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A.J. Ayer: A Life Paperback – February 9, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
And this points to what makes this book far more interesting to read than the lives of most British philosophers - He actually lived a life worth reading about! Hardly a famous cultural figure lived through post-war Britain without having dinner with Ayer. He even lectured the Kennedy family! For Ayer, philosophy and life were separate affairs for the most part (and of affairs you'll read plenty). He firmly believed that when one began to speak beyond the realms of empirical evidence, one risked speaking nothing but nonsense, and to his credit he seemed to mostly avoid the temptation. In my humble opinion, that is good for philosophy, bad for your fan club.
I for one gained from reading this book. While I don't see Ayer as a member of heroic pantheon to be emulated, I do have a new respect for this most "sensible" public intellectual.
When Ayer was still a classical scholar at Eton, his interest in philosophy was aroused by Bertrand Russell; and his tutor at Christ Church, Gilbert Ryle, introduced him to Wittgenstein's work. Ryle was the only Oxford academic to have taken an interest in Wittgenstein; nor for that matter did Russell figure in the Oxford philosophy syllabus. Oxonian philosophers almost all came to the subject through the classics, whereas the Cambridge men had a mathematical or scientific background, which was so much more congenial to a branch of philosophy which aimed to pursue the subject with scientific rigour. Ayer's background was classical, too; but he responded enthusiastically to Wittgenstein (whom he still thought to be the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus: when the Philosophical Investigations were published, Ayer, like Russell, would think that Wittgenstein had gone soft.) He wanted to use the interval between his Finals and taking up a lectureship at Christ Church, to study under Wittgenstein. But Ryle thought the Wittgenstein cult was bad for both of them, and persuaded him instead to go to Vienna and study under Moritz Schlick, one of the leaders of the Vienna Circle. The Circle's philosophy, itself originally inspired by the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, was becoming known under the name of Logical Positivism.
It could be said that Ayer was already a Logical Positivist before he went to Vienna; but certainly by the time he returned to Oxford, there was noone in England better informed about Logical Positivism than he. Ayer was the first to lecture in Oxford on Russell, Wittgenstein and Rudolf Carnap (a member of the Vienna Circle).
Isaiah Berlin persuaded Ayer to write a book on his theories, and the result was Language, Truth and Logic, published in 1936, when Ayer was only 26. The book itself would become a standard text of 20th century British philosophy. Ben Rogers writes: "The position he defended had become canonical, which was strange considering that it was hard to find anyone who agreed with it. Logical Positivism, as represented by Language, Truth and Logic was probably the school that under-graduate philosophers knew best, but it was a school that, from the beginning, most were taught to refute." But the refutations, such as they were, eventually came not from metaphysicians who had attacked the book so much from the beginning, but from philosophers who, like Ayer himself, were concerned with the meaning of propositions; and they included Ayer himself, who over the remainder of his life fine-tuned or modified several theories he had put forward as an impetuous and (Rogers maintains) as an angry young man - angry with the establishment at Oxford which, he felt, had at that time denied him the prizes and promotions that were his due, for reasons that had to do both with philosophical vested interests and with antisemitism.
One shortcoming of Rogers' book is that the arguments of scarcely any of Ayer's critics, with the exception of his main rival, J.L.Austin, are given a proper airing; and the criticisms that are stated of Language, Truth and Logic in the biography are largely those of Ayer himself in later life as he modified his original thesis.
The part of Language, Truth and Logic that drew the severest criticism from outside was the position known as "emotivism", which declared that moral judgments (as well as aesthetic ones) are no more than the expression of a speaker's approval or disapproval. Moral statements have to do with values, and values are not a proper subject of philosophy as such. This position made some opponents agree with a Westminster housemaster who described Ayer as "the most wicked man in Oxford". (Doubtlessly Ayer's reputation as a libertine was also seen as consequence of what he had written about morals.)
And yet Ayer, like Bertrand Russell, did have strong moral feelings and felt that he had to live up to them. Certainly these did not include conventional moral feelings about sexual behaviour; but he actively supported a number of progressive social and political causes. He even agreed in his retirement to become founder President of the Society for Applied Philosophy -an odd position for someone who had argued that philosophy had no role in advising people how to live. He now described that earlier idea as "rather insular": although philosophy cannot lay down moral codes, it can at least help people to clarify their moral choices. And, as a human being, we ought to make choices - as long as we don't think that they are grounded in philosophy as such. In this respect he spoke of commitment in much the same way as did the existentialists, for whose general philosophy, with its strong element of metaphysics, he of course had no sympathy. Ayer knew well that there were things outside of philosophy which were wonderful but about which philosophy as such has nothing to say.
The philosophical parts of Rogers' book are not always easy: he takes quite a lot of philosophical knowledge for granted. But even readers who do not have such knowledge will be fascinated by the image he gives us of this zestful man and of the society in which he moved. With all the many reservations one can make of Ayer's character (and about which even his wives were fully aware and articulate), he was hugely admired and loved as a person by a great many people: women, colleagues, students, and others. The author, who met him only once and for the most fleeting of moments, admits to liking and respecting him. One can deduce this also from the fact that the people who detested him (and there were some) make only a marginal appearance in the book.