Language, Truth and Logic Paperback – 26 Apr 1990
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Philosophy. A book that reinvented analytic philosophy by one of the main proponents of logical positivism.
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The concept underlying Ayer's discussion is the "principle of verifiability," which defines a statement as being "literally meaningful" only if it either is logically necessary ("analytical") or can be empirically verified as being either true or false. Under this definition, metaphysical statements are not literally meaningful, and so are properly part of theology rather than philosophy.
Ayer believes that many philosophical debates (such as those about ethics or about the nature of the soul) stem from arguing about metaphysical statements as if they were literally meaningful. He believes that once metaphysics has been eliminated from philosophy, these debates will seem silly and the questions that underlie them will be recognized as theological rather than philosophical. So once he has established the principle of verifiability and explained how he identifies statements as either verifiable or analytical, Ayer spends the rest of the book applying this principle to various "philosophical" questions.
Of course, the place of metaphysics in philosophy is itself debatable. Ayer's conception of philosophy is relatively narrow, and many readers will prefer a wider definition of philosophy that includes some (or all) of the metaphysical statements that he banishes. Others will be thrilled to finally read a philosophical work that cuts through the mystical goo spread so liberally and destructively by other thinkers. Whether or not one agrees with Ayer's approach and conclusions, one has to appreciate his clear presentation of an important philosophical viewpoint.
Ayer's project here is the project of all young philosophical radicals--solving all the problems of philosopher, or at least showing that there were no real problems that needed to be solved. In less than two hundred pages of lucid prose Ayer gives you a brief statement of the central assumptions of the doctrine and a demonstration of how it can be applied to problems in nearly every area of philosophy. Needless to say, in Ayer's hands it appears to work wonders wherever it's put to work.
Ayer's positivism, as he himself admitted, was really an updated version of Hume's radical empiricism. But Ayer wasn't as a gifted a philosopher as Hume, and consequently, the strengths of this book aren't a matter of the truth of its conclusions (they're probably false), or the cogency of its arguments (they rarely convince), or the originality of its insights (they're really nothing new). Instead, the greatness of this work resides in its ability to inspire. This is a young man's book, and it's one written with the verve and self-assurance of a recent convert who's sure he's got all the answers and just needs to get them out there for the world to see. Ayer doesn't pause to consider objections; he doesn't draw back from his more eye-opening conclusions; and he certainly isn't worried about offending his readers' more delicate sensibilities.
The central tenets of Ayer's positivism can be stated in but a few sentences. (I'll ignore the niceties here and try to get the main ideas across.) The central component of positivism is a test for meaningfulness. A sentence, Ayer claims, is meaningful if it means either of two conditions: (i) its truth (or falsity) is analytic, or (ii) it is possible to acquire some empirical evidence pertaining to its truth (or falsity). If neither of these conditions is met, the sentence is literally nonsense (i.e. it doesn't say anything capable of being true or false).
The task of philosophy, then, is one of testing sentences of various types and seeing whether they're meaningful. First, the philosopher asks whether the sentence is true (or false) in virtue of the meaning of its words. If it is, it counts as meaningful and we're done. Math and logic, Ayer claims, are exhausted by sentences of this sort. If it isn't true (or false) in virtue of meaning, we proceed to the next step. In the next step the philosopher seeks to determine whether there is any empirical evidence that does or could bear provide evidence of the truth (or falsity) of the sentence. If we could imagine some method of acquiring observational evidence pertaining to the proposition, then it's meaningful and the philosopher sits back and waits for the sciences to determine whether or not it's true. If it turns out that there simply isn't any empirical evidence that could be gathered for or against the sentence, it's literally meaningless. Meaningless how? Well, sentences of this sort don't really say anything about the world; they doesn't make a claim that is true or false. People may find them important in some way, they may stimulate people's emotions and lead them to act in certain ways, but they're literally nonsensical. They say nothing about how the world is, and they have no place in a respectable philosophical or scientific view of the nature of the world. According to Ayer, this sort of nonsense is found in ethics, in religion, and in most of the weighty tomes of the great philosophers.
The task of Language, Truth and Logic is to defend these conclusions and the conception of philosophy that has led Ayer to them. So it's clear that the influence of Hume on Ayer's positivism extended beyond matters of philosophical doctrine; the influence was also a methodological and attitudinal one. For Ayer, like Hume, goes where his argument takes him and is happy to demolish whatever stands in his way, including common sense, religion, and a few thousands years worth of philosophy.
And, of course, this sort of willful iconoclasm also makes the book a lot of fun to read.
It gets three stars because Ayer, unlike some of his Continental brethren, wrote clearly enough to be found out. While this book is of tremendous historical importance, its philosophical content should be evaluated only after one has read Brand Blanshard's _Reason and Analysis_, which put paid to the misbegotten "verifiability theory of meaning" and demonstrated once for all that logical positivism could not pass its own tests.