Language, Truth and Logic defines the verification principle of logical positivism. It discusses the uses and applications of the verification principle as an instrument of logical analysis. According to Ayer, the principle of verifiability is a criterion of meaning that requires every meaningful statement to be capable of being verified. Statements whose truth or falsehood cannot be verified are meaningless. Statements that have no literal meaning may have an emotional meaning, but they do not express propositions that can be analytically or empirically verified.
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Ayer — was only 24 when he wrote the book that made his philosophical name, Language, Truth, and Logic hereafter LTL , published in In it he put forward what were understood to be the major theses of logical positivism, and so established himself as the leading English representative of the movement, Viennese in origin.
In endorsing these views Ayer saw himself as continuing in the line of British empiricism established by John Locke and David Hume, an empiricism whose most recent representative was Bertrand Russell. The major portion of his work was devoted to exploring different facets of our claims to knowledge, particularly perceptual knowledge and knowledge that depended on inductive inference for its credence.
In LTL he put forward an emotivist theory of ethics, one that he never abandoned. Ayer always wrote with stylish crispness and clarity; he could lay bare the bones of a philosophical difficulty in a few paragraphs of strikingly simple prose. On many a philosophical problem Ayer cannot be bettered for providing a lucid, informative, and revealing description of its contours. Above all, on reading an essay of his, whether it be on basic propositions, sense data, induction, or freedom, one comes away recognizing that the aim of the author has been to reach the truth, no matter what that turned out to be.
Unfortunately, he sometimes rushed to reach it, which, together with the directness of his style, gave him a reputation for mere cleverness that he never lived down. Nevertheless, amongst British philosophers of the 20 th Century he has been ranked as second only to Russell Foster ; P. Alfred Jules Ayer was born in London on October 29, As recounted in Rogers , Ayer was a precocious but mischievous child, and so was sent to boarding school outside Eastbourne at the age of seven, from which he won a scholarship to Eton in There he impressed his peers with his intelligence and competitiveness, the latter trait manifesting itself in the way he played games.
At the age of sixteen he specialized in classics and at the same time started reading some philosophy. Ayer said that this remained a motto for him throughout his philosophical career see Rogers , At the same time a reading of G. The Easter before leaving Eton, Ayer spent some time in Paris, where he met Renee Lees, whom he subsequently married in The following year he won a classics scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied both Greek and philosophy, one of his tutors being Gilbert Ryle.
Ryle was also instrumental in getting Ayer to go to Vienna in to study with Moritz Schlick, then leader of the influential Vienna Circle of philosophers, scientists and other intellectuals, joining W. Quine in being one of only two visitors to be members of the Vienna Circle. His philosophical experience in Vienna was somewhat limited by his uncertain knowledge of German, but he knew enough to pick up the basic tenets of logical positivism.
After leaving Vienna, Ayer lectured for a short time at Christ Church, where in he was elected to a five-year research fellowship. In the same year he finished LTL , which caused a great deal of controversy and debate, partly for its sweeping dismissal of metaphysics, but especially for the metaethical emotivism Ayer championed in one of its most notorious chapters. Austin; the confrontations with Austin were to prove long-lasting.
The product of this refining process was the book Foundations of Empirical Knowledge. During this time he also enjoyed life to the full; he was a good dancer, once confessing that he would have preferred to be a tap-dancer rather than a professional philosopher, but had given up on the idea when he recognized that he would never be as good as Fred Astaire.
His marriage to Renee started to disintegrate; Ayer had numerous affairs, and Renee formed an enduring relationship with Stuart Hampshire. In the immediate pre-war years, Ayer had become passionate about politics.
He supported the Republican side in Spain, flirted with joining the Communist Party, but instead became an active member of the Labour Party. When war was declared he joined the Welsh Guards and was helped to do so by Gilbert Ryle. He worked for a while in Cambridge interrogating prisoners, then was sent to America to join a secret service mission, one which seemed to involve gathering information about Fascist sympathizers in America.
