A. J. Ayer

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A. J. Ayer
Alfred Jules Ayer.jpg
BornAlfred Jules Ayer
(1910-10-29)29 October 1910
London, England, United Kingdom
Died27 June 1989(1989-06-27) (aged 78)
London, England, United Kingdom
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolAnalytic
Main interestsLanguage · Epistemology
Ethics · Meaning · Science
Notable ideasLogical positivism
Verification principle
Emotivist ethics
 
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A. J. Ayer
Alfred Jules Ayer.jpg
BornAlfred Jules Ayer
(1910-10-29)29 October 1910
London, England, United Kingdom
Died27 June 1989(1989-06-27) (aged 78)
London, England, United Kingdom
Era20th-century philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolAnalytic
Main interestsLanguage · Epistemology
Ethics · Meaning · Science
Notable ideasLogical positivism
Verification principle
Emotivist ethics

Sir Alfred Jules "Freddie" Ayer (/ɛər/; 29 October 1910 – 27 June 1989)[2] was a British philosopher known for his promotion of logical positivism, particularly in his books Language, Truth, and Logic (1936) and The Problem of Knowledge (1956).

Ayer was a Special Operations Executive and MI6 agent during the Second World War.[3] He was the Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London from 1946 until 1959, when he became Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1951 to 1952. He was knighted in 1970.

Life[edit]

Ayer was born in St John's Wood, London, to a wealthy family, and was educated at Ascham St Vincent's Preparatory School and Eton. It was at Eton that Ayer first became known for his characteristic bravado and precocity.[4] In the final examinations at Eton, Ayer came second in his year, and first in classics. In his final year, as a member of Eton's senior council, he unsuccessfully campaigned for the abolition of corporal punishment at the school. He won a classics scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford. He served as an officer in the Welsh Guards during World War II, working for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and spying for MI6.[5] He was an extrovert, and social mixer, and was married four times, including to Dee Wells and Vanessa Salmon (thus becoming stepfather to Nigella Lawson). Reputedly he liked dancing and attending the clubs in London and New York. He was also obsessed with sport: he had played rugby for Eton, and was a noted cricketer and a keen supporter of the Tottenham Hotspur football team. For an academic, Ayer was an unusually well-connected figure in his time, with close links to 'high-society' and the establishment. Presiding over Oxford high-tables, he is often described as charming, but at times he could also be intimidating.[6]

In Language, Truth and Logic (1936), Ayer rejected atheism, as he understood it, on the grounds that any religious discourse was meaningless. He believed that religious language was unverifiable and as such literally nonsense. Consequently "There is no God" was for Ayer as meaningless and metaphysical an utterance as "God exists." Though Ayer could not give assent to the declaration "There is no God," he was an atheist in the sense that he withheld assent from affirmations of God's existence. However, in "Language, Truth and Logic" he distinguishes himself from both agnostics and atheists by saying that both these stances take the statement "God exists" as a meaningful hypothesis, which Ayer himself does not. He also criticises C. A. Mace's opinion[7] that metaphysics is a form of intellectual poetry.[8] The stance of a person who believes "God" denotes no verifiable hypothesis is sometimes referred to as igtheism (for example, by Paul Kurtz).[9] In later years Ayer did refer to himself as an atheist[10] and stated that he did not believe in God.[11] He followed in the footsteps of Bertrand Russell by debating with the Jesuit scholar Frederick Copleston on the topic of religion.

Ayer's version of emotivism divides "the ordinary system of ethics" into four classes:

  1. "Propositions that express definitions of ethical terms, or judgements about the legitimacy or possibility of certain definitions"
  2. "Propositions describing the phenomena of moral experience, and their causes"
  3. "Exhortations to moral virtue"
  4. "Actual ethical judgments"[12]

He focuses on propositions of the first class—moral judgments—saying that those of the second class belong to science, those of the third are mere commands, and those of the fourth (which are considered in normative ethics as opposed to meta-ethics) are too concrete for ethical philosophy. While class three statements were irrelevant to Ayer's brand of emotivism, they would later play a significant role in Stevenson's.

