Meditations | Happiness as a Categorymistake

Since half a year I’m studying Philosophy and I’m seriously loving it. I’m an overthinker for sure and now I can finally overthink for ‘a living’. It’s just so cool to see things from all kinds of different perspectives and it definitely proves there’s not one truth. Every single time we discuss a philosopher with a complete 180º turned philosophy in comparison to another philosopher, I can still think ‘Wow, this is so true’. For me, this is the most inspiring thing about philosophy. Sometimes you do have to put your thoughts in a box and move the box to a different setting (not physically ofcourse, please don’t try), this is what I experienced with the following philosopher, Gilbert Ryle.

The Mind

Ryle was a 20th century philosopher and is known for his philosophy of the category mistake which he talks about in The Concept of Mind. He discusses about how Descartes treats the mind in a way which is according to Ryle a category mistake. Descartes was a 17th century philosopher who was sure, after chilling in his bathrobe in his lounge chair, that we could only be sure of that we think and because of that we can be sure that there is something which thinks. He came to his famous slogan ‘I think therefore I am’ (which he probably already had seen on a commercial from St. Augustine of Hippo who said something similar more than 1000 years ago, but okay let’s give Descartes the credits). From this slogan he rebuilt the whole world, because there must be a God and God is good so he would never trick you that badly (to make a long story short). Anyway, because of his doubts about the existence of his body in comparison to his sureness of the immaterial mind, there must be two different substances. These substances do interact though, how he didn’t know but they did. The difference between ‘using’ your mind can be seen in intelligent and non-intelligent behaviour.

Category Mistake

The causal relation between the mind and intelligent behaviour repudiated Ryle. If we already know the difference between these two kinds of behaviour, why do we need a different substance then? If you trip over your shoes you left deliberately in the middle of the room, then the tripping over is the non-intelligent behaviour and the overthinking of leaving your shoes exactly where you took them off is the “intelligent” behaviour. But according to Ryle we treat the mind here in a completely wrong way. It’s the same mistake we make when we buy a left shoe, a right shoe and a pair of shoes. The left and the right shoe is included in the pair of shoes. Or how Ryle imagines it: James comes to have a look at the University. They give him a tour and show him the library, the classrooms and the lunchcafé. Now James asks if they can show him the University. OMG James, are you stupid? We have just showed you the University! Ofcourse you can’t blame James for thinking the University is a separate member of the ‘family’ just like we can’t blame Descartes for thinking of the mind in the same way. The mind ís intelligent behaviour, it’s not something that causes intelligent behaviour, it simply is the name for intelligent behaviour.


For me it took a while to actually being able to adapt this thinking and to find the right settings for my box with thoughts. After thinking about it more thoroughly though, I felt like there can be something similar to our modern thinking about happiness. Happy is something you are or you aren’t. You can already tell the difference between happy and maybe not so happy situations, so why do we need something that is some overall term of our life. Isn’t happiness something you sometimes experience and sometimes you don’t? Why do we ask people then if they are happy? Uhmmm well it depends, I just had some pizza, so yeh I am happy or nahhh I just had a flat tire, fixed it, then it started raining, forgot my raincoat and now I just found out my pants are ripped, so I’m not that happy right now. I think we are treating happiness as a category mistake as well. When you think about happiness as an overall term, what are you then when you are happy or what are you when you are sad? If happiness is something you generally are or you aren’t, then you can’t be sad anymore, because it will take away your overall happiness and that’s ofcourse not something we want. So we should better block our sadness to keep the happiness. And what if we can’t? Then we are in big trouble because we are not happy anymore?! We lost our happiness. Is it gone forever and when it comes back, are we going to loose it again?!

That’s Life

No, happiness is something you experience when you are happy and sadness you experience when you’re sad. Simple as that. How can you be sad if you live in happiness? You can’t, so stop pretending and be happy when you’re happy and sad when you’re sad. Stop thinking about happiness as a goal because life is sadness as well and it’s a going back and forth between sadness and happiness and millions of other emotions of which probably 50% won’t go together with happiness either. And that’s okay, that’s life.

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