Sir Alfred Jules "Freddie" Ayer FBA (/ɛər/; 29 October 1910 – 27 June 1989), usually cited as A. J. Ayer, 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).
He was educated at Eton College and Oxford University, after which he studied the philosophy of logical positivism at the University of Vienna. From 1933 to 1940 he lectured on philosophy at Christ Church, Oxford.
He was Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London from 1946 until 1959, after which he returned to Oxford to become Wykeham Professor of Logic at New College. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1951 to 1952 and knighted in 1970. He was known for his advocacy of humanism, and was the second President of the British Humanist Association (now known as Humanists UK).
A. J. Ayer
Alfred Jules Ayer
29 October 1910
|Died||27 June 1989 (aged 78)|
|Alma mater||Christ Church, Oxford|
|Philosophy of language|
Ethics · Theory of meaning
Philosophy of science
Ayer was born in St John's Wood, in north west London, to a wealthy family from continental Europe. 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.
Ayer was educated at Ascham St Vincent's School, a former boarding preparatory school for boys in the seaside town of Eastbourne in Sussex, in which he started boarding at the comparatively early age of seven for reasons to do with the First World War, and Eton College, a boarding school in Eton (near Windsor) in Berkshire. It was at Eton that Ayer first became known for his characteristic bravado and precocity. Although primarily interested in furthering his intellectual pursuits, he was very keen on sports, particularly rugby, and reputedly played the Eton Wall Game very well. In the final examinations at Eton, Ayer came second in his year, and first in classics. In his final year, as a member of Eton's senior council, he unsuccessfully campaigned for the abolition of corporal punishment at the school. He won a classics scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford.
After graduation from Oxford University Ayer spent a year in Vienna, returned to England and published his first book, Language, Truth and Logic in 1936. The first exposition in English of Logical Positivism as newly developed by the Vienna Circle, this made Ayer at age 26 the 'enfant terrible' of British philosophy. In the Second World War he served as an officer in the Welsh Guards, chiefly in intelligence (Special Operations Executive (SOE) and MI6). Ayer was commissioned second lieutenant into the Welsh Guards from Officer Cadet Training Unit on 21 September 1940.
After the war he briefly returned to Oxford University where he became a fellow and Dean of Wadham College. He thereafter taught philosophy at London University from 1946 until 1959, when he also started to appear on radio and television. He was an extrovert and social mixer who liked dancing and attending the clubs in London and New York. He was also obsessed with sport: he had played rugby for Eton, and was a noted cricketer and a keen supporter of Tottenham Hotspur football team, where he was for many years a season ticket holder. For an academic, Ayer was an unusually well-connected figure in his time, with close links to 'high society' and the establishment. Presiding over Oxford high-tables, he is often described as charming, but at times he could also be intimidating.
Ayer was married four times to three women. His first marriage was from 1932–1941 to (Grace Isabel) Renée (d. 1980), who subsequently married philosopher Stuart Hampshire, Ayer's friend and colleague. In 1960 he married Alberta Constance (Dee) Wells, with whom he had one son. Ayer's marriage to Wells was dissolved in 1983 and that same year he married Vanessa Salmon, former wife of politician Nigel Lawson. She died in 1985 and in 1989 he remarried Dee Wells, who survived him. Ayer also had a daughter with Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham Westbrook.
From 1959 to his retirement in 1978, Sir Alfred held the Wykeham Chair, Professor of Logic at Oxford. He was knighted in 1970. After his retirement, Ayer 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 who was forcing himself upon the (then) little-known model Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer reportedly asked, "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". Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, allowing Campbell to slip out.
In 1988, one year before his death, Ayer wrote an article entitled, "What I saw when I was dead", 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." 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".
