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Why Metaphysics Is Dead, or: Positivism for the Masses,
This review is from: Language, Truth and Logic (Paperback)
Despite its sundry philosophical flaws and its status as a work parasitic on the intellectual labor of others, this book, I think, is a philosophical masterpiece of the first rank. And by that I mean that it's a book that should be read by any serious student of philosophy and that should be interesting to anyone with some interest in the subject. If you've ever heard murmurings about the pernicious doctrine of logical positivism and wondered just what it could be, this is the book for you. But don't be misled: this book isn't of only historical interest--though it is, of course, an important historical document. While its central doctrines aren't currently in fashion and aren't in fashion for good reason, this book, like all historically important work in philosophy that's worth reading today, isn't of interest only to historians of the subject. If you want to understand the contemporary scene in English-language philosophy, you're going to need to understand the positivism Ayer and likeminded philosophers espoused since many major currents in contemporary philosophy can be fully understood only as reactions to their views.
Ayer's project here is the project of all young philosophical radicals--solving all the problems of philosopher, or at least showing that there were no real problems that needed to be solved. In less than two hundred pages of lucid prose Ayer gives you a brief statement of the central assumptions of the doctrine and a demonstration of how it can be applied to problems in nearly every area of philosophy. Needless to say, in Ayer's hands it appears to work wonders wherever it's put to work.
Ayer's positivism, as he himself admitted, was really an updated version of Hume's radical empiricism. But Ayer wasn't as a gifted a philosopher as Hume, and consequently, the strengths of this book aren't a matter of the truth of its conclusions (they're probably false), or the cogency of its arguments (they rarely convince), or the originality of its insights (they're really nothing new). Instead, the greatness of this work resides in its ability to inspire. This is a young man's book, and it's one written with the verve and self-assurance of a recent convert who's sure he's got all the answers and just needs to get them out there for the world to see. Ayer doesn't pause to consider objections; he doesn't draw back from his more eye-opening conclusions; and he certainly isn't worried about offending his readers' more delicate sensibilities.
The central tenets of Ayer's positivism can be stated in but a few sentences. (I'll ignore the niceties here and try to get the main ideas across.) The central component of positivism is a test for meaningfulness. A sentence, Ayer claims, is meaningful if it means either of two conditions: (i) its truth (or falsity) is analytic, or (ii) it is possible to acquire some empirical evidence pertaining to its truth (or falsity). If neither of these conditions is met, the sentence is literally nonsense (i.e. it doesn't say anything capable of being true or false).
The task of philosophy, then, is one of testing sentences of various types and seeing whether they're meaningful. First, the philosopher asks whether the sentence is true (or false) in virtue of the meaning of its words. If it is, it counts as meaningful and we're done. Math and logic, Ayer claims, are exhausted by sentences of this sort. If it isn't true (or false) in virtue of meaning, we proceed to the next step. In the next step the philosopher seeks to determine whether there is any empirical evidence that does or could bear provide evidence of the truth (or falsity) of the sentence. If we could imagine some method of acquiring observational evidence pertaining to the proposition, then it's meaningful and the philosopher sits back and waits for the sciences to determine whether or not it's true. If it turns out that there simply isn't any empirical evidence that could be gathered for or against the sentence, it's literally meaningless. Meaningless how? Well, sentences of this sort don't really say anything about the world; they doesn't make a claim that is true or false. People may find them important in some way, they may stimulate people's emotions and lead them to act in certain ways, but they're literally nonsensical. They say nothing about how the world is, and they have no place in a respectable philosophical or scientific view of the nature of the world. According to Ayer, this sort of nonsense is found in ethics, in religion, and in most of the weighty tomes of the great philosophers.
The task of Language, Truth and Logic is to defend these conclusions and the conception of philosophy that has led Ayer to them. So it's clear that the influence of Hume on Ayer's positivism extended beyond matters of philosophical doctrine; the influence was also a methodological and attitudinal one. For Ayer, like Hume, goes where his argument takes him and is happy to demolish whatever stands in his way, including common sense, religion, and a few thousands years worth of philosophy.
And, of course, this sort of willful iconoclasm also makes the book a lot of fun to read.