b. 1910, d. 1989. Ayer was best known as England's major proponent of logical positivism, whose main expositors and theorists were member's of the Autrian Vienne Circle: led, above all, by the little-published Moritz Schlick. Ayer's particular explication of logical positivism exhibited some of the more popular traits of British empiricism--particularly, that of Hume's. Like the positivists on the continent one of Ayer's most central philosophical projects was the refutation of metaphysical speculation. For both Ayer and the positivists, there is no reality or knowledge beyond the borders of the physical world.

Ayer is best known for his principle of verifiability which states that:
"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."
According to this thesis, then, all statements of metaphysics and religion, such as "God does not exist" are, in fact, meaningless, since nobody can know how to verify that which the proposition states. As for statements that are meaningful, Ayer divided them into two classes: those that are true or false a priori (such as: 'A triangle has three sides'), and those that are empirically verifiable (such as: 'I have two hands'.)

When he applied logical positivism to ethics, Ayer's view is best described as emotivism. This is the view that ethical judgments are emotive utterances and not truth claims--they are statements about the speaker's own ethical feelings rather than an attempt to discern what is transcendentally right (this would, for Ayer, be meaningless according to the principle of verifiability).

His major works include:
  • Language, Truth, and Logic (1936)
  • The Problem of Knowledge (1956)
  • The Central Questions of Philosophy (1973)
  • Part of My Life: The Memoirs of a Philosopher (1977)


(Of course there are many critiques of Ayer's views and I won't here reconstruct them all. One particularly troubling aspect of Ayer's refutation of metaphysics and logical positivism in general is that it assumes the unity of what the positivists called 'the physical world'. To assume that this 'physical world' is clearly defined, let alone all that there is in the world, is, many have argued, rather ostentatious. Note that though it has also been claimed that the verification principle is in many respects similar to the brand of pragmatism offered by C.S. Pierce, there is an important difference insofar as Ayer insists that a proposition is meaningful only insofar as we can determine it according to a theory of empirical inquiry, whereas Pierce insisted that a statement is useful only insofar as there is any sort of inquiry that might situation its pragmatic determination. The pragmatists, that is, aren't interested in the positivists' refutation of metaphysics and they will allow that transcendental and religious statements have currency in the course of human affairs (though this doesn't amount to insisting that this currency is a physical or scientific one).)

Here's a story I heard about Ayer once. It's probably not true, but many people believe that it is. Ayer is well-known as a socialite who moved comfortably in the higher echelons of the South England social scene in the 70s and 80s. At one such party, probably in London maybe in Oxford, Ayer was pleasing the guests with wit, champagne, and other good cheer. Apparently, at some point in the evening, Ayer and those around him heard what sounded like muffled screams coming from a nearby room. Ayer bolted over and flung open the door to one of the guest bedrooms. There on the bed was World Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson and English supermodel Naomi Campbell. Tyson, acting rough with Campbell, was distracted by A.J. Ayer long enough for Campbell to escape Tyson's grip. How Ayer single-handedly managed this feat happened was as follows. He insisted that Tyson let her go, but Tyson ignored Ayer. Who is going to try to physically assault the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Ayer continued to insist, in proper high-class English no doubt, that Tyson unhand the maiden. At some point, this insistence disturbed Tyson, who turned to Ayer and said, "Do you know who I am? I'm Mike Tyson, Heavyweight Champion of the World". Ayer replied, "Well do you know who I am? I'm A.J. Ayer, Whitcombe Professor of Logic and Philosophy at Oxford University (or whatever title he had, I'm not really sure). Now we can take this outside and settle it in the good old-fashioned way: by argument." Apparently this distracted Tyson long enough for Campbell to get away.

Like I said, I doubt this story is true. But it's good.
There are those who caricature Ayer (And the other Positivists), saying "AJ Ayer said that 'Any statement that is not empirically verifiable is nonsense'; Unfortunately this statement isn't empirically verifiable, therefore it is either untrue or nonsense." They are ill-educated cockweasels, fatuously trying to score points.

Ayer considered statements to be "literally meaningful" if they were either empirically decidable, or if they were analytic statements. Analytic statements are statements concerning a formal system. These systems need to start with certain postulates and definitions. The definition of literal meaning is just that: a definition that underlies the entire Positivist discourse.

If you find anyone caricaturing the positivists in this way, kill them. It's better for all of us. If you are a beginner at this, the best way is with "Language, Truth, and Logic" (The revised edition with the giant introduction acknowledging the flaws in the work).

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