In Language, Truth and Logic (1936), Ayer presents the verification principle as the only valid basis for philosophy. Unless logical or empirical verification is possible, statements like "God exists" or "charity is good" are not true or untrue but meaningless, and may thus be excluded or ignored. Religious language in particular was unverifiable and as such literally nonsense. He also criticises C. A. Mace's opinion that metaphysics is a form of intellectual poetry. The stance that a belief in "God" denotes no verifiable hypothesis is sometimes referred to as igtheism (for example, by Paul Kurtz). In later years Ayer reiterated that he did not believe in God and began to refer to himself as an atheist. He followed in the footsteps of Bertrand Russell by debating with the Jesuit scholar Frederick Copleston on the topic of religion.
Ayer's version of emotivism divides "the ordinary system of ethics" into four classes:
He focuses on propositions of the first class—moral judgments—saying that those of the second class belong to science, those of the third are mere commands, and those of the fourth (which are considered in normative ethics as opposed to meta-ethics) are too concrete for ethical philosophy.
Ayer argues that moral judgments cannot be translated into non-ethical, empirical terms and thus cannot be verified; in this he agrees with ethical intuitionists. But he differs from intuitionists by discarding appeals to intuition of non-empirical moral truths as "worthless"  since the intuition of one person often contradicts that of another. Instead, Ayer concludes that ethical concepts are "mere pseudo-concepts":
The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, "You acted wrongly in stealing that money," I am not stating anything more than if I had simply said, "You stole that money." In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, "You stole that money," in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks. … If now I generalise my previous statement and say, "Stealing money is wrong," I produce a sentence that has no factual meaning—that is, expresses no proposition that can be either true or false. … I am merely expressing certain moral sentiments.
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.
Ayer was closely associated with the British humanist movement. He was an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association from 1947 until his death. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1963. 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. In addition he was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto.
Ayer is 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. Others, including the leading light of the circle, Moritz Schlick, were already offering their own papers on the issue. 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 to work on the book at the age of 23 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', an argument which anticipates the Turing test published in 1950 to test a machine's capability to demonstrate intelligence.
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.
Ayer was a strong critic of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. As a logical positivist Ayer was in conflict with Heidegger's proposed vast, overarching theories regarding existence. These he felt were completely unverifiable through empirical demonstration and logical analysis. This sort of philosophy was an unfortunate strain in modern thought. He considered Heidegger to be the worst example of such philosophy, which Ayer believed to be entirely useless.
In 1972–1973 Ayer gave the Gifford Lectures at University of St Andrews, later published as The Central Questions of Philosophy. In the preface to the book, he defends his selection to hold the lectureship on the basis that Lord Gifford wished to promote "natural theology", in the widest sense of that term', and that non-believers are allowed to give the lectures if they are "able reverent men, true thinkers, sincere lovers of and earnest inquirers after truth". 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.
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).
British philosophy refers to the philosophical tradition of the British people. "The native characteristics of British philosophy are these: common sense, dislike of complication, a strong preference for the concrete over the abstract and a certain awkward honesty of method in which an occasional pearl of poetry is embedded".Conventionalism
Conventionalism is the philosophical attitude that fundamental principles of a certain kind are grounded on (explicit or implicit) agreements in society, rather than on external reality. Although this attitude is commonly held with respect to the rules of grammar, its application to the propositions of ethics, law, science, mathematics, and logic is more controversial.Emotivism
Emotivism is a meta-ethical view that claims that ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes. Hence, it is colloquially known as the hurrah/boo theory. Influenced by the growth of analytic philosophy and logical positivism in the 20th century, the theory was stated vividly by A. J. Ayer in his 1936 book Language, Truth and Logic, but its development owes more to C. L. Stevenson.Emotivism can be considered a form of non-cognitivism or expressivism. It stands in opposition to other forms of non-cognitivism (such as quasi-realism and universal prescriptivism), as well as to all forms of cognitivism (including both moral realism and ethical subjectivism).
In the 1950s, emotivism appeared in a modified form in the universal prescriptivism of R. M. Hare.Empiricism
In philosophy, empiricism is a theory that states that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience. It is one of several views of epistemology, the study of human knowledge, along with rationalism and skepticism. Empiricism emphasises the role of empirical evidence in the formation of ideas, rather than innate ideas or traditions. However, empiricists may argue that traditions (or customs) arise due to relations of previous sense experiences.Empiricism in the philosophy of science emphasises evidence, especially as discovered in experiments. It is a fundamental part of the scientific method that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world rather than resting solely on a priori reasoning, intuition, or revelation.