Whilst in New York he reviewed films for the Nation , fathered a daughter Sheila Graham was the mother , and made a record with Lauren Bacall. On being repatriated to England, Ayer found himself given the job of helping with the organization of the French resistance movements in London.
Shortly after the war he was posted to Paris, where he took the opportunity to study French existentialism, writing articles on Sartre and Camus in Horizon. On his release from Army service Ayer accepted the offer of a tutorial fellowship at Wadham College, Oxford, but was there only a short while before becoming the Grote Professor of Philosophy at University College, London, at the age of He quickly appointed Hampshire to a lectureship making up for having cited Hampshire as co-respondent in his divorce from Renee , then Richard Wollheim.
The department grew and became a thriving philosophical center. Ayer also ventured into the world of radio, being involved in many BBC Third Programme broadcasts, including panel discussions with the scientists Zuckerman, Huxley and Medawar, and a famous debate with the Jesuit priest Frederick Copleston on the existence of God.
In he lectured at Bard College in New York, but it proved to be an unhappy experience. Back in London C. Not that it was completely sacrificed; he bi-located, spending long weekends in London with his second wife, Dee Wells, and at most three nights in New College during the week. He continued to travel widely: China, Russia, India, and Pakistan were added to the itinerary.
His support for the decriminalization of homosexual behavior, he once quipped, could not be thought by anyone acquainted with him to involve a vested interest. His support for the SDP was a protest at the leftward trend of the Labour Party, and particularly its anti-Europeanism. He formed a relationship with Vanessa Lawson, whom he would see whilst in Oxford.
During this time, Ayer continued to be philosophically productive, doing some of his most original work. The Origins of Pragmatism was published in , following this Russell and Moore: the Analytical Heritage the product of the William James lectures he delivered at Harvard in , and Probability and Evidence the Dewey lectures delivered at Columbia University in Andrews , in which he elaborated on the sophisticated realism first put forward in The Origins of Pragmatism.
He visited Canada on a couple of occasions, giving the Gilbert Ryle lectures at Trent University resulting in his book on Hume, and the Whidden lectures at McMaster giving rise to Freedom and Morality. Tragically Vanessa was to die of liver cancer in , leaving Ayer grief-stricken. He moved quickly to dispel these rumours. He spent most of the remaining couple of years responding to articles that were to appear in the Ayer volume in the Library of Living Philosophers series, edited by L.
He remarried Dee Wells, but not long afterwards Ayer was admitted to hospital with a collapsed lung in the early summer of and died on the 27 th , June. His circle of friends included many famous and influential people; the following in no particular order is only a brief list. Pritchett, and Christopher Hitchens. Ayer was a vain man whose vanity was part of his considerable charm.
He made a distinction between vanity and egotism; an egotist, he said, thought he should have more medals, whilst a vain person just enjoyed showing off the medals he had.
His first formulation of a criterion of meaning, the principle of verification, was in the first edition of LTL , where he claimed that all propositions were analytic true in virtue of their meaning or else either strongly verifiable or weakly verifiable.
Strong verification required that the truth of a proposition be conclusively ascertainable; weak verification required only that an observation statement be deducible from the proposition together with other, auxiliary, propositions, provided that the observation statement was not deducible from these auxiliaries alone.
So in the second edition Ayer amended the principle to read: a statement is directly verifiable if it is either an observation statement or is such that an observation statement is derivable from it in conjunction with another observation statement or observation statements , such derivability not being possible from the conjoined observation statement s alone.
This principle generated further criticism, most significantly from Alonzo Church , who claimed to show that, again, it allowed any statement to be meaningful. Take O 1 , O 2 , and O 3 as logically independent observation statements, and S any statement whatsoever. S becomes indirectly verifiable, as O 2 follows from S and 1 , and 1 is directly verifiable. Despite the failure of these attempts to provide a rigorous empiricist criterion of meaning, Ayer continued to hold that there was a close connection between evidence and meaning, maintaining that a satisfactory account of confirmation was needed before a fool-proof criterion of empirical meaning could be supplied.
