I would have assumed that philosophy is in the business of proving things, or doing so as best as the philosopher can.

But Ryle 1959 says

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Obviously both can't be true, unless Ryle is talking about some esoteric sense of proof, or I am.

wikipedia says

A proof is sufficient evidence or a sufficient argument for the truth of a proposition. The concept applies in a variety of disciplines, with both the nature of the evidence or justification and the criteria for sufficiency being area-dependent.

What could be motivating Ryle's strange, difficult to understand, claim? I am not asking why there is disagreement, I'm asking how there can be nothing to disagree about.

Don't philosophers look for sufficient reasons to believe something is true -- i.e. proof -- in order to disagree with each other due to 'truth', rather than say a game in which truth is irrelevant?

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    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Nov 26, 2019 at 15:30
  • well to refute Ryle maybe someone can bring example of something proved philosophically?
    – user43200
    Nov 26, 2019 at 20:34

4 Answers 4


Probably quite a bit of Ryle's philosophy has to be brought into play before his position on philosophy and proof is fully clear - if indeed it is fully clear. The following extract may, however, clear a few spots of ground:

IN "Proofs in Philosophy ", Professor Ryle points out that " Philosophical arguments can be or fail to be logically powerful in a sense of 'logically' closely related to the sense in which a proof may be or fail to be logically rigorous ". But he shows that philosophical arguments are not proofs. For proofs require theorems and premises. But " there are no philosophical theorems ". And when the philosopher attempts to argue from explicit premises, " the debate instantly moves back a step. The philosophical point at issue is seen to be lodged . . . in those pretended premises them- selves ". What, then, is the sense in which philosophical arguments may be logically powerful ? Professor Ryle does not attempt to provide a direct answer in this article. The answer to be suggested in the present discussion arises from the examination of several examples of logically powerful philosophical arguments, including one used by Professor Ryle. The first is Berkeley's argument to the effect that it is hopeless to appeal to external bodies in the attempt to explain how our sensations are produced. " For, though we give the materialists their external bodies, they by their own confession are never the nearer to knowing how our ideas are produced; since they own themselves unable to comprehend in what manner body can act upon spirit." This looks like a proof, but in fact illustrates the difference between a proof and a philosophical argument. If it were a proof, its premise would be " It is inexplicable how body acts upon spirit ". In this case, the phenomenon noted by Professor Ryle would occur: Berkeley's antagonist would instantly begin to raise questions about the pretended premise. The total inexplicability of a situation is, after all, not easy to establish; perhaps the explanation has merely eluded Berkeley. In point of fact, however, the debate does not make this step backwards. For it is the " materialists " themselves who have pronounced the situation inexplicable. Berkeley's conclusion is a logical consequence of this pronouncement. But the argument would be pointless if addressed to anyone not making the pronouncement; it would revert to a pseudo-proof. This suggests that at least some logically powerful philosophical arguments exhibit the logical consequences of a proposition not generally maintained but peculiar to a position, or group of positions, to which they are addressed. (J.W. Johnstone, 'The Logical powerfulness of philosophical arguments', Mind, Vol. 64, No. 256 (Oct., 1955), pp. 539-541:539. G. Ryle, Revue Internationale de Philosophie, 1954, pp. 150-1.)


Gilbert Ryle is confused. I suspect he's thinking that a proof must be positive, but philosophy does not deal much in positive proofs. It proceeds by a process of abduction and for the most part this depends on the refutation of theories by reductio arguments.

A redutio argument is a proof. Russell rejects metaphysics because he is able to prove that all the theories he can think of fail in logic. His conclusion that metaphysics is hopeless depends utterly on his ability to prove that his theories fail.

It is not just Ryle. The current Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics states that metaphysics has no decision-making procedure. This is utter tosh. F.H. Bradley states the case precisely when he observes that metaphysics does not produce a positive result. This is a provable proposition. It may be proved by individually refuting all positive theories. This is not difficult to do and most philosophers would agree that metaphysical problems are undecidable as a direct consequence of our ability to refute their positive answers.

The idea that philosophy is not about proofs may be the most dangerous and wildly mistaken idea we could hold about the discipline and probably the most damaging to progress. Of course we prove things. The problem is only that it is difficult to understand what we can prove.

