A. J. Ayer

ALFRED JULES AYER -The Life and Works of A. J. Ayer

Nano Library Political Philosophy

ALFRED JULES AYER (A.D. 1910 – 1989) -The Life and Works of A. J. Ayer -A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida

Alfred Jules Ayer was born in St. John’s Wood in London in 1910. His family contained wealthy Europeans. His mother had Dutch-Jewish roots and his father was a Swiss Calvinist financier who worked for the Rothschild’s that formed the European banking and financial houses in the late eighteenth century. Alfred’s primary education was at the Ascham St. Vincent’s Preparatory school and at the British Eton school for boys.

After graduating in 1932, he attended the University of Vienna where he became familiar with the notion of logical positivism through the Vienna Circle. In 1933, he went to Christ’s Church in Oxford as a lecturer in philosophy and later in 1935 became a research fellow at the college. As part of the army personnel of World War II, he was kept from philosophical endeavors until 1945 where he returned to university teaching as fellow and dean of Wadham College, again in Oxford. In the following year, he became professor of philosophy of mind and logic at University College in London. He returned once more to Oxford in 1958.





In 1936, Ayer’s first book Language, Truth and Logic was published and became one of the most influential philosophical books of the century. In it, he states that he ‘critically’ advocates the views of Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein of the modern philosophers and the views of the empiricists’ Berkeley and Hume, even though he posits his own view as well. These he said had much in common with logical positivism. He states that his principle of verification requires that an empirical statement be made observable, and it is then that it can be considered meaningful. Therefore, metaphysical statements, since they neither purpose to make logical or empirical truths, must be considered meaningless. Even theological metaphysical statements too are without sense (though not necessarily considered false). Add to this, Ayer considers that a priori statements of logic and mathematics are empty as well because they lack content.

The positivists movement, represented by Ayer’s book Language, Truth, and Logic, grew into a movement called the Vienna Circle. This group included those like F. Waismann, O. Neurath, F. Zilsel, H. Feigel, R. Carnap, V. Kraft, H. Hahn, and K. Godel. They gathered to discuss philosophicm problems, founded journals, held meetings, and produced results that were wide spread and difficult to ignore.





The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge (1940) focuses on the problem of perception and the problem of language in regards to sense data. Thinking and Meaning (1947) is an application of Ockham’s Razor as it applies to thinking, objects, words, and meaning. Philosophical Essays (1954) is a collection of his papers dealing with philosophical logic, the theory of knowledge, and moral philosophy. In 1956, The Problems of Knowledge was published dealing with the problems of a variety of problems associated with philosophical skepticism. The Concept of a Person (1963) discusses the problems of the body, mind, and personal identity and their inter-relatedness.

The Philosophy of the “Early” Ayer: Logical Positivism

At the core of the verification principle is that empirical science is the only method by which one can have knowledge concerning the world. This definition eliminates metaphysical statements and some of the statements found in traditional philosophy. This principles is a direct descendent from the empiricism of Hume, Mill, and Ernst Mach. (This is different than the pragmaticism of Pierce, James, and Dewey which allows the meaning of a sentence relative to particular human interests and purposes and their related behaviors. It is also different when compared to operationalism held by Bridgmen which allows meanings of terms when they are associated with a set of operations that must be performed in a given instance.)





Logical positivism and analytic philosophy are not the same thing even though they may share a common ancestry and have some similarities. The positivists were influenced by Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein (see below) but yet the positivists set out in their own radical direction. It may be said that positivism is a sub-set of analytic philosophy, but the reverse cannot be claimed. Logical positivists are analysts but not all analysts are logical positivists. One commonality when comparing it to the analytics is that they too take strides to eliminate all metaphysical statements because of the accusation that it asserts nothing at all being neither true nor false.

A sentence’s cognitive meaning or its meaningfulness is determined by a reference to the verifiability (or falsifiability) of the statement expressed in the sentence. Therefore, the verifiability principle cannot be a criterion to determine if a sentence is meaningful. What the positivists did was replace the Hume’s psychological analysis and passion for formalized language with logical rigors, both though focusing on eliminating metaphysics. Recall that Hume stated that if any volume of metaphysics or divinity does not contain abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number, or any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact, then commit it to the flames. Ayer, like Hume before him, determined that there were basically only three types of statements. Analytic statements were propositions that were true by definition, necessarily true (tautologies), or obviously true. Synthetic statements are true by some relationship to an experience. Lastly, there are those statements that are meaningless that have no inherent literal significance and are emotive at best.





