Ayer’s work tells us important things about the shortcomings of Anglophone philosophyby Julian Baggini / May 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
When I started out as a philosophy undergraduate in 1987, AJ Ayer was the best-known and most-celebrated British philosopher alive. His books were featured on pretty much every university’s syllabus and his Language, Truth and Logic even became a set text for the philosophy A Level.
Ayer died 30 years ago this month, before I had graduated. His reputation soon followed into terminal decline: a case of Ayer today, gone tomorrow. Rarely has an intellectual star fallen so swiftly—at least by the measure of the stately pace of philosophical change. His rise and fall tells us a lot not only about his talents and weaknesses but also of the nature of recent Anglophone philosophy.
Ayer was catapulted to fame by Language, Truth and Logic, a book published at the philosophically precocious age of 26. Inspired by a year in Austria in the company of the Vienna Circle, he had returned to proselytise his version of the group’s creed.
The members of the Vienna Circle—which included Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap and Kurt Gödel—did not all agree in detail but they shared a conviction that all philosophical metaphysics and most ethics to date was not so much wrong as meaningless nonsense. Scientific claims made sense because there was some way of testing their truth. But how can we test, say, whether everything that exists is essentially immaterial or whether an action is morally right or wrong? These claims appear to be meaningful because they come in the form of grammatically correct sentences with proper words. But since nothing could ever show them to be true or false they were, the Circle believed, meaningless.
Ayer embraced this credo of “logical positivism” with all the enthusiasm of the vivacious young man he was. He summed up its essence in the principle of verification, which asserted that a statement is meaningful only if it can be verified, in principle if not in practice. In his own more comprehensive formulation, “We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express—that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false.”
There was only one problem with this: by its own criterion the principle was meaningless, since there was no way of verifying it. Rarely has a philosophical thesis been so spectacularly hoist by its own petard.
The recognition of this flaw, however, was not as fatal as it perhaps should have been. While all agreed that Ayer was wrong in detail, he represented the empirical, common sense, anti-metaphysical spirit of his age. Anglophone philosophy rowed back on the extremism of Language, Truth and Logic while still wearing its dismissive sneer of anything that dared go beyond the analysis of language or the study of the empirical world.
The spirit of Ayer also had a wider influence on British intellectual culture. He became a polished broadcaster, most notably on the Home Service’s The Brains Trust, in which clever men (and the occasional woman) held forth on the issues of the day. He was also an influential secular humanist, being an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association, the publisher of New Humanist magazine, from 1947 until his death, and president of the British Humanist Association from 1966–1970.
This influence has not, in my view, been for the better. Ayer added plenty of manure to the soil of logical positivism, and from that has grown the brash certainties of the New Atheism with its breezily simplistic message to ditch God, “stop worrying and enjoy life.” Ayer helped fashion the self-image of secular humanists as guardians of the rational who are able to dismiss religion as palpable nonsense.
Ayer’s work is not without some enduring interest—especially the later work, which showed how the once adamant enfant terrible had grown into a man capable of evolving his views. His writings on knowledge still provide some go-to responses to extreme scepticism. He argued persuasively that the sceptic only seems to win because they demand standards of proof that are impossibly high, and then claim victory when these are not forthcoming. Ironically, this is rather like the logical positivists insisting that philosophers have to make all their claims verifiable and then crowing when they are unable to do so. In this mature phase, Ayer grew closer to the philosophy of David Hume, whom he cites as an influence in Language, Truth and Logic, than he was in that book. Hume’s secular rationality is as modest about our rational capacities and the power of logic as Ayer’s early work was gung-ho about them. In 1988 he had a near-death experience which some have been too keen to leap on as evidence of a change of mind on God. It did make him question his beliefs, as any good philosopher should be willing to do. But it did not take much reflection for him to conclude there was indeed no God and his death, which came a year later, would be the end.
His real change of heart seemed to be a more gradual realisation that his youthful enthusiasm for logical analysis failed to touch on what matters most in life. As a keen dancer and a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur football club, often seen in the stands at White Hart Lane, this should have been the most self-evident truth of all. The Ayer portrayed in Ben Rogers’s excellent biography is very far from a dry, dusty academic. “It seems that I have spent my entire time trying to make life more rational and that it was all wasted effort,” he said in 1986. Not wasted, but sometimes misguided.