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June 15, 2005

How cool is this? - A. J. Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Language, Truth and Logic
by A. J. Ayer
first published 1936

So: how cool is this? You are twenty-four years old and you write a book on philosophy which says that at least half of philosophy so far (plus the whole of theology and a few other subjects) is complete balderdash. The book is short, its footnotes few and rudimentary. You give your chapters titles like, "The Elimination of Metaphysics", "Critique of Ethics and Theology" and "Solutions of Outstanding Philosophical Disputes". You sell a million copies and in your career you go on to become Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford and are knighted; the book itself stays in print for the whole of your life and beyond even though you have announced that it is wrong. This is A.J. Ayer, Language ,Truth and Logic (henceforth LTL) and surely the only person who ever turned a cooler buck out of philosophy is Jostein Gaarder who managed to turn his notes on the Introduction to the History of Philosophy into a worldwide best seller called Sophie's World.

I feel slightly haunted by "Freddy" Ayer. As thousands of others did, I read LTL - along with Bertrand Russell's Problems of Philosophy as part of the process of choosing philosophy as a subject. It seemed very exciting, this business of so much of human thought being based on a mistake. At Oxford I attended the Great Man's lectures. He succeeded in reducing an audience of 300 down to six over the course of sixteen lectures. The subject was the possibility of a language without predicates and the lectures focussed carefully on the writings of Willard Quine. It is a subject only hinted at in LTL which often refers rather casually to "English and languages like it". He was not to be blamed for the loss of his audience. I guess 270 went along for a bit of academic celeb-spotting while 24 sincerely meant to last the distance but couldn't. Even when there were six of us Freddy accused us of not understanding a word he was saying and he was probably right about five (I was not the one).

I met him socially on several occasions both in Oxford and later. He was charming and friendly: we shared interests in travel and football. Many years later, as a visiting professor, I found myself based in the Ayers' palatial holiday home in Eastbourne which by then housed a whole department. I do, however, regard him as being an inadvertently bad influence on me because I wanted to write a book like LTL and I would probably have been better off attempting something more solid and humble. In this respect I would compare him to the footballer Jimmy McIlroy of Burnley and Northern Ireland whose casual flicks and arrogant ball-holding made me want to be a genius footballer when my talents were more suited to being a clogger.

So what does LTL read like now?

The bad news is that what seemed to be clever and sophisticated when I was sixteen now seems often vacuous and pompous, even rather risible. Versions of it have been satirised by Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python, but you can do your own. You have to assume a high, quiet upper-class voice of the middle of the last century something with elements of both Freddy and Bertie and then you begin rapidly:

If I say, "It is true that there are no snakes in Iceland" I am saying nothing more or less than "There are no snakes in Iceland". Thus in one sense in saying "It is true that . . ." I am saying nothing at all though of course in another sense I have said something. Let us call the first sense the propositional sense . . ."
Etc and a lot of etc!

But a style which now seems rather risible should not prevent us from taking the content seriously. LTL is a defence of "analytic" philosophy and a rejection of "metaphysical" philosophy (aka "metaphysical verbiage"). Surprisingly, when I compare my memory with what the book actually says, a great deal of philosophy is accepted as "primarily analytical". This includes not just Carnap and Schlick and the other members of the Vienna Circle who have so inspired Ayer during his time in Austria and the whole of the British empirical tradition, but also Aristotle and Kant (primarily, note, but not entirely). Also surprisingly there are very few examples of purely metaphysical attempts at thought, but it is exemplified by F.H. Bradley in Appearance and Reality saying:

the Absolute enters into, but is itself incapable of, evolution and progress.
However, ethics and religion fail to pass the meaning test: one cannot be an atheist or even an agnostic because such beliefs would no more possess meaning than would positive religious propositions. Ultimately LTL is the development of a trichotomy: empirical hypothesis or tautology or meaningless. Tautology here should be removed from any implication of triviality: the number 9087 may have many interesting properties contained (to use the Kantian metaphor) within it which are neither trivial nor obvious.

I remember Ayer's position as "logical positivism", but it has several other strands including a special concern for language and a strict and relentless empiricism. What it is not is what the cover of the Pelican edition says it is which is:

the classic statement of pure linguistic philosophy.
In one important sense, at least, it is the opposite of the linguistic philosophy of J.L. Austin who thought that "ordinary" language was an organically developing tool for dealing with the world which actually contained many of the answers to the problems set by philosophy. Ayer thinks that language imposes a false metaphysic on us which philosophers must translate - chairs and people become "sense data" and (p. 94):
it is in this logical activity, and not in any empirical study of the linguistic habits of any group of people, that philosophical analysis consists.
Yet another author mis-sold by a publisher's blurb writer!

