Alfred Jules Ayer: Wikis

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Alfred Jules Ayer
Full name Alfred Jules Ayer
Born 29 October 1910(1910-10-29)
Died 27 June 1989 (aged 78)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Analytic
Main interests Language, Epistemology, Ethics, Meaning, Science
Notable ideas Logical positivism, verification principle, emotivist ethics

Sir Alfred Jules Ayer (29 October 1910 – 27 June 1989), better known as A. J. Ayer or "Freddie" to friends, 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 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.

Contents

Life

Ayer was born into a wealthy family of continental origin. His mother, Reine Citroën, was from the Dutch-Jewish family who founded the Citroën car company in France. His father Jules Ayer was a Swiss Calvinist financier who worked for the Rothschild family.

He grew up in St John's Wood, London. He was educated at Ascham St Vincent's Preparatory School and Eton, and then won a classics scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford. He served as an officer in the Welsh Guards during World War II, working for the SOE. He was a noted social mixer and womanizer, and was married four times, including to Dee Wells and Vanessa Lawson (mother of Nigella Lawson). Reputedly he liked dancing and attending the clubs in London and New York. He was also obsessed with sports, a noted cricketer, and a keen supporter of the Tottenham Hotspur football team.

Ayer was a well-known social figure in his time, and his circle of friends included many famous people in public life, amongst them Cyril Connolly, Graham Greene, George Orwell, E.E. Cummings, Meyer Schapiro, Arthur Koestler, Bertrand Russell, Stuart Hampshire, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, Philip Toynbee, Isaiah Berlin, Hugh Gaitskell, Roy Jenkins, Michael Foot, Richard Crossman, Jonathan Miller, Angus Wilson, Alan Bennett, Alice Thomas Ellis, Jane Fontaine, Iris Murdoch, V. S. Pritchett, and Christopher Hitchens.[3]

In Language, Truth and Logic (1936), Ayer rejected atheism, as he understood it, on the grounds that any religious discourse was meaningless [2]. However, in later years Ayer, abandoning strict logical positivism, did refer to himself as an atheist [3] and stated that he did not believe in God [4]. He followed in the footsteps of Bertrand Russell by debating with the Jesuit scholar Frederick Copleston on the topic of religion.

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.[5][6]

Ayer was closely associated with the British humanist movement. He was an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association from 1947 until his death. 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.

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 harassing 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".[7] Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out.

Ayer's near-death experience

In 1988, shortly before his death, Ayer wrote an article entitled, "What I saw when I was dead"[8], 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."[9] 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". [10]

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, however, said that he had never mentioned this to him [11].

Works

Ayer is perhaps 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, and others including the leading light of the circle, Moritz Schlick were already offering their own papers on the issue.[12] 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 work on the book at the age of 23[13] 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',[14] an argument which anticipates the Turing test published in 1950 to test a machine's capability to demonstrate intelligence (consciousness).

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.

In 1972-73 Ayer gave the Gifford Lectures at University of St Andrews, later published as The Central Questions of Philosophy. 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 made several striking criticisms of Wittgenstein's private language theory.

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).

See also

Notes

  1. ^ Hilary Spurling (2000-12-24). "The Wickedest Man in Oxford". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/12/24/reviews/001224.24spurlit.html. Retrieved 2008-02-01.  
  2. ^ 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. That stance of a person who believes "God" denotes no verifiable hypothesis is sometimes referred to as igtheism (defined in Paul Kurtz, The New Skepticism: Inquiry and Reliable Knowledge, ISBN 0-87975-766-3, page 194)
  3. ^ "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)
  4. ^ "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, p226.
  5. ^ [1]Art-Historical Notes: "Where are the Hirsts of the 1930s now?" The Independent, Nov 13, 1998 by David Buckman
  6. ^ [2] Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain by Stefan Collini Oxford University Press, 2006 ISBN 0199291055, 9780199291052
  7. ^ Rogers (1999), page 344.
  8. ^ http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1282/is_n20_v40/ai_6701958
  9. ^ http://www.near-death.com/experiences/atheists01.html
  10. ^ http://edge.org/3rd_culture/dennett06/dennett06_index.html
  11. ^ http://www.gonsalves.org/favorite/atheist.htm
  12. ^ Unanswerable Questions
  13. ^ page ix, "Language, Truth and Logic", Penguin, 2001
  14. ^ page 140, Language, Truth and Logic, Penguin, 2001