Empiricism, often used by natural scientists, says that "knowledge is based on experience" and that "knowledge is tentative and probabilistic, subject to continued revision and falsification". Empirical research, including experiments and validated measurement tools, guides the scientific method.Epistemological idealism
Epistemological idealism is a subjectivist position in epistemology that holds that what one knows about an object exists only in one's mind. It is opposed to epistemological realism.Frederick Copleston
Frederick Charles Copleston SJ (10 April 1907 – 3 February 1994) was a Jesuit priest, philosopher, and historian of philosophy, best known for his influential multi-volume A History of Philosophy (1946–74).
Copleston achieved a degree of popularity in the media for debating the existence of God with Bertrand Russell in a celebrated 1948 BBC broadcast; the following year he debated logical positivism and the meaningfulness of religious language with his friend the analytic philosopher A. J. Ayer.Gilbert Ryle
Gilbert Ryle (19 August 1900 – 6 October 1976) was a British philosopher. He was a representative of the generation of British ordinary language philosophers who shared Ludwig Wittgenstein's approach to philosophical problems, and is principally known for his critique of Cartesian dualism, for which he coined the phrase "the ghost in the machine." Some of his ideas in the philosophy of mind have been referred to as "behaviourist". Ryle's best known book is The Concept of Mind (1949), in which he writes that the "general trend of this book will undoubtedly, and harmlessly, be stigmatised as 'behaviourist'." Ryle, having engaged in detailed study of the key works of Bernard Bolzano, Franz Brentano, Alexius Meinong, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger, himself suggested instead that the book "could be described as a sustained essay in phenomenology, if you are at home with that label."Hierarchical epistemology
Hierarchical epistemology is a theory of knowledge which posits that beings have different access to reality depending on their ontological rank.Homosexual Law Reform Society
The Homosexual Law Reform Society was an organisation that campaigned in the United Kingdom for changes in the laws that criminalised homosexual relations between men.List of epistemologists
This is a list of epistemologists, that is, people who theorize about the nature of knowledge, belief formation and the nature of justification.P. F. Strawson
Sir Peter Frederick Strawson FBA (; 23 November 1919 – 13 February 2006), usually cited as P. F. Strawson, was an English philosopher. He was the Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at the University of Oxford (Magdalen College) from 1968 to 1987. Before that, he was appointed as a college lecturer at University College, Oxford, in 1947, and became a tutorial fellow the following year, until 1968. On his retirement in 1987, he returned to the college and continued working there until shortly before his death. His portrait was painted by the artists Muli Tang and Daphne Todd.When he died, the obituary in The Guardian noted that, "Oxford was the world capital of philosophy between 1950 and 1970, and American academics flocked there, rather than the traffic going the other way. That golden age had no greater philosopher than Sir Peter Strawson."Phenomenalism
Phenomenalism is the view that physical objects cannot justifiably be said to exist in themselves, but only as perceptual phenomena or sensory stimuli (e.g. redness, hardness, softness, sweetness, etc.) situated in time and in space. In particular, some forms of phenomenalism reduce talk about physical objects in the external world to talk about bundles of sense-data.Polemic (magazine)
Polemic was a British "Magazine of Philosophy, Psychology, and Aesthetics" published between 1945 and 1947, which aimed to be a general or non-specialist intellectual periodical.Edited by the ex-Communist Humphrey Slater, it was "sympathetic to science, hostile to the intellectual manifestations of romanticism, and markedly anti-Communist. Eight issues were published. The first, published as a book to get round the prohibition of new journals imposed by war-time paper rationing, included contributions by Henry Miller, Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer, Stephen Spender, Stephen Glover, George Orwell, C. E. M. Joad and Rupert Crawshay-Williams.Orwell contributed five essays over the life of the magazine and Russell and Ayer contributed four each. Other contributors included Philip Toynbee, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Dylan Thomas, Diana Witherby, Stuart Hampshire, Geoffrey Grigson, Ben Nicholson, Adrian Stokes, J. D. Bernal C. H. Waddington and John Wisdom.Quietism (philosophy)
Quietism in philosophy is an approach to the subject that sees the role of philosophy as broadly therapeutic or remedial. Quietist philosophers believe that philosophy has no positive thesis to contribute, but rather that its value is in defusing confusions in the linguistic and conceptual frameworks of other subjects, including non-quietist philosophy. By re-formulating supposed problems in a way that makes the misguided reasoning from which they arise apparent, the quietist hopes to put an end to humanity's confusion, and help return to a state of intellectual quietude.Sense and Sensibilia (Austin)
Sense and Sensibilia is a landmark 1962 work of ordinary language philosophy by J. L. Austin, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford. Austin attacks sense data theories of perception, specifically those of A. J. Ayer.