Prior to Ayer, Kant rejected all metaphysics by attempting to illustrate that metaphysics does not have any knowledge associated with sensory input or content. Kant posited that the mind cannot go beyond the phenomena of the physical world into the metaphysical world. However, Ayer found that the mind has to go beyond the phenomena world into the metaphysical world because in order to posit that it cannot go there it must recognize that there is a ‘there’ it can go to. Hence, Kant entered into a metaphysics without realizing it. However, even though Ayer recognized that there needs to be a metaphysic based upon the requirement for empirical justification, its statements were nonetheless meaningless. To this end, metaphysics has meaning in the meaning of language.

The Verification Principle

The purpose of the verification principle is to find some rule or principle that applies to statements that cannot be proven, such as “Saturn is made from green cheese.” or “God is everywhere.” How can statements like these be verified? Analytic statements, such as 3 + 3 = 6, having no empirical content itself, are easily shown to be true by formal methods and set standards. A problem occurs when philosophy adopts the verification principle. It means that there needs to be a scientific basis for all statements which then leads to all metaphysical statements being ruled out. Statements were to have in some way an empirical content, but how was this to be accomplished.





Ayer formulated two distinctions that could be made within the verification principle. First, there was the practical verification which meant that verification was available. Second, there was the principle verification that involved the propositions were the means to verify are not available at this time but when they become available then they can be used. (For example: “There is no life on Mars.” is not principally verified at this time but in the future it may very well be verified after technology progresses to that extent.)

To coincide with the two distinctions above, Ayer created further qualifications to the verification principle. These verifications can be in varying degrees: weak or strong verification. The strong verification supply certitude that is beyond any shadow of doubt providing conclusive proof. The weak verifications are those based on experience that can be subjected to change or correction. These are more probable in their conclusions.





Further refinement was required. Ayer decided that there needed to be further qualifications to the verification principle process. First, he determined that no proposition could be conclusively proven to be false merely by experience any more than could a proposition be verified by experience alone even though the experience may seem emotively significant to the experience. Therefore, and secondly, analytic propositions can be neither verified nor falsified by and through experience alone, even though there is some relation to sense experience. Thirdly, that means that these propositions do not have to be directly verified to be meaningful. In Ayer’s 1946 revised edition of Language, Truth, and Logic, he found it necessary to make even further refinements. He acknowledged that the definitional propositions, even those applied to the verification principle itself, were meaningful without the aid of factuality. In addition, he concluded that some empirical statements could be conclusively verified based upon just one single sense experience. (It should be noted that especially the first qualification led to the downfall of the principle itself.)

The Application of the Verification Principle to Metaphysics and Theology

The ramification to Ayer’s verification principle was costly—all metaphysical statements are meaningless, all genuine philosophy is analytical, metaphysics is an accident of language. No meaningful statements can be made regarding God or the transcendence. This does not mean however that atheism and agnosticism are true—they too comprise statements regarding God. Rather, statements about God are, according to Ayer, non-cogntivism, meaning that the very question regarding God’s existence is itself meaningless.





There is another area where the application of the verification principle plays out—ethics. Itis no surprise that Ayer also determined that ethical statements too are neither factual nor formal. Ethical statements are emotive. These statements are expressed by the speaker according to some feeling and are an attempt to persuade others to feel the same way they do regarding some ethical principle. Take the command, “You ought not to steal” means that there is a dislike for stealing and that I want you to feel the same way about it as I do. So, ethical statements are not statements about one’s feelings but rather they are statements of one’s feelings. The command (of) is subjective and not a factual declaration and hence are unverifiable. Statements that are about can be verified, such as “I am bored” is verified by a sigh that is associated with boredom.

The Philosophy of the “Later” Ayer

The philosophy of the “later” Ayer begins with the demise of the Verification Principle. Basically, it suffered death by qualification. So, we begin with an evaluation of the verification principle. In Language, Truth and Logic (1936) Ayer tried to eliminate metaphysics via the verifiability principle. Foundations of Empirical Knowledge (1940) dealt with problems of private language and other minds. In the 1946, he later revised Language, Truth, and Logic (1946) Ayer found it necessary to make further revisions to the verifiability principle. He reluctantly acknowledged that some definitional propositions, for example the verification principle itself, are meaningful without being either factual or purely arbitrary. Also, some empirical statements can be conclusively verified, for example a single sense experience. These qualifications, especially the first one, were to be the downfall of logical positivism. In his Philosophical Essays (1954), there were articles treating the problems raised by his first two books. By 1956 Ayer wrote The Problem of Knowledge (1956), which reflects moderate anti-skeptical realism. He accepts that some statements may be true even if they cannot be justified in principle. Then he had a near-death experience in the 1980s convincing Ayer of the possibility of immortality, though he continued to reject the existence of God.




