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…