Alfred Jules Ayer (1910-1989) was an important philosopher of the 20th century who rigorously attacked metaphysics. His main work was Language, Truth and Logic.
Ayer received his honorary doctorate from the University of Brussels in 1962 and was knighted in 1970. He was also an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a knight of the Legion d’Honneur.
Contributions to the philosophy
Ayer’s books include: Bertrand Russell: Philosopher of the Century (Contribution), 1967; British Empirical Philosophers (publisher with Raymond Winch), (1952); The Central Questions of Philosophy (1973); The Concept of a Person (1963); The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge (1940); Freedom and Morality and Other Wise Men (1984); Hume (1980); Language, Truth and Logic (1956); Logical Positivism (publisher), (1960); Metaphysics and Common Sense (1970); The Origins of Pragmatism: Studies in Philosophy by Charles Sanders Peirce and William James (1968); Philosophical Essays (1954); Philosophy in the 20th Century (1982); Probability and Evidence (1972); The problem of knowledge (1956); The revolution of philosophy (Contribution), (1956); and Russell and Moore; The analytical heritage (1971).
Language, truth and logic one of Ayer’s most important books and can be considered as one of the most influential philosophical works of the 20th century. In the second edition (1946), Ayer clarified some of his ideas and responded to his critics, but essentially his philosophical position remained the same. He called his philosophy “logical empiricism”, a variant of logical positivism, the philosophical orientation he had learned in Vienna. He was largely influenced by the thinking of 20th century philosophers Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein and the earlier empiricism of George Berkeley and David Hume.
The book is a milestone in the development of philosophical thought in the 20th century. The implications of Ayer’s “logical empiricism” would be felt by many branches of the discipline of philosophy, particularly metaphysics, ethics and philosophy of religion, but also logic, mathematics and the philosophy of science. Although Ayer recognized the influences on his philosophical perspective, he remained an independent thinker, accepting no uncritical position.
Ayer stated that the criterion of meaning is found in the “principle of verification”: “We say that a sentence is in fact significant for a given person if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition he claims to express— that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as true, or to reject it as false”. (Language, truth and logic). The a priori statements of logic and mathematics do not claim to provide factual content. Such statements can only be said to be true for the conventions governing the use of the symbols that make up the statements.
Ayer was known in the 20th century for his rigorous attack on metaphysics and as the main representative of the British empirical tradition. Authentic statements are logical or empirical. Metaphysical statements have no claim to express either logical truths or empirical hypotheses. For this reason, metaphysical statements are pseudo-affirmations and have no meaning. The metaphysicist had been linked to the attempt to build a deductive system of the universe from the “first principles”. These first principles, Ayer argued, can never be derived from experience. They are only hypotheses. As a priori principles, they are only hypotheses, and therefore they are tautologies and uncertain empirical knowledge.
Theology, as a special branch of metaphysics that attempts to acquire knowledge that transcends the limits of experience (for example, the affirmation of the existence of God) is not only false, but also has no meaning. Even statements of value in ethics and aesthetics are meaningless, untrue statements and can be understood as emotional statements of an imperative nature.
Ayer therefore discovered a function for philosophy in the 20th century. Once the traditional tasks of philosophy have been discarded, philosophy can be seen as an intellectual discipline that seeks to clarify the problems of science. Philosophy is, therefore, finally identical to the logic of science.
In Language, truth and logic Ayer argued that it is the task of the philosopher to give a correct definition of material things in terms of sensation. The philosopher is not concerned with the properties of things in the world, but only with the way we talk about them. The propositions of philosophy are not de facto, but linguistic: “(Propositions) … they do not describe the behavior of physical objects, or even mental objects; they express the definitions, or the consequences of definitions.
In the second edition of Language, Truth and Logic, Ayer provided an extensive reworking of his notion of the verification principle. It is this principle that has been criticized mainly by philosophical commentators. It would seem that the verification principle, as formulated by Ayer, is a kind of meaningless metaphysical statement that the verification principle itself should have prohibited.
in his later works, Ayer proceeded with courage, and with wisdom and clarity, to address the main problems faced and confused by other philosophers of the 20th century: problems such as perception, induction, knowledge, meaning, truth, value theory, other minds, mind-body dichotomy, personal identity and intention. Ayer has always been an original and daring thinker who later married a more selective evaluation of metaphysics through the works of his trusted colleagues. His viewpoint on death, dying and the afterlife was slightly altered after dying for four minutes and then revived. His death on 27 June 1989 marked the end of the second golden age of British philosophy.
More info about Alfred Jules Ayer
Ayer has provided an autobiographical volume full of philosophical insights into the role of the philosopher in the 20th century; A. J. Ayer, Part of My Life: The Memoirs of a Philosopher (1977). Ayer was a popular broadcaster for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). One of the most exciting broadcasts was a debate with a Jesuit Christian philosopher; see “Logical Positivism—A Debate” broadcast on the BBC on 13 June 1949, with A. J. Ayer and F. C. Copleston, published in P. Edwards and A. Pap (editors),
A modern introduction to philosophy (1957). Among the many commentators on A. J. Ayer’s philosophical perspective, the following are useful: Carl G. Hempel, Aspects of the Scientific Explanation (1965); Viktor Kraft, The Vienna Circle: The Origin of Neo-Positivism (1969); John Wisdom, “Note on the New Edition of Professor Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic”, reprinted in Wisdom’s Philosophy and Pyscho-analysis (Oxford, 1953); H. H. Price, “Critical Notice of A. J. Ayer’s The Foundation of Empirical Knowledge”, in Mind (1941); H. H. Price, “Discussion: Professor Ayer’s Essays”, in Philosophy and Pyscho-analysis (1955); D. J. O’Connor, “Some Consequences of the Verification Principle of Professor A. J. Ayer”, in Analysis (1949-1950); W. V. O. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”, in From a Logical Point of View (1953).
Reflections on Ayer’s legacy can be found in “The Logical End of an Empire”, Economist (8 July 1989) and “Logic in High Gear”, Spectator (8 July 1989).