The book was published posthumously having been reconstructed from Austin's manuscript notes by fellow Oxford philosopher Geoffrey Warnock. Austin's first lectures, which formed the basis for the manuscript, were delivered at Oxford in Trinity Term 1947 under the general title "Problems in Philosophy".The Guardian described it as:
"... a philosophical classic... Mr Warnock has performed his task in a way that is quite remarkable. His brilliant editing puts everybody who is concerned with philosophical problems in his debt."Sense data
In the philosophy of perception, the theory of sense data was a popular view held in the early 20th century by philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, C. D. Broad, H. H. Price, A. J. Ayer, and G. E. Moore. Sense data are taken to be mind-dependent objects whose existence and properties are known directly to us in perception. These objects are unanalyzed experiences inside the mind, which appear to subsequent more advanced mental operations exactly as they are.
Sense data are often placed in a time and/or causality series, such that they occur after the potential unreliability of our perceptual systems yet before the possibility of error during higher-level conceptual analysis and are thus incorrigible. They are thus distinct from the 'real' objects in the world outside the mind, about whose existence and properties we often can be mistaken.
Talk of sense-data has since been largely replaced by talk of the closely related qualia. The formulation the given is also closely related. None of these terms has a single coherent and widely agreed-upon definition, so their exact relationships are unclear. One of the greatest troubling aspects to 20th century theories of sense data is its unclear rubric nature.Stuart Hampshire
Sir Stuart Newton Hampshire (1 October 1914 – 13 June 2004) was an Oxford University philosopher, literary critic and university administrator. He was one of the antirationalist Oxford thinkers who gave a new direction to moral and political thought in the post-World War II era.
Hampshire was born in Healing, Lincolnshire, the son of George Newton Hampshire, a fish merchant in nearby Grimsby. Hampshire was educated at Lockers Park School (where he overlapped with Guy Burgess), Repton School and Balliol College, Oxford, where he matriculated as a history scholar. He did not confine himself to history, switching instead to the study of Greats and immersing himself in the study of painting and literature. As was the culture at Balliol, his intellectual development owed more to his gifted contemporaries than to academic tutors. Having taken a first class degree, in 1936 he was elected to a Fellowship of All Souls College, Oxford, where he researched and taught philosophy initially as an adherent of logical positivism. He participated in an informal discussion group with some of the leading philosophers of his day, including J. L. Austin, H. L. A. Hart, and Isaiah Berlin.
In 1940, at the outbreak of World War II he enlisted in the army and was given a commission. Due to his lack of physical aptitude he was seconded to a position in military intelligence near London where he worked with Oxford colleagues such as Gilbert Ryle and Hugh Trevor-Roper. His encounters as interrogator with Nazi officers at the end of the war led to his insistence on the reality of evil.
After the war, he worked for the government before resuming his career in philosophy. From 1947 to 1950, he taught at University College, London, and was subsequently a fellow of New College, Oxford. His study Spinoza was first published in 1951. In 1955, he returned to All Souls, as a resident fellow and domestic bursar.