Ayer discussed philosophy for another sixty years after the publication of LTL and quickly came to dismiss the book as a youthful piece which was wrong in important respects. The most complete admission is that he was too narrow in his conception of "meaning" and in the 1946 Introduction he accepts, for instance, Charles Stevenson's idea that ethical statements have a different kind of meaning, an "emotive" meaning. It is as if the young Ayer saw all language as having scientific aspirations but quickly came to accept that it has many other necessary and legitimate roles. To say that ethical statements don't have scientific meaning doesn't seem a terribly interesting claim. But the more important objection to LTL, the thin end of a vast wedge and a problem which Ayer merely skirts around, is what Kant called the synthetic a priori, the existence of important propositions which are neither hypotheses nor tautologies but which are "true" in the sense that they must be assumed if we are to have the kind of rational discourse we aspire to. These are statements about the nature of time, space and causation, for instance, the "preconditions of discourse" as Sir Peter Strawson put it and Ayer never really acknowledged the force of the argument, let alone refuted it.

So what are the merits of the book given that being wrong is at least a small fault? One is that, as the author put it in 1946:

for reasons not wholly dependent on its merits, it has acquired something of the status of a textbook.
It is the Ayer Challenge with Freddy as the goalkeeper. Can you get a belief past him? Alternatively, he is the demolition man who clears the site so that you can build new buildings (or try to put the old ones back with stronger foundations.) And it isn't all wrong: the account of the status of religious belief (and its relation to religious experience) still seems correct to me as does his slightly revised account of the nature of ethical argument.

Finally, I am intrigued by the question of whose side LTL is on. I don't mean this in the simple sense: Freddy was a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur, the Labour Party and the permissive society. I mean who would really benefit and what would happen if the arguments of LTL were near-universally accepted? I have often found myself in sharp disagreement with fellow conservatives on this question. They tend to emphasise Freddy the Nihilist eroding the beliefs which we need to hold society together. I accept that there may be occasions when an evil act is constrained by a "metaphysical" belief. But I tend to see the argument from the opposite end: the metaphysical threat we face is primarily a humanist metaphysic with its dogmas of rights and equality. In any case, I do not believe that evil comes out of doctrine; by evil here as a Utilitarian I mean the desire to cause unhappiness (including in oneself). It comes out of psychosis so that we'd be better off if everybody had two parents who loved them whatever they believed. But all other things being equal I think the world is better off with less belief rather than more, that Islam, Marxism-Leninism, Catholicism etc are much worse catalysts for evil than is the astringent scepticism of Language, Truth and Logic.

References are to the Pelican edition.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick.

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I would not expect philosophy to generate ab initio anything useful in regard to theology. As St. Paul says:

"For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe." (1 Corinthians 1:21)

Not that I would reject philosophy altogether. As a mental training it can be very productive, as evidenced in the book "What Is This Thing Called Science?" by Alan Chalmers ISBN: 0335201091. So it might also be a good training for theologians.

P.S. I've just placed an order for "Sophie's World".

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 20, 2005 07:36 PM

Although Ayer seemingly disregards some of the more interesting subjects of Philosophy, I feel he is a genius and that he makes a genuine attempt to understand language and I appreciate his distinction between the meaningful and the meaningless.

Posted by: Kakes at June 23, 2005 02:32 PM

1. I don't blame Ayers for the common misunderstanding of "meaninglessness". Obviously the term is meant to relate whether or not 'X' has observable and measurable meaning to other things, not whether it has some sort of cognitive emotive value to someone that they've decided to assign to it.

2. I think the concept that "metaphysical ideas" are meaningless IS sound. We cannot have a comprehensive understanding or ontology of 'X' if we have only a vague description of 'X' and 'X' has no discernible precedent and thus no prior knowledge to bring to the consideration and no empirical example of 'X' to examine. We don't even know if such a consideration is possible, i.e. a probability greater than zero. It would be a capital mistake to presume that 'X' is possible under such circumstances. That would be handing out merit that 'X' has not epistemologically earned. If 'X' is not known to be P > 0, then any allegations of an existing 'X' or so called "evidence" is also not known to be P > 0. We cannot grant "evidence" status 'Y' relating to 'X' until the existence of 'X' has been proven to be possible because "things" must exist before they can create evidence of their own existence.

Thank you.

The Vampire

Posted by: The Vampire Logos at January 16, 2006 04:41 AM

LTL is a fine book. It represents perhaps the best summary of Logical Positivism, at the time of the high water mark of the movement. True, Ayer was wrong in his promotion of the Verification Principle and Popper was right in preferring Falsification. And, yes, there are omissions and important problems are brushed away in LTL. But it is the way the book is written - with supreme confidence - and it's zero tolerance stance in relation to metaphysics and religious nonsense which repays the reader. LTL was a worthy attempt - but the producers of nonsense will wriggle....


Posted by: will at May 20, 2006 10:17 AM
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