Ayer argues that moral judgments cannot be translated into non-ethical, empirical terms and thus cannot be verified; in this he agrees with ethical intuitionists. But he differs from intuitionists by discarding appeals to intuition as "worthless" for determining moral truths,[13] since the intuition of one person often contradicts that of another. Instead, Ayer concludes that ethical concepts are "mere pseudo-concepts":

The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, "You acted wrongly in stealing that money," I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, "You stole that money." In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, "You stole that money," in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks. … If now I generalise my previous statement and say, "Stealing money is wrong," I produce a sentence that has no factual meaning—that is, expresses no proposition that can be either true or false. … I am merely expressing certain moral sentiments.[14]

Between 1945 and 1947, together with Russell and George Orwell, he contributed a series of articles to Polemic, a short-lived British "Magazine of Philosophy, Psychology, and Aesthetics" edited by the ex-Communist Humphrey Slater.[15][16]

Ayer was closely associated with the British humanist movement. He was an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association from 1947 until his death. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1963.[17] In 1965, he became the first president of the Agnostics' Adoption Society and in the same year succeeded Julian Huxley as president of the British Humanist Association, a post he held until 1970. In 1968 he edited The Humanist Outlook, a collection of essays on the meaning of humanism. In addition he was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto.[18]

He taught or lectured several times in the United States, including serving as a visiting professor at Bard College in the fall of 1987. At a party that same year held by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, then 77, confronted Mike Tyson who was forcing himself upon the (then) little-known model Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: "Do you know who the fuck I am? I'm the heavyweight champion of the world," to which Ayer replied: "And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men". Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out.[19]

From 1959 to his retirement in 1978, Sir Alfred held the Wykham Chair, Professor of Logic at Oxford. He was knighted in 1970.

Ayer died on 27 June 1989. From 1980 – 1989, Ayer lived at 51 York Street, Marylebone, where a memorial plaque was unveiled on 19 November 1995.[20]

Personal life[edit]

Ayer was married four times to three women.[21] His first marriage was from 1932-1941 to (Grace Isabel) Renée (d. 1980), who subsequently married philosopher Stuart Hampshire; Ayer's friend and colleague.[21] In 1960 he married Alberta Constance (Dee) Wells (1925–2003), with whom he had one son.[21] Ayer's marriage to Wells was dissolved in 1983 and that same year he married Vanessa Mary Addison, former wife of politician Nigel Lawson. She died in 1985 and in 1989 he remarried Dee Wells, who survived him.[21] Ayer also had a daughter with Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham Westbrook.[21]

Near-death experience[edit]

In 1988, shortly before his death, Ayer wrote an article entitled, "What I saw when I was dead",[22] describing an unusual near-death experience. Of the experience, Ayer first said that it "slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death ... will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be."[23] However, a few days later he revised this, saying "what I should have said is that my experiences have weakened, not my belief that there is no life after death, but my inflexible attitude towards that belief".[24]

In 2001 Dr. Jeremy George, the attending physician, claimed that Ayer had confided to him: "I saw a Divine Being. I'm afraid I'm going to have to revise all my books and opinions." Ayer's son Nick, however, said that he had never mentioned this to him though he did find his father's words to be extraordinary, and said he had long felt there was something possibly suspect about his father's version of his near death experience.[25]

Works[edit]

Ayer is best known for popularising the verification principle, in particular through his presentation of it in Language, Truth, and Logic (1936). The principle was at the time at the heart of the debates of the so-called Vienna Circle which Ayer visited as a young guest. Others, including the leading light of the circle, Moritz Schlick, were already offering their own papers on the issue.[26] Ayer's own formulation was that a sentence can only be meaningful if it has verifiable empirical import, otherwise it is either "analytical" if tautologous, or "metaphysical" (i.e. meaningless, or "literally senseless"). He started to work on the book at the age of 23[27] and it was published when he was 26. Ayer's philosophical ideas were deeply influenced by those of the Vienna Circle and David Hume. His clear, vibrant and polemical exposition of them makes Language, Truth and Logic essential reading on the tenets of logical empiricism– the book is regarded as a classic of 20th century analytic philosophy, and is widely read in philosophy courses around the world. In it, Ayer also proposed that the distinction between a conscious man and an unconscious machine resolves itself into a distinction between 'different types of perceptible behaviour',[28] an argument which anticipates the Turing test published in 1950 to test a machine's capability to demonstrate intelligence.

Ayer wrote two books on the philosopher Bertrand Russell, Russell and Moore: The Analytic Heritage (1971) and Russell (1972). He also wrote an introductory book on the philosophy of David Hume and a short biography of Voltaire.

Ayer was strong critic of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. As a logical positivist Ayer was in conflict with Heidegger's proposed vast, overarching theories regarding existence. These he felt were completely unverifiable through empirical demonstration and logical analysis. This sort of philosophy was an unfortunate strain in modern thought. He considered Heidegger to be the worst example of such philosophy, which Ayer believed to be entirely useless.

