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A.J. Ayer: A Life by Ben Rogers

Ralph Blumenau reviews a new biography of A.J. Ayer, the angry young man who tried to abolish metaphysics.

Chatto & Windus have done us proud by publishing within a few months two fine biographies of recent philosophers: Ignatieff’s life of Isaiah Berlin (which I reviewed in Issue 23 of Philosophy Now) and now Ben Rogers’ of Berlin’s friend, A.J.Ayer. These two men had certain things in common: their biographers stress that both had immense personal charm, and that, as Jews with foreign parents, they were both in a sense outsiders; and the authors have made links between that last fact and certain of their attitudes. But in things that matter – life-style, attitude to their Judaism, and philosophical beliefs – they could hardly have been further apart. Berlin was troubled by his friend’s positively febrile sexual promiscuity. Ayer’s affaires figure very extensively in this book, and as long as the women in question (whether wives or not) had the same free attitude to sexual relationships as he had (and it must be said that apparently almost all of them did), Ayer could see no problem. With regard to Judaism, Berlin’s Jewish identity was important and valuable to him, whereas Ayer considered his merely an irrational nuisance. However, it was to be in their philosophical beliefs that they came to differ most widely. For Berlin, philosophy should provide individuals and societies with ideas that would enable them to lead better, wiser, more tolerant lives, whereas for Ayer, the sole purpose he attributed to philosophy was to focus on whether, and how, statements could be precisely phrased and then verified by sense observations. Since metaphysical statements in particular could never be verified by sense observation, they were in a philosophical sense meaningless, and philosophy should therefore not concern itself with them.

This position had first been developed by David Hume, who remained throughout the philosopher whom Ayer revered the most. After Hume, Kant is credited with reinstating metaphysics, which dominated philosophical thought for most of the 19th century. However, with the beginning of the 20th Century the Humean spirit reasserted itself through the writings of C.S.Peirce and William James in America, and in Britain primarily by Russell and Wittgenstein. Ayer would make a study of Peirce and James when he was in his late forties; but when he was still a classical scholar at Eton, his interest in philosophy was aroused by Bertrand Russell.

Then his tutor at Christ Church, Gilbert Ryle, introduced him to the work of Wittgenstein. Ryle was at the time the only Oxford academic to have taken an interest in Wittgenstein; nor, for that matter, did Russell figure in the Oxford philosophy syllabus. Oxonian philosophers almost all came to their subject through the classics, whereas the Cambridge men had a mathematical or scientific background, which was so much more congenial to a branch of philosophy which aimed to pursue the subject with scientific rigour. Ayer also came from a classical background but he responded enthusiastically to Wittgenstein (whom he still thought to be the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus: when the Philosophical Investigations were published, Ayer, like Russell, would think that Wittgenstein had gone soft.) He wanted to use the interval between his Finals and taking up a lectureship at Christ Church, to study under Wittgenstein; but Ryle thought the Wittgenstein cult was bad for both of them, and persuaded him instead to go to Vienna and study under Moritz Schlick, one of the leaders of the Vienna Circle. The Circle’s philosophy, itself originally inspired by the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, was becoming known under the name of Logical Positivism.

It could be said that Ayer was already a Logical Positivist before he went to Vienna; but certainly by the time he returned to Oxford, there was no one in England better informed about Logical Positivism than he. Ayer was the first to lecture in Oxford on Russell, Wittgenstein and Rudolf Carnap (a member of the Vienna Circle), but he was by now already his own man. In particular he took exception to the position that both Russell and Wittgenstein shared that the world was ultimately made up of discrete atomic facts which they believed were the only facts accessible to sense-experience. According to this view, general statements about atomic facts – not being subject to universal verification by sense experience – were, philosophically speaking, only guide-lines, which might at any time be proved fallible. To illustrate, consider the example later provided by Popper concerning the once common belief that all swans are white. For years it was considered a fact that all swans were white, because all the discrete swans that had ever been seen in Europe were white; but this generalization broke down when black swans were discovered in Australia. Ayer agreed that general statements could be no more than guide-lines; that “the world was made up of” atomic facts: this was a statement about nature, whereas Ayer thought at the time that but he denied that we could possibly verify philosophy should concern itself not with the truth of a proposition, but only with its meaning.

It was Isaiah Berlin who persuaded Ayer to write a book on his theories, and the result was Language, Truth and Logic, published in 1936 when Ayer was only 26 years old, and now a standard text of 20th century British philosophy. Ben Rogers writes,

“The position he defended had become canonical, which was strange considering that it was hard to find anyone who agreed with it. Logical Positivism, as represented by Language, Truth and Logic was probably the school that undergraduate philosophers knew best, but it was a school that, from the beginning, most were taught to refute.”

