Sir Alfred Jules Ayer, better known as A. J. Ayer (or Freddie by
his friends), was a British philosopher known for his promotion
of logical positivism, particularly in his books Language, Truth
and Logic (1936) and The Problem of Knowledge (1956).
was the Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at
the University College London from 1946 until 1959, when he became
Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. He was
knighted in 1970.
received an education in the humanities at Eton College, and served
in the British military during World War II, working in military
intelligence for a time. He was a noted social mixer and womanizer,
and was married four times, including to Dee Wells and Vanessa
Lawson (nee Salmon). Reputedly he liked dancing and attending
the clubs in London.
was a friend of Isaiah Berlin.
was an avowed atheist, and followed in the footsteps of Bertrand
Russell by debating with the Jesuit scholar Frederick Copleston
on the topic of religion.
was closely associated with the British humanist movement. He
was an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association
from 1947 until his death. In 1965, he became the first president
of the Agnostics' Adoption Society and in the same year succeeded
Julian Huxley as president of the British Humanist Association,
a post he held until 1970. In 1968 he edited "The Humanist
Outlook", a collection of essays on the meaning of humanism.
taught or lectured several times in the United States, including
serving as a visiting professor at Bard College in the fall of
1987. At a party that same year held by fashion designer Fernando
Sanchez, Ayer, then 77, confronted Mike Tyson harassing Naomi
Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said:
"Do you know who the fuck I am? I'm the heavyweight champion
of the world," to which Ayer replied: "And I am the
former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in
our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men"
before his death in 1989 he received publicity after having an
unusual near-death experience, which some erroneously interpreted
as a move away from his lifelong and famous religious skepticism.
In some ways, Ayer was the philosophical successor to Bertrand
Russell, and he wrote two books on the philosopher: Russell and
Moore: The Analytic Heritage (1971) and Russell (1972). He also
wrote an introductory book on the philosophy of David Hume.
is perhaps best known for his verification principle, as presented
in "Language, Truth, and Logic" (1936), according to
which a sentence is meaningful only if it has verifiable empirical
import. He started work on the book at the age of 24 and it was
published when he was 26. Ayer's philosophical ideas were deeply
influenced by those of the Vienna Circle. His clear, vibrant and
polemical exposition of them makes Language, Truth and Logic essential
reading on the tenets of logical positivism -- the book is regarded
as a classic of 20th century philosophy, and is widely read in
philosophy courses around the world.
1972-73 Ayer gave the Gifford Lectures at University of St Andrews,
later published as The Central Questions of Philosophy. He still
believed in the viewpoint he shared with the logical positivists:
that large parts of what was traditionally called "philosophy"
- including the whole of metaphysics, theology and aesthetics
- were not matters that could be judged as being true or false
and that it was thus meaningless to discuss them. Unsurprisingly,
this made him unpopular with several other philosophy departments
in this country and his name is still reviled by many British
professors to this day.
"The Concept of a Person and Other Essays" (1963), Ayer
made several striking criticisms of Wittgenstein's private language
sense-data theory in Foundations of Empirical Knowledge was famously
criticised by fellow Oxonian J. L. Austin in Sense and sensibilia,
a landmark 1950's work of common language philosophy. Ayer responded
to this in the essay "Has Austin refuted the sense-date theory?",
which can be found in his Metaphysics and Common Sense (1969).