Brilliant youth to pedestrian old age - did sex and no science ruin a great mind?

A. J. Ayer
November 19, 1999

On the surface, Sir Alfred Ayer's life was an unbroken sequence of glittering prizes. Scholarships to Eton and Christ Church. The electrifying Language, Truth and Logic was published in 1936, when Ayer was just 25. Grote professor of philosophy at University College London in his thirties. Back to Oxford as Wykeham professor in 1959. Knighted in 1970.

In addition, Ayer had a full life outside philosophy. Before the war, he was a Labour activist, fighting a local election. He served as a captain in the Welsh Guards. His broadcasting, especially on the Brains Trust, made him famous, and in the Butskellite years he was one of the greatest of the good. His private life was glamorous and kaleidoscopic, and he juggled an astounding number of affairs alongside his four marriages, right up until his death in 1989.

All this is elegantly narrated in Ben Rogers's excellent new biography, which fills in many of the personal lacunae in Ayer's own two autobiographical volumes, and adds insightful commentaries on the philosophical writings. Yet the overall impression created by Rogers's book is of promise unfulfilled. The young author of Language, Truth and Logic had set himself to sweep away the fusty metaphysics of his teachers and to make philosophy new. Yet, although Ayer kept working steadily until the end of his life, this early ambition petered out in a series of pedestrian essays.

It is tempting to associate this philosophical falling off with Ayer's personality. As a number of Rogers's informants testify, behind the social glitter Ayer was something of a cold fish. He was obviously charming, especially to women, but he seems to have been curiously deficient in many normal sentiments. Some commentators have linked this emotional shallowness to Ayer's dogmatic empiricist insistence that there is no reality beyond sensory appearances.

Others have offered a brisker diagnosis. "There goes a great mind ruined by sex", a senior Oxford figure is supposed once to have said of the passing Ayer.

However, I think there is a deeper reason for the failure of Ayer's philosophical hopes. The problem was not Ayer's personality, but his time and place. The philosophical doctrines that attracted the young Ayer were bold and important, and in other countries they bore healthy fruit. But in the unsympathetic intellectual soil of mid-century Britain they merely shrivelled and died.

Language, Truth and Logic was a manifesto for the Austrian doctrines of logical positivism. Ayer had spent his first winter after graduation visiting the Vienna Circle, the famous discussion group led by the philosopher-scientists Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap and Otto Neurath. There Ayer learnt of the "verification principle", according to which no statement is meaningful unless it can be reduced to sensory experience or linguistic definition. Empirical science was held to qualify on the first ground, logic and mathematics on the second. All else was nonsense. At a stroke all metaphysical systems were swept away.

Rogers describes the initial enthusiasm with which Ayer's young colleagues at Oxford greeted his announcement of this creed. It was modern,it was progressive, it suited the iconoclastic 1930s. A group including Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, J. L. Austin and Stuart Hampshire met weekly in All Souls, and discussion centred on Ayer's book. However, there is a sense in which these figures did not know what to do with logical positivism. This was a philosophy founded on an analysis of science, yet most of these young Oxford dons knew no science at all. Their background was in classics,and they came to philosophy through the established route of Greats and ancient thought. So they had no choice but to take positivism's analysis of science on faith, and therefore reverted instead to traditional topics, like sense perception and the nature of philosophy.

It is illuminating to consider the contrasting fate of positivism in the United States. The American philosopher-logician Willard van Ormand Quine provides an exact mirror image to Ayer. He was just a year or two older, he spent the same winter in Vienna, and he was equally enraptured by the views of the circle. But when he returned to the US, he subjected the foundations of positivism to a searching critique. Working closely with the now-emigrated Carnap, he showed that logic and mathematics cannot be reduced to mere definition, and that the scientific description of the world cannot be decomposed into a substantial synthetic component and a conceptual analytic component. These were powerful and original contributions, and they have exerted a lasting influence on philosophy.

Ayer was fully aware that he was hobbled by his lack of a scientific training. He often bemoaned his ignorance, and in the years around the war he made efforts to remedy it. At University College London he built bridges, and his discussion group included figures like the scientist Peter Medawar and the philosopher of science Karl Popper. But nothing much came of these forays. London was still on the philosophical fringes, and when the chance came Ayer returned to Oxford. Yet back in Oxford his interest in science waned, and he was increasingly caught up once more with the stuff of the conventional curriculum.

Things went differently in the US. The moral of Quine's critique was that philosophy and science cannot be separated. Since any significant analysis of concepts will inevitably be caught up with substantial issues of scientific theory, the right place for philosophy is within science. The now-dominant "naturalist" tradition in American philosophy looks to physics and biology, rather than the wisdom of the ancients, to explain the relation between humanity and nature.

Britain has not followed America in breaking down the barriers between philosophy and science. In 1946 Ayer gave a talk in which he contrasted philosophies that conform to natural science with those that aim for some alternative vision. He would surely be distressed to learn how many British philosophers today belong to the latter party, aiming to delineate aspects of reality that lie beyond the realm of science. Indeed many in this anti-naturalist camp look back to just those continental metaphysicians, like Hegel and Heidegger, that the young Ayer so derided.

Perhaps this is healthy. At least it replaces the century-long mutual incomprehension of "analytic" and "continental" philosophy with a fruitful debate between naturalism and non-naturalism, a debate whose eventual resolution is still far from clear. At the same time, it is striking how far the naturalist side is under-represented in Britain. Still, perhaps this is unsurprising in a country where most bright children drop science at the age of 15, and where prominent figures sometimes express sniggering pride in their scientific ignorance.

It may seem odd to suggest that Ayer was an intellectually isolated figure, forced to suffer for his nonconformist views. He became Wykeham professor of logic, after all, and a knight of the realm. But, even so, the story told by Rogers confirms that this is the right diagnosis. Ayer was a philosopher who backed science, in a milieu where science was viewed with suspicion. He would surely have made much more of his philosophical life if he had been able to flourish in a more sympathic environment.

David Papineau is professor of the philosophy of science, King's College, London.

A. J. Ayer: A Life

Author - Ben Rogers
ISBN - 0 7011 6316 X
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - £20.00
Pages - 402

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments