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Journal of the History of Philosophy 39.4 (2001) 605-606
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Ben Rogers. A. J. Ayer: A Life. New York: Grove Press, 1999. Pp. ix + 402. Cloth, $30.00.
A. J. Ayer (1910-89) had the misfortune, for a philosopher, to write his most influential book, Language, Truth, and Logic, when he was in his twenties, even though he continued to publish into his seventies, and to have his nonphilosophical life overwhelm his philosophical one. Almost everyone now knows the story of how he saved Naomi Campbell by going a round with Mike Tyson. Ben Rogers nicely intertwines the facts of Ayer's day-to-day life—which is not to say "quotidian," given Ayer's ego and libido—with his philosophical peregrinations.
Although Ayer picked up logical positivism in Vienna when attending sessions of the Vienna Circle, he had accepted the main lines of an empiricism and positivism earlier and on his own. For twentieth-century British philosophy, Language, Truth, and Logic was both a philosophical Declaration of Independence (from metaphysics) and the Constitution for a new philosophy. Unfortunately, its founding principle, the principle of verifiability, was irremediably flawed, notwithstanding Ayer's best efforts, notably in the Preface to the second edition of 1946. Logical positivism in Britain lasted for only about a decade (1935-46). In fact, it may have been less. Language, Truth, and Logic was published in 1936, and Ayer "went off to war" in 1940, to speak loosely. (He spent a significant part of it in a Mediterranean villa, a Park Avenue apartment, "a palatial home" in Paris lent him by Guy de Rothschild, and in the best restaurants with friendly women.) No major British philosopher was championing Logical Positivism between 1940 and 1945. When Ayer returned to Oxford in 1945, he discovered that "the [philosophical] climate had changed; before the conflict he had been the leader of the avant-garde; now the brighter students and the young dons looked on logical positivism as old hat. He had mysteriously passed "from being a young Turk to being, at the age of thirty-five, to almost an elder statesman, without ever having known the plenitude of office'" (198). During the late 1940's, Ayer wrote mostly for London literary and arts magazines. The profession of philosophy disappointed him, and later, he found it difficult to keep up "in logic and the philosophy of maths and sciences" (262).
Logical positivism had a longer life in North America, to which several of its members emigrated. But its influence was felt much longer in both places, primarily for its emphasis on three things: empiricism, empiricism, empiricism.
Ayer continued to publish philosophy until the mid-1980s. Given the demise of logical positivism, he was something of a dinosaur, albeit a Tyrannosaurus Rex. There was no one else quite like him, and yet he could not be ignored. He was a formidable critic of whatever most other British philosophers were doing. In addition to his obvious intellectual brilliance, he was an excellent writer and expositor. After 1970, most of his books are potboilers, skillful in execution, but of no lasting merit, for example, Russell and Moore (1971), Russell (1972), Hume (1980), and Wittgenstein (1985). Ayer told Stephen Spender that "Russell's History of Western Philosophy. . . had made its author a fortune and he hoped his [Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (1981)] would do the same" (326). [End Page 605] He accepted a L 30,000. advance for a book about Thomas Paine, about whom he knew virtually nothing, and then did his research: "I mugged up just enough information from some American scholar, whose name I forget, an essay of Michael Foot and, principally, Moncure Conway" (342).
As prominent as Ayer was in British culture—writing for the Spectator and Horizon, giving commentary on soccer, appearing on television, and championing liberal causes—he was something of a philosophical outsider. He had more affinity for the Cambridge philosophers, Moore, Russell, and the early Wittgenstein, than for his Oxford colleagues; the heart of his career was spent at the University of London, before...