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A.J. Ayer (1910-1989)
by Terence Green
Speak not of ethics
Nor God, nor metaphysics:
Just stick to the facts.
Drawing of A.J. Ayer by Athamos Stradis 2021
Alfred Jules ‘Freddie’ Ayer was a philosophical descendant of the Wittgenstein who (contrary to his own opinion) hadn’t solved all of philosophy’s problems. Ludwig Wittgenstein profoundly influenced a circle of philosophers known as the Vienna Circle. Freddie in turn was profoundly influenced by the Vienna Circle, and he introduced their philosophy of Logical Positivism to Britain.
Logical Positivism was a continuation of the argument over what exactly philosophy was meant to be about (you’d think that after several thousand years, this at least might have been cleared up, but there you go). Logical Positivists such as Ayer said that there are only two types of meaningful statements: those that can be verified through observation (the ‘Positivism’ part), or those which are true simply by virtue of their internal logical coherence (the ‘Logical’ part). So, it’s meaningful to say that the moon goes around the earth, because this can be empirically verified. It’s also meaningful to say that if Socrates is a man, and all men are mortal, then Socrates must be mortal, because this is a logical syllogism. These are matters that philosophy can deal with. But (Ayer argues) it can’t deal with statements such as ‘God exists’ or ‘Justice requires an equal distribution of wealth’, because according to the Logical Positivists such statements are vacuous meaninglessness because unverifiable. So ethics and metaphysics get the boot, while philosophy gets on merely with helping science clarify its concepts. This is philosophy as a barren wasteland – stripped of all that philosophy had, by and large, traditionally been concerned with: Why are we here? What should we do now that we are here? And How should we live?
Late in life, Ayer briefly ‘died’ in hospital – his heart stopped after he apparently choked on some salmon smuggled into the hospital by a former mistress. According to the doctor who attended him, Ayer declared he’d seen a ‘Divine Being’, as a result of which he was going to have to revise all his previous ideas. Pascal would no doubt say “I told you so!”
© Terence Green 2021
Terence Green is a writer, historian, and lecturer who lives in Eastbourne, New Zealand.