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 (1936) and The Problem of Knowledge
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,
Second World War
Second World War Ayer was a
Special Operations Executive
He was Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at
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.
* 1 Life
* 2 Philosophical ideas
* 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
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
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
Christ Church, Oxford .
After graduation from
Oxford University Ayer spent a year in Vienna,
returned to England and published his first book, Language,
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
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
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
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
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
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
Marylebone , where a memorial plaque was unveiled on 19
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
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
* "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
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
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
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 .
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 who was forcing himself upon 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
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, while
Naomi Campbell slipped out.
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
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,
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
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
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.
Concept of a Person and Other Essays" (1963), Ayer heavily
Wittgenstein 's private language argument .
Ayer's sense-data theory in Foundations of
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
He was awarded a Knighthood as
Knight Bachelor in the
on 1 January 1970.
Language, Truth, and Logic , London: Gollancz. (2nd edition,
OCLC 416788667 Reprinted 2001 with a new introduction, London:
Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-118604-7
* 1940, The Foundations of
Empirical Knowledge, London: Macmillan.
* 1954, Philosophical Essays, London: Macmillan. (Essays on freedom,
phenomenalism, basic propositions, utilitarianism, other minds, the
* 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. 117–140. (Reprinted in Ayer 1969).
* 1968, The Origins of Pragmatism, London: Macmillan.
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 .) ISBN 978-0-333-10517-7
* 1971, Russell and Moore: The Analytical Heritage, London:
* 1972, Probability and Evidence, London: Macmillan. ISBN
* 1972, Russell, London:
Fontana Modern Masters .
* 1973, The Central Questions of Philosophy, London: Weidenfeld.
* 1977, Part of My Life, London: Collins. ISBN 978-0-00-216017-9
* 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
* 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.
* 1990, The Meaning of Life and Other Essays, Weidenfeld
-webkit-column-width: 30em; column-width: 30em; list-style-type:
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* ^ "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.
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of my fellow supporters of the
British Humanist Association , the
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South Place Ethical Society ."
(Ayer 1989, p. 12)
* ^ Ayer, Language, 103
* ^ Ayer, Language, 106
* ^ Ayer, Language, 107
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