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Alex Callinicos

A.J. Ayer: Out of time

(September 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 123, September 1989.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

INTELLECTUALS in general and philosophers in particular don’t have a particularly high status in English culture. The attention given to the death of A.J. Ayer on 27 June therefore came as something of a surprise.

Tory Higher Education Minister Robert Jackson wrote a condemnation of Ayer as “the voice ... of a dethroned hegemony – dethroned largely because of the poverty and superficiality of its thinking.” His letter was followed by an article in the Sunday Telegraph by Roger Scruton, perhaps the New Right’s nastiest intellectual hit man, entitled The Man who Hated Wisdom.

Why such controversy about a man whose chief interests, to judge by his memoirs, were pursuing sexual conquests and following the fortunes of Spurs?

The answer is, I think, that Ayer, like his hero Bertrand Russell, sought to continue in the 20th century the liberal Enlightenment of the 18th century.

The book which made Ayer’s name, Language, Truth and Logic (1936), was a self-conscious restatement of the ideas of the great 18th century British empiricists, above all David Hume. Hume sought to vindicate the new physics of Galileo and Newton by insisting that all knowledge was derived from experience. The only exception he was prepared to make was for mathematics:

“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for then it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

Ayer did not, however, simply take over Hume’s radical empiricism, but sought to turn it into a claim about language. Here the chief influence was the doctrine of logical positivism formulated by the Vienna Circle, a group of mainly Austrian philosophers with whom Ayer studied in 1932–33.

The cornerstone of logical positivism was the Verification Principle. This was a claim that sentences are only meaningful if their truth can be established in one of two ways.

They may be true simply by virtue of the meanings of the words they contain – for example, “All bachelors are unmarried”, in which case they are tautologies, trivially true. Logic and mathematics, Ayer believed, consisted of such tautologies.

Alternatively a sentence is meaningful if its truth (or falsehood) can be shown through observation – for example, by means of a scientific experiment.

The implications were radical. The sciences – logic, mathematics and physical sciences – made up the bulk of meaningful utterances. Religion, metaphysics, poetry, ethics – since they lacked the required method of verification – were all nonsense.

This claim, more boldly expressed by Ayer than by his Viennese mentors, aroused the fury of the right then and now. Moritz Schlick, leader of the Vienna Circle, was assassinated.

But Ayer’s own position was as untenable as that of his conservative opponents. It rapidly emerged that logical positivism was riddled with contradictions. There was, for example, the problem of the Verification Principle itself. It clearly wasn’t trivially true by virtue of its meaning. But nor could its truth be established through observation. Was it therefore meaningless?

The fundamental problem with logical positivism was that in reviving the empiricism of the Enlightenment it also rehabilitated its individualism.

Knowledge for Ayer was a matter of the individual self passively registering the impressions made on its senses by the external world. The social character of thought and language was largely ignored.

Meaning isn’t a matter of isolated words or sentences, but of the relations among the interlocking system of beliefs that make up a language. This system is in turn rooted in the collective practices developed by the members of a particular society and in the shared nature of human beings who act on and change their environment rather than merely observing it.

Ayer modified his original claims under pressure of criticism. But he remained very much a liberal individualist, with all the strengths and weaknesses which that implies.

Like Voltaire (to whom he devoted a book) Ayer was a bitter opponent of organised religion. He is supposed to have said, “My God, my God, I shall die a happy man if I can make one person disbelieve in God.”

The contemporary world, with its resurgent Christian and Islamic fundamentalisms, must have seemed simply incomprehensible to him. And so it would be as long as he lacked the method of analysis forged by Marx which treated religious beliefs, not as mere absurdities, but as the expression of real needs, the product of social contradictions.

Marx was able to forge such a method because he went beyond both the Enlightenment and its critics – both the classical economists who celebrated the development of capitalism as the triumph of liberal individualism and those, such as Burke and the Romantics, who mourned the passing of the old regime and the feudal loyalties and superstitions bound up with it.

Ayer remained trapped in one side of this argument, defending science and reason and attacking metaphysics and religion but conceiving this as a pure battle of ideas in which, one day, the truth would triumph.

He therefore became an increasingly anachronistic figure as Thatcherism marginalised the right wing social democratic politics with which he identified reason and as the forces of unreason stalked the world stage. A throwback to the Enlightenment, Ayer provided an object lesson in its limitations.

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