References

Further reading

Selected publications

  • 1936, Language, Truth, and Logic, London: Gollancz. (2nd edition, 1946.)
  • 1940, The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge, London: Macmillan.
  • 1954, Philosophical Essays, London: Macmillan. (Essays on freedom, phenomenalism, basic propositions, utilitarianism, other minds, the past, ontology.)
  • 1957, “The conception of probability as a logical relation”, in S. Korner, ed., Observation and Interpretation in the Philosophy of Physics, New York, N.Y.: Dover Publications.
  • 1956, The Problem of Knowledge, London: Macmillan.
  • 1963, The Concept of a Person and Other Essays, London: Macmillan. (Essays on truth, privacy and private languages, laws of nature, the concept of a person, probability.)
  • 1967, “Has Austin Refuted the Sense-Data Theory?” Synthese vol. XVIII, pp. 117–40. (Reprinted in Ayer 1969).
  • 1968, The Origins of Pragmatism, London: Macmillan.
  • 1969, Metaphysics and Common Sense, London: Macmillan. (Essays on knowledge, man as a subject for science, chance, philosophy and politics, existentialism, metaphysics, and a reply to Austin on sense-data theory [Ayer 1967].)
  • 1971, Russell and Moore: The Analytical Heritage, London: Macmillan.
  • 1972a, Probability and Evidence, London: Macmillan.
  • 1972b, Bertrand Russell, London: Fontana.
  • 1973, The Central Questions of Philosophy, London: Weidenfeld.
  • 1977, Part of My Life, London: Collins.
  • 1979, “Replies”, in G. Macdonald, ed., Perception and Identity: Essays Presented to A. J. Ayer, With His Replies, London: Macmillan; Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
  • 1980, Hume, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • 1982, Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, London: Weidenfeld.
  • 1984, Freedom and Morality and Other Essays, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • 1986, Ludwig Wittgenstein, London: Penguin.
  • 1984, More of My Life, London: Collins.
  • 1988, Thomas Paine, London: Secker & Warburg.
  • 1989, "That undiscovered country", New Humanist, Vol. 104 (1), May, pp. 10-13.

External links


Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

It seems that I have spent my entire time trying to make life more rational and that it was all wasted effort.

Sir Alfred Jules Ayer (1910-10-291989-06-27), better known as A. J. Ayer or Freddie Ayer, was a British humanist philosopher. He was one of the leading proponents of logical positivism.

Contents

Sourced

No moral system can rest solely on authority.
There never comes a point where a theory can be said to be true. The most that one can claim for any theory is that it has shared the successes of all its rivals and that it has passed at least one test which they have failed.
The criterion which we use to test the genuineness of apparent statements of fact is the criterion of verifiability.
  • There is philosophy, which is about conceptual analysis — about the meaning of what we say — and there is all of this ... all of life.
    • Emphasizing his views on philosophy as something abstract and separate from normal life to Isaiah Berlin, in the early 1930s, as quoted in A.J. Ayer: A Life (1999) by Ben Rogers, p. 2
  • I am using the word "perceive". I am using it here in such a way that to say of an object that it is perceived does not entail saying that it exists in any sense at all. And this is a perfectly correct and familiar usage of the word. If there is thought to be a difficulty here, it is perhaps because there is also a correct and familiar usage of the word "perceive", in which to say of an object that it is perceived does carry the implication that it exists.
    • The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge (1940)
  • No moral system can rest solely on authority.
    • Humanist Outlook (1968), p. 4
  • I see philosophy as a fairly abstract activity, as concerned mainly with the analysis of criticism and concepts, and of course most usefully of scientific concepts.
    • As quoted in Profile of Sir Alfred Ayer (June 1971) by Euro-Television, quoted in A.J. Ayer: A Life (1999), p. 2
  • There never comes a point where a theory can be said to be true. The most that one can claim for any theory is that it has shared the successes of all its rivals and that it has passed at least one test which they have failed.
    • Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (1982) p. 133
  • It seems that I have spent my entire time trying to make life more rational and that it was all wasted effort.
    • As quoted in The Observer (17 August 1986)
  • I suddenly stopped and looked out at the sea and thought, my God, how beautiful this is ... for 26 years I had never really looked at it before.
    • On his greater appreciation of the scenery of the world, after his near-death experience, as quoted in "Did atheist philosopher see God when he 'died'?" by William Cash, in National Post (3 March 2001)

Language, Truth, and Logic (1936)