An Evaluation of the Verification Principle

It is not surprising that the verification principle is diametrically opposed and disastrous to evangelical Christianity because no statement about the existence or nature of God could be meaningful. What follows from this is that the Bible would not contain any reasonable propositional statements about God therefore making the Word of God invalid. In addition, there would be no basis for any ethical prescriptions, let alone any absolute moral principles. Second, statements regarding God’s existence do not need to be reduced to empirical statements or tautologies (statements that are necessarily true). There is no need for a trans-empirical (supernatural) being to be subjected to empirical verification. Metaphysical statements are meaningful within the metaphysical context when abiding by metaphysical criteria.

The death blow to Ayer’s verification principle came from its own self-destruction. The principle itself is not empirically verifiable itself! According to its own criteria of verifiability, where all meaningful statements must either be true by definition or empirically tested, it cannot stand on its own structure. Therefore, the verifiability principle is itself meaningless.





Throughout the course of history the verification principle has loosened its ‘qualification’ standard by broadening its requirements and allowing for some metaphysical and theological statements. In the past, logical positivism attempted to legislate someone’s statement by what they meant instead of listening to what they meant. In the previous example, “You ought not to steal” does not mean that one does not like the action but rather means “You should not/ought not steal.” It is fallacious to reduce the ought to is, the prescriptive to the descriptive. It is also fallacious to reduce “You ought” to “I feel it is wrong.”

Ayer’s Qualified Realism

The “later” Ayer’s view is reflected in his book, The Problem of Knowledge (1963) which deals with the problems of a variety of problems associated with philosophical skepticism. He developed a modified form of Realism. About this time there was a turning point in the Logical Positivism movement in general. Herbert Feigl wrote a definitive article titled “Logical Positivism after 35 Years” (Philosophy Today, vol. 8, no. 4, 1964) which narrates the movement’s demise.




Its Major Doctrine and Thrust

One of the most significant movement in ethics was at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Great Britain was led by the Utilitarians, or also known as the Philosophical Radicals. These radicals were the offspring of the Enlightenment, empiricists and enthusiastic supporters in the practicability of the social progress maneuvered by scientific knowledge. They promoted the notion that every man was the best judge of his own interests; man should be free to act as he pleases as long as others are not provoked by his efforts. Following ancient Hedonism, they held that the ultimate good was pleasure. Hence maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain for the greatest number of people in the long run was their ethical goal.

There are various forms of utilitarianism: those that focus on rules and those that focus on actions (John Stuart Mill). Egoistic utilitarianism focus on the good of the individual (G. E. Moore); others stress the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Hedonistic utilitarianism stress on pleasure (Jeremy Bentham), and normative utilitarianism positing normative ethics about how one ought to think and live appropriately.





The utilitarian doctrine states that happiness is the desirable end; all other things are a means to an end. Therefore, whatever afforded this universal good must have utility; hence, the name of this school became known as Utilitarian. The school promoted the universal good of the masses. Hume’s ethic was a transition between the moral sense theories and the Utilitarianism of Jeremey Bentham and John Stuart Mill (see below). It was Jeremy Bentham who furthered Hume’s ideal and devoted his life to the Utilitarian movement. Bentham was a universalistic hedonistic act utilitarian.

The precursor to Bentham’s utilitarianism was that of the teachings of Aristippus of Cyrene and Epicurus positing emphasis on egoism. There was also Abraham Tucker (1705—1774, English philosopher). There was also the influence of French philosopher Claude Adrein Helvetius (1715— 1771) and William Godwin (1756—1836) the political philosopher. Normative utilitarianism, however, is attributed to Henry Sidgwick (1838—1900). Lastly, G. E. Moore (1873—1958), thought that the principles of ethics could be objects of intellectual intuition.

Some utilitarians, such as John Stuart Mill, offer a subjective theory for the good, such as pleasure or happiness, as being the only intrinsic and valuable good in and of itself. However, those like G. E. Moore, see an objective theory of the good, such as knowledge and friendship, whether or not it makes a man happy or not. In Moore’s theory, once one knew what goodness was then one could go on to address what sort of things actually possessed this property of good. Against the hedonistic Utilitarianism of Mill, Moore’s seemed to stress a broader pluralistic alternative.





Common to the modern utilitarian movement was the utilitarian calculus: the right thing to do is what will bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people in the long run. Since this was no always possible to calculate, the “fund of experience” based on past trial and error experience was utilized for determining what is generally the right thing to do.

ALFRED JULES AYER (A.D. 1910 – 1989) -The Life and Works of A. J. Ayer -A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida

Nano Library Facebook page

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *