Freddie, the Man Who Put the Sex into Philosophy; REVIEW

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Byline: ALAIN DE BOTTON

J. Ayer by Ben Rogers Chatto [pounds sterling]20 % [pounds sterling]17 *****

The name A. J. Ayer is likely to arouse decidedly mixed feelings in anyone who has studied philosophy at a British university. In their first week at college, undergraduates are typically sent away by their tutors to read a slim volume entitled Language, Truth And Logic, Ayer's most famous book, written when he was 24, and a best-seller (in philosophical terms) ever since.

While these undergraduates may be expecting philosophy to teach them how to live, how to be wise and happy, Freddie Ayer (as he was known) rapidly tells them to put away such childish ambitions and to recognise that philosophy should really limit itself to elucidating the way language is used.

Ayer's remote, impersonal conception of philosophy sets up a distinct challenge for any biographer.

And yet, from such inauspicious ingredients, Ben Rogers has pulled off a feat of biography that deserves to take its place alongside the two other great biographies of philosophers of recent times: Michael Ignatieff's Isaiah Berlin and Ray Monk's Wittgenstein.

What most undergraduates working their way through Language, Truth And Logic may not realise is quite how flamboyant a figure Ayer was in his leisure hours.

After a brilliantly scholarly career at Eton, he went up to Oxford where - as always seems to happen in biographies, but rarely in life - he struck up connections with almost everyone worth knowing, including Isaiah Berlin, Cyril Connolly, Stephen Spender and George Orwell. …