An Introduction to A.J Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic

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Reply Tue 22 Sep, 2009 08:12 am
An Introduction to A.J Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic
Some have said of Alfred Jules Ayer that he was a brilliant but unoriginal thinker because he was instrumental in bringing the views of the Vienna Circle to the English speaking world, but this ability to synthesize thought has led to him having an important place in the history of 20th Century Philosophy.

Life

As a teen, Ayer through hard work managed to gain a classical scholarship to Eaton. This intense degree of specialization in Classics brought the reward of the top Classical Scholarship at Christ Church, Oxford; thus, Ayer's subsequent involvement in Philosophy seems unusual unless the subject matter seemed to provide ideal material to for his powerfully argumentative intellect to work on, especially in the field of epistemology.

Another great of 20th Century Philosophy Gilbert Ryle was very much responsible for Ayer's philosophical development by suggesting that he should read Wittgenstein's Tractatus and urging him to go to Vienna and study with Vienna Circle after completing his degree rather than going to Cambridge and studying under Wittgenstein as he had planned.

By the summer of 1933 work on his classic Language, Truth and Logic, commonly held to be the major English statement Logical Positivism had started, and the book was completed in 1935 and published the following year when Ayer was still in his twenties.

Language, Truth and Logic

The main contentions laid out in Ayer's most famous work are well known and no less controversial. By his own admission Language, Truth and Logic
This first chapter provides a rejection of 'the metaphysical thesis that Philosophy affords us knowledge of a reality transcending the world of science and common sense'. Metaphysics is defined as 'sentences which express neither tautologies nor empirical hypothesis' and are literally senseless or meaningless. For a statement to be genuine Ayer's verification principle requires that 'some possible observations must be relevant to the determination of its truth or falsehood'. It may be asked: 'How then are we to deal with the propositions of logic and mathematics?' Such a priori propositions of logic & mathematics are necessarily true (or false) because of the linguistic conventions governing the terms which they occur in them and are devoid of any substantial content.

This leads to Philosophy being a purely analytic undertaking supplying definitions not information about the transcendent, and even then, philosophy does not provide explicit definitions but rather 'definitions in use.' Such thinking for Ayer was not a critical break with the past, for 'most of those who are commonly thought to be great philosophers were Philosophers in our sense rather than metaphysicians'. So Locke, Berkeley & Hume become labelled as analysts.

Ayer shares the position of Frank Ramsey in that truth is simply how 'the words true and false function in the sentence simply as assertion and negation signs;' thus for Ayer 'the problem of truth is reduced to the question. How are propositions validated?' Empirical propositions are not certain and are only held with a degree of probability with 'hypothesis' functioning 'as rules which govern our expectation of future experience'.

One of the most significant objections to Ayer's verification principle is that it is self-defeating, since it is neither analytically true nor can it be empirically verified. In a interview later in his life when asked what was the main defect of Logical Positivist movement, he answered 'Well I suppose the main defect was that nearly all of it was false'.

While Language, Truth and Logic remains a significant statement of Logical Positivism, Ayer himself subsequently published a number of important books on epistemology from a different point of view.
 
chad3006
 
Reply Tue 22 Sep, 2009 11:35 am
@RDanneskjld,
so, would it be safe to say that an analytical approach to philosophy is no more or less valid than other schools of philosophical thought?
 
RDanneskjld
 
Reply Tue 22 Sep, 2009 11:59 am
@chad3006,
chad3006;92771 wrote:
so, would it be safe to say that an analytical approach to philosophy is no more or less valid than other schools of philosophical thought?

There is certainly no consensus about what is the correct way to approach Philosophy. But the death of Logical Positivism was no way the death of Analytic philosophy, which came to real prominence in the 20th Century. Academic departments in the English speaking world tend to be out of the analytic mould while in mainland Europe continental philosophy tends to be more dominant.

Personally I'm a very pro Analytic Philosophy, though I do find many works which I find valuable, interesting and engaging which arent part of the Analytic tradition.
 
chad3006
 
Reply Tue 22 Sep, 2009 12:23 pm
@RDanneskjld,
I'm certainly not a scholar of philosophy, but life has taught me that an analytical approach to anything has its place, but there will always exist certain things (kind of intangibles) that can't be explained from a purely analytical point of view. Though I'm not a whole hearted supporter of Metaphysics, it seems better equipped to explain these "intangibles," sometimes.
 
GoshisDead
 
Reply Tue 22 Sep, 2009 12:25 pm
@chad3006,
I've had this book laying around the house for eve and never read it, I'm still not sure that I will. But nice review all the same.
 
RDanneskjld
 
Reply Tue 22 Sep, 2009 12:53 pm
@GoshisDead,
GoshisDead;92786 wrote:
I've had this book laying around the house for eve and never read it, I'm still not sure that I will. But nice review all the same.

I would recommend that anyone who has an interest in the history of Philosophy should read the book. It is a relatively short work and I found it to be a very refreshing and insightful read.
 
GoshisDead
 
Reply Tue 22 Sep, 2009 01:23 pm
@RDanneskjld,
so I guess I'll have to put it in my Queue
 
jgweed
 
Reply Tue 22 Sep, 2009 02:49 pm
@RDanneskjld,
The youthful enthusiasm and conviction with which Ayer stated his positions make for great reading, and the verifiability principle is still debated and current in modern thinking. Anyone wishing to study the history of philosophy would certainly not want to skip reading LTL.
Thanks, RD, for taking the time to review LTL for us.
John
 
Victor Eremita
 
Reply Tue 22 Sep, 2009 10:42 pm
@RDanneskjld,
Ayer was indeed wrong, but then again who isn't really. Even the great Kierkegaard and Nietzsche screwed up once in a while. Great review.
 
Reconstructo
 
Reply Fri 11 Dec, 2009 11:35 pm
@RDanneskjld,
For a statement to be genuine Ayer's verification principle requires that 'some possible observations must be relevant to the determination of its truth or falsehood'.

Did Ayer ever manage to verify his verification principle?
 
kennethamy
 
Reply Sat 12 Dec, 2009 01:31 am
@Reconstructo,
Reconstructo;110449 wrote:
For a statement to be genuine Ayer's verification principle requires that 'some possible observations must be relevant to the determination of its truth or falsehood'.

Did Ayer ever manage to verify his verification principle?


No. He discussed this objection in the introduction to the second edition of LTL.

Ayer argued that the verification principle was, itself, not a statement, but a proposal. So that the verification principle did not apply to itself. I don't think that anyone now accept the verification principle of meaning.

See:

Problems and changes in the empiricist criterion of meaning. By Carl Hempel
You can Bing or Google it.
 
 

 
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