In 1972–1973 Ayer gave the Gifford Lectures at University of St Andrews, later published as The Central Questions of Philosophy. In the preface to the book, he defends his selection to hold the lectureship on the basis that Lord Gifford wished to promote '"Natural Theology", in the widest sense of that term', and that non-believers are allowed to give the lectures if they are "able reverent men, true thinkers, sincere lovers of and earnest inquirers after truth".[29] He still believed in the viewpoint he shared with the logical positivists: that large parts of what was traditionally called "philosophy"– including the whole of metaphysics, theology and aesthetics– were not matters that could be judged as being true or false and that it was thus meaningless to discuss them.

In "The Concept of a Person and Other Essays" (1963), Ayer heavily criticized Wittgenstein's private language argument.

Ayer's sense-data theory in Foundations of Empirical Knowledge was famously criticised by fellow Oxonian J. L. Austin in Sense and Sensibilia, a landmark 1950s work of common language philosophy. Ayer responded to this in the essay "Has Austin Refuted the Sense-data Theory?", which can be found in his Metaphysics and Common Sense (1969).

Selected publications[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Spurling, Hilary (24 December 2000). "The Wickedest Man in Oxford". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 31 January 2008. Retrieved 1February 2008. 
  2. ^ Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Philosophers. London: Routledge. 1996. pp. 37–39. ISBN 0-415-06043-5. 
  3. ^ Scott-Smith, Giles (2002). The politics of apolitical culture: the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA, and post-war American hegemony. London: Routledge. p. 109. ISBN 978-0-415-24445-9. 
  4. ^ Rogers, Ben (2000) [1999]. A.J. Ayer: A Life. London: Vintage. pp. 42–44. ISBN 978-0-09-953681-9. 
  5. ^ Norton-Taylor, Richard (21 September 2010). "Graham Greene, Arthur Ransome and Somerset Maugham all spied for Britain, admits MI6". The Guardian (London). 
  6. ^ Wilson, A. N. (2003). Iris Murdoch as I knew her. London: Hutchinson. p. 156. ISBN 978-0-09-174246-1. 
  7. ^ "Representation and Expression," Analysis, Vol.1, No.3; "Metaphysics and Emotive Language," Analysis Vol. II, nos. 1 and 2,
  8. ^ Language, Truth and Logic 1946/1952, New York/Dover
  9. ^ Kurtz, Paul (1992). The New Skepticism: Inquiry and Reliable Knowledge. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus. p. 194. ISBN 978-0-87975-766-3. 
  10. ^ "I trust that my remaining an atheist will allay the anxieties of my fellow supporters of the British Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press Association and the South Place Ethical Society." (Ayer 1989, p. 12)
  11. ^ "I do not believe in God. It seems to me that theists of all kinds have very largely failed to make their concept of a deity intelligible; and to the extent that they have made it intelligible, they have given us no reason to think that anything answers to it." Ayer, A.J. (1966). "What I Believe," Humanist, Vol.81 (8) August, p 226.
  12. ^ Ayer, Language, 103
  13. ^ Ayer, Language, 106
  14. ^ Ayer, Language, 107
  15. ^ Buckman, David (13 November 1998). "Where are the Hirsts of the 1930s now?". The Independent (London). 
  16. ^ Collini, Stefan (2006). Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-929105-2. 
  17. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter A". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on 10 May 2011. Retrieved 28 April 2011. 
  18. ^ "Humanist Manifesto II". American Humanist Association. Retrieved 4 October 2012. 
  19. ^ Rogers (1999), page 344.
  20. ^ City of Westminster green plaques http://www.westminster.gov.uk/services/leisureandculture/greenplaques/
  21. ^ a b c d e Wollheim 2011
  22. ^ Ayer, A. J. "What I Saw When I Was Dead" (PDF). Retrieved 4 November 2011. 
  23. ^ Lougrhan, Gerry (18 March 2001), Can There Be Life After Life? Ask the Atheist! 
  24. ^ Dennett, Daniel C. (3 November 2006). "THANK GOODNESS!". Edge.org. Retrieved 4 November 2011. 
  25. ^ Cash, William (28 April 2009). "Did atheist philosopher see God when he ‘died’?". National Post. Retrieved 4 November 2011. 
  26. ^ Schlick, Moritz (1935). Unanswerable Questions XIII. The Philosopher. Retrieved 4 November 2011. 
  27. ^ page ix, "Language, Truth and Logic", Penguin, 2001
  28. ^ page 140, Language, Truth and Logic, Penguin, 2001
  29. ^ The Central Questions of Philosophy, p. ix

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]