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A. J. Ayer: A Life Paperback – 4 May 2000
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If AJ Ayer, Britain's leading exponent of logical positivism in the 20th century, believed that the good life was none of philosophy's business, then this biography shows he thought it was certainly his business. As a young man in the 1930s discussing the nature of philosophy, Ayer told Isaiah Berlin that it was just about conceptual analysis and the rest, "all of life", was outside its remit. His Language, Truth and Logic was published at this time and Ayer duly spent the rest of his life trying to seal the fate of metaphysics, while living "all of life" to the full--you quickly lose count of his love affairs. He was a man who loved football, clubs, dancing and good food. The combination of his stern analytical philosophy and his aestheticism, and that aestheticism's contradictions (its mix of 1920s dandyism and 1930s rebelliousness), make Ayer's life intriguing.
Ben Rogers' biography is full of anecdotes--when asked by a student about Albert Camus he replied "we were making love to twin sisters in Paris after the war"; and 40 years on he encountered Mike Tyson apparently assaulting Naomi Campbell and demanded that he and Tyson talk like rational men and settle the situation. You can read such stories not as an unfolding narrative culminating in the definitive Ayer, but like David Hume and Walter Pater, Ayer's philosophic and hedonistic heroes, treat them as a mere "bundle of perceptions" of a man, discrete experiences in the life of Ayer. Of course if you do, you are less likely to condemn him for the vices that seemed to necessarily accompany his joie de vivre--his selfishness and arrogance--and rather think of him simply as a man living for the day. Yet he hankered after a place in history alongside the great philosophers, and here there is a body of work to assess and an overall judgement to be made. Rogers' biography largely puts such assessment to one side, but then that analysis is for philosophy, and biography is about life, it might be said. The beauty of this particular biography, the irony of it being Ayer's, is that you are forced to question that dichotomy--philosophy and life--on every page, as Ayer seeks to solve another philosophic problem, and then heads to the club or restaurant, to a liaison with another girlfriend, for seven decades of logic and pleasure. --Jeff Petts
"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"." - "Mail on Sunday""Rogers--provides excellent and sympathetic summaries of all Ayer's main books and articles. Admirable." - "Sunday Times"See all Product description
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
I can honestly say I did not find a single page of this book dull - quite an achievement for a serious study of an analytical philosopher. When Ayer claimed his life to be separate from his philosophy, it is probably true that his life does not need to be understood to understand his philosophy. That makes it none the less fascinating - and this attitude towards philosophy has an interesting impact on the events in the life of a man who, after all, believed in actions as well as words.
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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.
Anthony Blanche could have just as well been speaking of A.J. "Freddie" Ayer, for he was to philosophy what Waugh's Charles Ryder was to art: a celebrity more noted for being such rather than for his work, which is found to come up short. Overshadowed in philosophy by Wittgenstein and in both philosophy and celebrity by Russell (who had a unique talent of reinventing himself so as to appear new to each generation), Ayer is mainly known for one work, Language, Truth and Logic, a depressing tome that relegates anything that is not empirically verifiable or true in virtue of linguistic rules as meaningless. Questions of God and metaphysics are lumped in this category.
Despite being overshadowed by Russell and Wittgenstein, Ayer may have had the last laugh, for his influence on philosophy far surpassed theirs. As Rogers notes, Ayer wanted to put an end to philosophy. For Ayer, the only role for philosophy is the logical clarification of the concepts of science, rather than the quest for truth and ultimate reality.
With that stroke of the pen, Ayer succeeded to dealing philosophy a near mortal wound from only which she is now recovering. Ayer took philosophy from the general reader and rarefied it to the world of specialization and academia. Where once philosophers as Hegel, Schopenhauer, McTaggart, Bergson and Russell wrote for an educated public, today philosophers write for other philosophers. Instead of a search for ultimate truths, philosophy has become a series of problems made sterile in the world of academia.
But how could the iconoclastic Ayer accomplish this? The answer is simple: charm. Rogers astutely chronicles Ayer's smooth relationship and movement through the upper classes so often found in the environment of the English university. Ayer grasped quite quickly that if one can't out-think one's opponent, it is just as well to out-entertain him. And for that task Ayer was well suited. He became a sort of celebrity on the BBC, always playing the iconoclastic philosopher, whether debating Frederick Copleston on the existence of God for BBC radio or discussing the nature of knowledge for a televised lecture series. Learning from Russell's mistakes, Ayer eschewed the leftist radicalism that defined the later Russell in favor of a trendy leftist posture that guaranteed entree to the moneyed classes that dominated England and America.
Bur the real delight in Rogers's book comes when he describes not A.J. Ayer, thinker, but "Freddie" Ayer, hedonist, filling in what Freddie does not tell us in two volumes of autobiography. Unilke Alfred Jules, the Thinker, Freddie the Fop thought with a different organ, judging from his marriages and numerous affairs, sometimes seeing two or more women at the same time. There is a strange hilarity is seeing one of England's foremost practitioners of rationality being such a slave to his libido when not on duty. And Rogers does a first-rate job interlocking the two into a seamless whole, knowing when to switch gears and keep the reader's interest on the page.
The funniest passage in the book is the confrontation between Ayer and one Mike Tyson (yes, that Mike Tyson) who shanghaied a young Naomi Campbell into a spare bedroom during the course of a posh party with something other than debate on his mind. How does it turn out? I leave it to you to find out the power and limits of charm.
Ayer gravitated towards a personal philosophy that served to rationalize away his faults and mistreatment of other human beings. The central premise of Ayer's so called philosophy (which is actually an anti-philosophy) is that only phenomena that can be ascertained within the severely limited parameters of Logical Positivism merit our attention. Thus, nothing is worthy of valid interest that cannot be empirically verified. Questions concerning love, God, values, evil, the possibility of life after death, are to be relegated to the dust bin of history. The very underpinnings of a viable social order are inevitably threatened by the tacit conclusion of Ayer's thoughts. Ayer was a charlatan who seduced his adoring faithful into embracing a way of looking at matters that legitimately belong to the realm of the hard sciences. Unfortunately, this approach fails miserably when addressing the unavoidable existential issues of human life.
I suspect that I'm encouraging people to read Ben Roger's book for reasons that will not entirely thrill the author. Roger almost certainly doesn't share my caustic appraisal of Ayer. That, however, is Roger's problem and not mine. We should read Roger's book to learn from the past so not to fall prey to similar nonsense in the future. Karl Popper, an ardent foe of Ayer's central beliefs deserves your rapt devotion. Popper is truly a giant for all time, and scathingly took Ayer and his ilk to task. I also whole heartily encourage the reader to obtain a copy of the recently released --The Abolition of Britain--by Peter Hitchens. Another work , --The Intellectuals--by Paul Johnson, takes an insightful look at other high profile individuals who have also done much damage to civilization. Johnson whole thesis revolves around the absurdity of pretending that one's personal behavior does not influence their intellectual life.