Given later doubts about whether any theory of confirmation could provide a foundation for a theory of meaning Quinean doubts relating to the impossibility of ruling out any facts as possibly bearing on the truth of any sentence , it remains unclear as to how the evidence-meaning connection can be circumscribed. For a review of other attacks on, and adjustments to, the verification principle, see Wright , It was the strong version that was used in his discussion of the meaning of sentences about the past and other minds, but in his discussion of the latter another difficulty emerged.
The strong interpretation of the criterion required there to be some decision made as to what evidence contributed to the meaning of verifiable sentences. Further, although only present evidence is available to anybody making a statement about the past, the meaning of such a statement is not restricted to such present evidence; one is entitled to include in the meaning evidence that would be available if one were able to transport oneself to that past time.
This is examined again in Section 7. The only class of statements that Ayer allowed to be meaningful without such a connection to evidence was that comprised of tautologies, which included all analytic propositions. These were the only propositions knowable a priori , their meaning being dependent on how language was used, and on the conventions governing that use.
Ayer insisted that the necessity attaching to these propositions was only available once the conventions governing language-use were in play. Similarly, when we say a proposition is probable, or probably true, we are not assigning any intrinsic property to the proposition, nor saying that there is any relation it bears to any other proposition.
We are simply expressing our confidence in that proposition, or, more accurately, it expresses the degree of confidence it is rational to possess in the proposition. This deflationary attitude to truth was supported by his verificationism about meaning; Ayer did not have to provide truth-conditions for the meaning of sentences.
Assertions had meaning in virtue of their verification conditions, and propositions were defined just as an equivalence class of sentences with the same verification conditions. Deflationism about truth replaces a concern for a substantial theory of truth with a concern about which sentences, or utterances, are deemed to be truth-apt. Ayer denied that moral utterances were truth-apt.
Given that he thought that asserting that p was equivalent to saying that p was true, he had to deny that moral utterances could be assertions see section 7. See the entry on the deflationary theory of truth for further discussion.
These latter statements were the ultimate verifiers, forming the basis upon which our empirical world was constructed. His criticism of such views was that the favoured class of statements could not be picked out in the right way without an appeal to relevant experience. So a criterion for membership of the favored class of statements that required only those statements accepted by the scientists of the time to be members of the class was not going to be successful without knowing which sentences were thus accepted, and this, Ayer claimed, could only be known by experience.
The alternative of using yet another sentence, one stating that these p , q , r , … were the sentences in the relevant class those accepted by the scientists , would make the foundations of science entirely arbitrary. It was this continuing commitment to sense-data as the objects of perception that drew J. Once we have this theory, we are able reinterpret the quale as mental states and claim that they are caused by the physical objects. This causal claim is only merited once the theoretical system is in place, and so cannot be a primitive element in any account of perception.
The physical objects are required to be there before any causal hypothesis involving them makes sense. Austin attacked the way he saw the argument from illusion being deployed. A consequence of this, he claimed, was that the secondary system embodied in ordinary perceptual judgments could not be a theory with respect to which the primary system was the data — the data have to be describable in terms that do not presuppose the very theory for which they are the data.
Although, he argued, it may be possible, though difficult, for us to strip our vocabulary describing our experience of such secondary-system concepts, such an effort on our part would be unusual, and not at all like what is involved in our common-sense perceptual judgments, those that Ayer supposes to be the result of some theorizing on our part.
Ayer was unmoved by the objections. The disagreement was primarily about whether the perceptual judgments were based on, or were inferred from, awareness of sense-data. Ayer conceded that such an inference would be only implicit.
Ayer defined inductive inference in negative terms, as involving all factual inference in which the premises did not entail the conclusion. All such inferences, Ayer claimed, presumed the uniformity of nature, an assumption he put in terms of assuming that the future will, in relevant respects, resemble the past , p. To unambiguously cover cases of retrodiction, the assumption is better put in terms of the unobserved resembling, in relevant respects, the observed.
A similar argument applied to any other principles that may have been thought to supply the missing ingredient, such as an appeal to universal causality, or to laws of nature.
Alfred Jules Ayer
Ayer on Metaphysics