The refutations, such as they were, eventually came not from the metaphysicians who had attacked the book so much from the beginning, but from philosophers who, like Ayer himself, were concerned with the meaning of propositions. Foremost among these was Ayer himself, who over the remainder of his life continuously fine-tuned or modified several theories he had put forward as an impetuous and (Rogers maintains) an angry young man – angry with the establishment at Oxford which, he felt, had at that time denied him the prizes and promotions that were his due, for reasons that had to do both with philosophical vested interests and with antisemitism. (Reading Rogers, I am inclined to think that Ayer’s cockiness and arrogance towards his elders may have played a larger role than either of these factors.)

One shortcoming of Rogers’ book is that with the exception of the arguments of his main rival, J.L.Austin, scarcely any of Ayer’s critics are given a proper airing; and the criticisms that are stated of Language, Truth and Logic in the biography are largely those of Ayer himself in later life as he modified his original thesis. So, for instance, he altered his original view that we have no reason to believe that material objects lie behind our sense-data. In The Central Questions of Philosophy (1973) he thought that the existence of material objects could be warranted by the fact that other people have the same sense-data as we have.

The part of Language, Truth and Logic that drew the severest criticism from outside was the position known as ‘emotivism’, which declared that moral judgments (as well as aesthetic ones) are no more than the expression of a speaker’s approval or disapproval. Moral statements have to do with values, and values are not a proper subject of philosophy as such. This position made some opponents agree with a Westminster housemaster who described Ayer as “the most wicked man in Oxford.” (Doubtlessly Ayer’s reputation as a libertine was also seen as consequence of what he had written about morals.)

And yet Ayer, like Bertrand Russell, did have strong moral feelings and felt that he had to live up to them. Certainly these did not include conventional moral feelings about sexual behaviour; but he actively supported a number of progressive social and political causes. He even agreed in his retirement to become founder President of the Society for Applied Philosophy – an odd position for someone who had argued that philosophy had no role in advising people how to live. He now described that earlier idea as “rather insular”: although philosophy cannot lay down moral codes, it can at least help people to clarify their moral choices. And, as human beings, we ought to make choices – as long as we don’t think that they are grounded in philosophy as such. In this respect he spoke of commitment in much the same way as did the existentialists, for whose general philosophy, with its strong element of metaphysics, he of course had no sympathy. Roberts quotes two lines which Frank Pakenham, who understood the apparent paradox, wrote about Ayer:

“He sneers at duty with indignant voice But trembles with a passion for the good.”

Roberts quotes two hostile comments among the obituary pieces that appeared after Ayer’s death. One was that “he enormously narrowed the range of philosophical enquiry”; the other that he “destroyed the conception in which the wisdom of humanity reposes.” My own view is that these are fair strictures as far as his philosophy goes. Personally, “ich bin ein Berliner”: I regret the way philosophy as such has turned away from understanding the world to merely understanding the word. I think it is a denial of what the word philosophy, the love of wisdom, originally meant. Ayer knew well that there were things outside of philosophy which were wonderful but about which philosophy as such has nothing to say. Berlin told Roberts of an occasion when he and Ayer talked about the nature of philosophy. Ayer said, “ ‘There is philosophy, which is about conceptual analysis – about the meaning of what we say – and there is all of this’ – an excited sweep of the hands – ‘all of life.’”

The philosophical parts of Rogers’ book are not always easy: he takes quite a lot of philosophical knowledge for granted. But even readers who do not have such knowledge will be fascinated by the image he gives us of this zestful man and of the society in which he moved. The pages drip with the names of famous men and women with whom Ayer was friendly, though unfortunately only a few of them are given character sketches. Most of them (apart from his three wives and his opponent J.L.Austin) are described in physical terms only. However, we get a very clear picture of Ayer himself. With all the many reservations one can make of his character (and about which even his wives were fully aware and articulate), he was hugely admired and loved as a person by a great many people: women, colleagues, students, and others. Ben Rogers, who met him only once and for the most fleeting of moments, admits to liking and respecting him. One can deduce this also from the fact that the people who detested him (and there were some) make only a marginal appearance in the book.

© Ralph Blumenau 2000

Ralph Blumenau was an undergraduate at Wadham College when Ayer was a tutorial fellow there, and once inadvertently interrupted Ayer while the latter was disporting himself with a lady. That was his only contact with the great man. He now teaches Philosophy at the University of the Third Age in London.

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