"I exist" does not follow from "there is a thought now."
The problem of induction is, roughly speaking, the problem of finding a way to prove that certain empirical generalizations which are derived from past experience will hold good also in the future.
The truths of logic and mathematics are analytic propositions or tautologies.
  • The traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful. The surest way to end them is to establish beyond question what should be the purpose and method of a philosophical enquiry. And this is by no means so difficult a task as the history of philosophy would lead one to suppose. For if there are any questions which science leaves it to philosophy to answer, a straightforward process of elimination must lead to their discovery.
    • Ch. 1, first lines
  • The criterion which we use to test the genuineness of apparent statements of fact is the criterion of verifiability. We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express — that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false.
    • p. 16
  • To make our position clearer, we may formulate it in another way. Let us call a proposition which records an actual or possible observation an experiential proposition. Then we may say that it is the mark of a genuine factual proposition, not that it should be equivalent to an experiential proposition, or any finite number of experiential propositions, but simply that some experiential propositions can be deduced from it in conjunction with certain other premises without being deducible from those other premises alone.
    • p. 20
  • "I exist" does not follow from "there is a thought now." The fact that a thought occurs at a given moment does not entail that any other thought has occurred at any other moment, still less that there has occurred a series of thoughts sufficient to constitute a single self. As Hume conclusively showed, no one event intrinsically points to any other. We infer the existence of events which we are not actually observing, with the help of general principle. But these principles must be obtained inductively. By mere deduction from what is immediately given we cannot advance a single step beyond. And, consequently, any attempt to base a deductive system on propositions which describe what is immediately given is bound to be a failure.
    • p. 47
  • The problem of induction is, roughly speaking, the problem of finding a way to prove that certain empirical generalizations which are derived from past experience will hold good also in the future. There are only two ways of approaching this problem on the assumption that it is a genuine problem, and it is easy to see that neither of them can lead to its solution.
    • p. 49
  • The principles of logic and mathematics are true simply because we never allow them to be anything else. And the reason for this is that we cannot abandon them without contradicting ourselves, without sinning against the rules which govern the use of language, and so making our utterances self-stultifying. In other words, the truths of logic and mathematics are analytic propositions or tautologies.
    • p. 77
  • If now I…say "Stealing money is wrong," I produce a sentence which has no factual meaning — that is, expresses no proposition which can be either true or false. It is as if I had written "Stealing money!!" — where the shape and thickness of the exclamation marks show, by a suitable convention, that a special sort of moral disapproval is the feeling which is being expressed.
    • p. 107

The Meaning of Life and Other Essays (1990)

The ground for taking ignorance to be restrictive of freedom is that it causes people to make choices which they would not have made if they had seen what the realization of their choices involved.
  • To say that authority, whether secular or religious, supplies no ground for morality is not to deny the obvious fact that it supplies a sanction.
    • "The Meaning of Life"
  • While moral rules may be propounded by authority the fact that these were so propounded would not validate them.
    • "The Meaning of Life"
  • The ground for taking ignorance to be restrictive of freedom is that it causes people to make choices which they would not have made if they had seen what the realization of their choices involved.
    • "The Concept of Freedom"

Quotes about Ayers

Above all else, Ayer hoped, men and women would realise that this life was the only life they have, and would thus become more appreciative of what it had to offer. ~ Ben Rogers
  • He was the antithesis of the philosopher of mystery and intimation, and he was not tempted to technicality. He lived assertively and was vain and cocksure — at some cost to his philosophical reputation, since other philosophers were as human in their judgements on him. He was also honest, humane, and more or less on the Left in politics. He liked society, was a man of many women, came to be self-judging, and after some sadness died bravely, on 27 June 1989.
  • He was undoubtedly one of the liveliest figures on the British philosophical scene in his time and, when he appeared on it, it was in need of enlivening. He was not a highly original thinker. His impact was due to the brilliance with which he arranged and expressed the ideas he had acquired from others. Perhaps his greatest intellectual virtue was his unremitting adherence to clarity and to rational argument. His work is without allusions, undeveloped suggestions, obscurity, and mannerism. Through his books and his teaching he sets a fine example of intellectual discipline.
  • In seeking to refound philosophy as an analytic discipline, Ayer was not just trying to separate philosophy from life but to liberate life from philosophy.
    As he saw it, philosophers had traditionally set out to establish themselves as authorities on the fundamental nature of the universe and the character of right and wrong.
    They posited immutable laws of nature, claimed to show that the world was one, or pretended to demonstrate the existence of supersensible realms of being; they invented gods, divine commands and human ends, and sought in that way to tell people how to live.
    To Ayer all this was not only unjustified — talk of supernatural reality, of beings existing outside space and time, or of the fundamental unity of things was literally senseless — but also reactionary. In narrowing the possibilities of experience, in placing limits on the findings of science and in dictating what was right and wrong, philosophy had become a cramping distorting discipline. The promise of life after death, the conception of earthly life as representing a punishment for inherited sin, the belief that pleasure was evil, had terribly oppressive effects. With metaphysics banished, science could develop unfettered, and people would become more experimental, more open to other points of view, more tolerant in thought and practice. They would, in particular, become less likely to engage in religious and ideological wars. Above all else, Ayer hoped, men and women would realise that this life was the only life they have, and would thus become more appreciative of what it had to offer. Which is where the football, the dancing and the love affairs come in.
    • Ben Rogers, in the Preface to ''A.J. Ayer: A Life (1999) p. 3

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