His innovative book Thought and Action (1959) attracted much attention, notably from his Oxford colleague Iris Murdoch. It propounded an intentionalist theory of the philosophy of mind taking account of developments in psychology. Although he considered most continental philosophy vulgar and fraudulent, Hampshire was much influenced by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He insisted that philosophy of mind "has been distorted by philosophers when they think of persons only as passive observers and not as self-willed agents". In his subsequent books, Hampshire sought to shift moral philosophy from its focus on the logical properties of moral statements to what he considered the crucial question of moral problems as they present themselves to us as practical agents.
In 1960, Stuart Hampshire was elected a member of the British Academy and became Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London, succeeding A. J. Ayer. His international reputation was growing and from 1963 to 1970 he chaired the department of philosophy at Princeton University to which he had happily escaped from the robust atmosphere of London to which his mandarin style, conveyed in a rather preposterous growling accent, was ill-suited, as Ayer implied in his memoirs. In 1970, he returned to Oxford as Warden of Wadham College, Oxford. His liberal and socialist views were apparent when Wadham was in the first group of men-only Oxford colleges to admit women in 1974. Hampshire considered his wardenship to be one of his most significant achievements in reviving the fortunes of the college. He was knighted in 1979 and retired from Wadham in 1984, when he accepted a professorship at Stanford University.His last book, Justice Is Conflict (1999), inaugurated the Princeton Monographs in Philosophy series.
Stuart Hampshire wrote extensively on literature and other topics for the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books amongst others. He was head of the literary panel of the Arts Council for many years. In 1965–6, he was selected by the UK government to conduct a review of the effectiveness of GCHQ.
He married his first wife, Renée Ayer, the former wife of the philosopher A. J. Ayer, in 1961. She died in 1980, and in 1985 he married Nancy Cartwright, who was then his colleague at Stanford and is now Professor of Philosophy at Durham University and at the University of California, San Diego.The problem of the speckled hen
In the theory of empirical knowledge, the problem of the speckled hen is whether a single immediate observation of a speckled hen provides a certain knowledge of the number of speckles observed. Clearly, this is not an isolated example, and therefore it is of fundamental nature. Philosophically, this problem probes the limits of knowledge by acquaintance: one is unable to know with certainty the existence of determinate things in one's experience merely by the virtue of the experience.Roderick Chisholm attributes it to Gilbert Ryle suggesting to A. J. Ayer. It is viewed as a critisicm of the view expressed by C. I. Lewis that there can never be "positive bafflement in the presence of the immediate, because there is here no question which fails to find an answer".Joseph Heath remarks that this problem is one of the "descendants of Descartes's 'chiliagon' argument in the sixth of his Meditations". A. J. Ayer suggested that if we are unable to enumerate speckles accurately, then it is incorrect to suggest that the "sense-data" provides a definite number of speckles despite the fact that the hen does have a definite number of them, clearly outlined. In Ayers' words, speckles are enumerable only if in fact they have been enumerated. A number of philosophers analyzed the merits of this proposition. Chisholm concludes that the problem of the speckled hen emphacises the fact that there are basic propositions (synthetic propositions which do not refer beyond the content of the immediate experience) that are necessarily imprecise.Verificationism
Verificationism, also known as the verification idea or the verifiability criterion of meaning, is the philosophical doctrine that only statements that are empirically verifiable (i.e. verifiable through the senses) are cognitively meaningful, or else they are truths of logic (tautologies).
Verificationism thus rejects as cognitively "meaningless" statements specific to entire fields such as metaphysics, spirituality, theology, ethics and aesthetics. Such statements may be meaningful in influencing emotions or behavior, but not in terms of truth value, information or factual content. Verificationism was a central thesis of logical positivism, a movement in analytic philosophy that emerged in the 1920s by the efforts of a group of philosophers who sought to unify philosophy and science under a common naturalistic theory of knowledge.