Kant all by himself makes a mockery of Ryle's statement when he proves (to his own satisfaction at least) that all selective conclusions about the world-as-a-whole are undecidable. This is demonstrable. To demonstrate this, or to reach this conclusion, requires a long series of formal proofs in the form of refutations. The idea that such refutations are impossible is clearly nonsense since approximately all philosophers who do the sums agree with Kant on this issue. If proofs were impossible they would all hold different opinions. As it is, when we shut up and calculate we are forced to normalise on a common view, and this is because we can prove that other views are unsound.

The very fact that we all find metaphysical problems undecidable is a proof that philosophy proves things and produces reliable results. I can make no sense of Ryle's position and consider it naive and ill-informed. It is not uncommon but is easily disposed of.


Is philosophy about proof? Depends on what you mean by philosophy. Like most complex endeavors, science comes to mind, definitions are not entirely beyond controversy. Some would call this metaphilosopy which is discussion over the nature of what constitutes 'philosophy'. Ironically, not everyone even sees metaphilosophy and metaphysics as a part of or meaningful to philosophy. The WP article on philosophy quotes Ryle:

Many philosophers have expressed doubts over the value of metaphilosophy.2 Among them is Gilbert Ryle: "preoccupation with questions about methods tends to distract us from prosecuting the methods themselves. We run as a rule, worse, not better if we think a lot about our feet. So let us ... not speak of it all but just do it."3

The question of what constitutes 'proof' would be part of epistemology and could be considered a meta-epistemological question, but certainly, this neologism would have been rejected by Ryle given his participation in ordinary language philosophy. One can avoid the normative question, 'what should philosophy be' and take a look at 'what philosophy is'.

Gilbert Ryle, in the broadly defined analytic philosophical tradition rejected what some consider Metaphysical Speculation which can be understood simply as a rejection on the overreliance of rational methods and an under reliance on empirical ones. To put it in another way, some philosophers aspire to grand, sweeping theories of everything where all has it's reasonable position to all else, and other philosophers see this as a pipe dream. Some of the logical empiricists and positivists went so far as to reject all metaphysics entirely. Men like Hempel, Mach, and others attempted to eliminate and minimize metaphysics from knowledge entirely. Ordinary language philosophers were skeptical of Metaphysics with a capital 'M'.

How does this relate to proof and philosophy? Well, in ordinary language, proof is that which makes our knowledge certain. It is a concept that defines the relationship between belief and knowledge, whatever that may be. And if there's one consistency of philosophy, it's the constant demonstration by philosophy that certainly is elusive. In fact, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy all have no entry for 'proof'. This might seem odd given how proof is used so frequently in discourse such as logic, mathematics, argumentation, and law. Burden of proof is a very well known term, for instance.

And yet, 'proof' has since the beginning of philosophy been undermined by skepticism. And since Quine and Duhem have been around, skepticism has been bolstered by the underdetermination of scientific theory, which has taken what logical positivists held as a certain path to truth and fact, and riddled it with doubt. Most philosophers of the analytic tradition hold to some form of fallibilism, which seems to trace its roots back to the Agrippan Trilemma.

There are still theologians, who start off with the certainty of God's existence and try to impute certainty to proof, and there are still Metaphysicians who chase a grand theory of everything and claim that certain principles are beyond doubt, but they are not part of the Anglo-American analytical tradition which fully has embraced the power of doubt.

Now, proof does have use in some limited contexts in philosophy like logical proofs, legal theoretical ontological questions like "what constitutes evidence", and in mathematics where there's an entire branch called proof theory. But most analytic philosophers agree that Gettier's problems has thrown a wrench in creating any universally acceptable notion of proof or justification in a broad sense.

So, philosophy isn't so much about proof of things, as it is about in some broad sense explaining them. Of course, what constitutes an explanation is also quite the sticky wicket.


I don't see an immediate contradiction. Here is how I understand it: Ryle doesn't say that philosophy is not "in the business of proving things". He says that proving things is just a possible result of philosophy as scoring goals is just a possible result of tennis. "in vain" is here also important: there must be a specific reason & context about why and how you are providing proofs and there must be a reason & context about why and how you are scoring goals so that you might be considered respectively as a philosopher or a tennis player. Besides he introduces also a certain idea of efficiency, you can't be just willing/intending to score goals or to prove things to be considered as a philosopher or a tennis player. Finally proofs and goal scoring are not intrinsically attached to Tennis or Philosophy as you could provide proofs without being a philosopher (what about being a math teacher providing proofs to her students?) and be scoring goals without being a tennis player (what about being a soccer player?).

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  • scoring goals ISN'T a possible result of tennis tho -- however sympathetic i am to your conclusions about proofs in philosophy
    – user38026
    Nov 26, 2019 at 17:24

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