second, synchronous thing or several synchronous things. Unlike a person who both coughs and sneezes, or both greets his aunt and pats her dog, he had not both contracted his eyelids andalso done a piece of synchronous signalling to his accomplice. True, he had contracted them not involuntarily but on purpose, but this feature of being on purpose is not an extra deed; he had contracted them at the moment when his accomplice was looking in his direction, but its being at this chosen moment is not an extra deed; he had contracted them in accordance with an understood code, but thisaccordance is not an extra deed. He had tried to do much more than contract his eyelids, but he had not tried to do more things. He had done one thing the report of which embodies a lot of subordinate clauses; had had not done what the report of would embody several main verbs conjoined by 'ands'. There are five or more ways in which his winking attempt might have been a failure, but he was notattempting to do five things. If he is successful, he has not got five successes to put on a list, but only one.
Similarly, sloping arms in obedience to an order differs, but does not differ in number of actions from just sloping arms. It is not a conjunction of a bit of sloping arms with a separately do-able bit of obeying. It is obeying by sloping arms; it is obediently sloping arms. This adverb...
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