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
Language, Truth, and Logic
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
* 1 Life
* 2 Philosophical ideas
* 2.1 Near-death experience
* 3 Works * 4 Awards * 5 Selected publications * 6 See also * 7 Notes * 8 References * 9 Further reading * 10 External links
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
Ayer was educated at Ascham St Vincent\'s School , a former boarding
preparatory school for boys in the seaside town of
After graduation from
Oxford University Ayer spent a year in Vienna,
returned to England and published his first book, Language,
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 the Tottenham Hotspur football team. 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.
Ayer died on 27 June 1989. From 1980 to 1989, Ayer lived at 51 York
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 of a person who believes "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:
* "Propositions that express definitions of ethical terms, or judgements about the legitimacy or possibility of certain definitions" * "Propositions describing the phenomena of moral experience, and their causes" * "Exhortations to moral virtue" * "Actual ethical judgments"
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
He taught or lectured several times in the United States, including
serving as a visiting professor at
In 1988, shortly 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 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 Nick, however, said that he had never mentioned this to him though he did find his father's words to be extraordinary, and said he had long felt there was something possibly suspect about his father's version of his near death experience.
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
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
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
He was awarded a Knighthood as
Language, Truth, and Logic
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* ^ "Ayer". Random House Webster\'s Unabridged Dictionary .
* ^ Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Philosophers.
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* ^ "Alfred Jules Ayer Facts". Your Dictionary. Retrieved 18 April
* ^ Scott-Smith, Giles (2002). The politics of apolitical culture:
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* ^ "Alfred Jules Ayer". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2005.
Retrieved 15 April 2016.
* ^ Rogers, Ben (2000) . A.J. Ayer: A Life. London: Vintage. ISBN
* ^ Rogers, Ben (2000) . A.J. Ayer: A Life. London: Vintage. pp.
42–44. ISBN 978-0-09-953681-9 .
* ^ Norton-Taylor, Richard (21 September 2010). "Graham Greene,
Arthur Ransome and Somerset Maugham all spied for Britain, admits
MI6". The Guardian. London.
* ^ "No. 34957".
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* ^ Wilson, A. N. (2003). Iris Murdoch as I knew her. London:
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* ^ A B C D E Wollheim 2011
* ^ City of Westminster green plaques "Archived copy". Archived
from the original on 16 July 2012. Retrieved 2011-07-07.
* ^ "Representation and Expression," Analysis, Vol.1, No.3;
Metaphysics and Emotive Language,"
Analysis Vol. II, nos. 1 and 2,
Language, Truth and Logic 1946/1952, New York/Dover
* ^ Kurtz, Paul (1992). The New Skepticism: Inquiry and Reliable
Knowledge. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus. p. 194. ISBN 978-0-87975-766-3 .
* ^ "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, p.
* ^ "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, A.J. (1989). "That undiscovered country", New Humanist, Vol. 104 (1), May, pp. 10–13. * Rogers, Ben (1999). A.J. Ayer: A Life. New York: Grove Press. ISBN 978-0-8021-3869-9 . (Chapter one and a review by Hilary Spurling, The New York Times, 24 December 2000.) * Wollheim, Richard (January 2011) . "Ayer, Sir Alfred Jules ". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi :10.1093/ref:odnb/39796 . (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)