A. J. AYER
Alfred Jules Ayer (1910–1989) was born in London, the son of immigrant parents. He attended Eton and Christ Church, Oxford University, where he studied under Gilbert Ryle. When he was twenty-six he traveled to Vienna to meet Moritz Schlick, the leader of the Vienna Circle, a group of Logical Positivists. On his return to Oxford he wrote his most famous book, Language, Truth and Logic, a selection of which is reprinted here. He later became a professor at University College, London University, before returning to Oxford in 1960 to take up the Wykeham Professorship of Logic, where he taught until a short time before his death in 1989. A lifelong atheist, he astounded the public several months before his death with a report of a mystical experience. His heart had stopped for four minutes, during which time “I was confronted by a red light, exceedingly bright, and also very painful, even when I turned away from it. I was aware that this light was responsible for the government of the universe.”1
Ayer was England's most prominent Logical Positivist. That philosophy, which had its roots in Hume's empiricism, like Hume, rejected metaphysics as nonsense. Its driving idea was that for a sentence to be meaningful, it must be verifiable in principle by experience. So my statement that atoms exist, though not observable by human senses, could conceivably be, if we had instruments to bring them to human consciousness. We must be able somehow to point to it. But moral and theological statements cannot be verified. Statements such as “Telling the truth is good” or “Killing innocents is bad” can't be observed. That is, we can observe a lie or a killing, but we can't observe the “goodness” or “badness” which are predicated of these subject terms. Ayer would reduce the value sentences to emotive expressions, such as “Telling the truth—Hurrah!” and “Killing Innocents—Boo!” Theological assertions such as “God exists” are simply nonsense, since they fail to express the conditions under which one could verify such claims. In the selection given below Ayer sets forth to eliminate all metaphysical discourse.
Achinstein, Peter, and Stephen Barker. The Legacy of Logical Positivism (Johns Hopkins Press, 1969).
Ashby, R. W. “Logical Positivism,” in D. J. O'Connor, ed. A Critical History of Western Philosophy(Free Press, 1964).
Ayer, A. J., ed. Logical Positivism (Free Press, 1959).
Ayer, A. J. Language, Truth and Logic (Dover, 1936).
1“What I Saw When I Was Dead …” Spectator July 16, 1988, reprinted in The Philosophy of
A. J. Ayer, ed. L. E. Hahn (Open Court, 1992), p. 48.