Alfred Ayer

Alfred Ayer

region = Western Philosophy
era = 20th-century philosophy
color = #B0C4DE

image_caption = A J Ayer

name = Alfred Jules Ayer
birth = birth date|1910|10|29
death = death date and age |1989|06|27|1910|10|29
school_tradition = Analytic
main_interests = Language, Epistemology, Ethics, Meaning, Science
influences = Hume, Vienna Circle, Popper, Russell, Wittgenstein, [cite news
url =
title = The Wickedest Man in Oxford
author = Hilary Spurling
work = The New York Times
date = 2000-12-24
accessdate = 2008-02-01
] Kant, Voltaire
influenced = R. M. Hare, Strawson, Honderich
notable_ideas = Logical positivism, verification principle, emotivist ethics

Sir Alfred Jules ("Freddie") Ayer (October 29, 1910 – June 27, 1989), better known as A. J. Ayer, 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).

Ayer 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 president of the Aristotelian Society from 1951 to 1952. He was knighted in 1970.


Ayer was born into a wealthy family of continental origin. His mother was from the Dutch-Jewish family which later went on to found the Citroën car company in France. His father was a Swiss Calvinist who worked for the Rothschild family. He grew up in St John's Wood, London. He was educated at Ascham St Vincent's School and Eton, and then won a classics scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford. He served in the British military during World War II, working for the SOE. He was a noted social mixer and womanizer, and was married four times, including to Dee Wells and Vanessa Lawson (mother of Nigella Lawson). Reputedly he liked dancing and attending the clubs in London. He was a keen supporter of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and was a well known face in the crowd, known to other fans as 'the prof' Fact|date=February 2007.

He was a friend of Isaiah Berlin and Stuart Hampshire.

Ayer was in fact not an agnostic, a common misconception. [He believed that religious language was unverifiable and as such literally nonsense. Consequently "There is no God" was for Ayer as meaningless and metaphysical an utterance as "God exists." Though Ayer could not give assent to the declaration "There is no God," he was an atheist in the sense that he withheld assent from affirmation's of God's existence. However, in "Language, Truth and Logic" he distinguishes himself from both agnostics and atheists by saying that both these stances take the statement "God exists" as a meaningful hypothesis, which Ayer himself does not. That stance of a person who believes "God" denotes no verifiable hypothesis is sometimes referred to as igtheism (defined in Paul Kurtz, "The New Skepticism: Inquiry and Reliable Knowledge", ISBN 0-87975-766-3, page 194)] and followed in the footsteps of Bertrand Russell by debating with the Jesuit scholar Frederick Copleston on the topic of religion.

Ayer 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.

He 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 the (then little-known) model 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". [Rogers (1999), page 344.] Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out.

Shortly before his death in 1989 he received publicity after having an unusual near-death experience, which has often been misinterpreted as a move away from his lifelong and famous religious skepticism. Of the experience, Ayer first said that it "slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death ... will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be." [ [] ] However, a few days later he revised this, saying "what I should have said is that my experiences have weakened, not my belief that there is no life after death, but my inflexible attitude towards that belief". Ayer was the BBC's famous atheist front-man. [ [] ] Ayer wrote an article in 1988, "What I saw when I was dead." [ [] ] In 2001 Dr. Jeremy George, the attending physician, told William Cash, who had written a play about Ayer, that Ayer had confided to him: "I saw a Divine Being. I'm afraid I'm going to have to revise all my books and opinions." [ [] ]


Ayer is perhaps best known for popularising the verification principle, in particular through his presentation of it in "Language, Truth, and Logic" (1936). The principle was at the time at the heart of the debates of the so-called Vienna Circle which Ayer visited as a young guest, and others including the leading light of the circle, Moritz Schlick were already offering their own papers on the issue [ [ Unanswerable Questions ] ] . Ayer's own rather convoluted formulation was that a sentence can only be meaningful if it has verifiable empirical import, otherwise it is either "analytical" if tautologous, or "metaphysical" (i.e. meaningless, or "literally senseless"). He started work on the book at the age of 23 [page ix, "Language, Truth and Logic", Penguin, 2001] and it was published when he was 26. Ayer's philosophical ideas were deeply influenced by those of the Vienna Circle and David Hume. His clear, vibrant and polemical exposition of them makes "Language, Truth and Logic" essential reading on the tenets of logical empiricism -- the book is regarded as a classic of 20th century analytic philosophy, and is widely read in philosophy courses around the world. In it, Ayer also proposed that the distinction between a conscious man and an unconscious machine resolves itself into a distinction between 'different types of perceptible behaviour' [page 140, "Language, Truth and Logic", Penguin, 2001] , an argument which anticipates the Turing test published in 1950 to test a machine's capability to demonstrate intelligence (consciousness).

Ayer wrote two books on the philosopher Bertrand Russell, "Russell and Moore: The Analytic Heritage" (1971) and "Russell" (1972). He also wrote an introductory book on the philosophy of David Hume and a short biography of Voltaire.

In 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 Britain and his name is still reviled by many British professors to this day.

In "The Concept of a Person and Other Essays" (1963), Ayer made several striking criticisms of Wittgenstein's private language theory.

Ayer's sense-data theory in "Foundations of Empirical Knowledge" was famously criticised by fellow Oxonian J. L. Austin in "Sense and Sensibilia", a landmark 1950s work of common language philosophy. Ayer responded to this in the essay "Has Austin Refuted the Sense-data Theory?", which can be found in his "Metaphysics and Common Sense" (1969).

ee also

*A priori knowledge


*Rogers, Ben "A.J. Ayer: A Life", Grove Press, 1999, ISBN 0-8021-1673-6 ( [ Chapter one and a review by Hilary Spurling] , "New York Times", December 24, 2000.)


Further reading

*Ted Honderich, [ Ayer's Philosophy and its Greatness] .
*Anthony Quinton, [ Alfred Jules Ayer] . "Proceedings of the British Academy", 94 (1996), pp. 255-282.
*Graham Macdonald, [ Alfred Jules Ayer] , "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy", May 7, 2005.

elected publications

* 1936, "Language, Truth, and Logic", London: Gollancz. (2nd edition, 1946.)
* 1940, "The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge", London: Macmillan.
* 1954, "Philosophical Essays", London: Macmillan. (Essays on freedom, phenomenalism, basic propositions, utilitarianism, other minds, the past, ontology.)
* 1957, “The conception of probability as a logical relation”, in S. Korner, ed., "Observation and Interpretation in the Philosophy of Physics", New York, N.Y.: Dover Publications.
* 1956, "The Problem of Knowledge", London: Macmillan.
* 1963, "The Concept of a Person and Other Essays", London: Macmillan. (Essays on truth, privacy and private languages, laws of nature, the concept of a person, probability.)
* 1967, “Has Austin Refuted the Sense-Data Theory?” "Synthese" vol. XVIII, pp. 117-40. (Reprinted in Ayer 1969).
* 1968, "The Origins of Pragmatism", London: Macmillan.
* 1969, "Metaphysics and Common Sense", London: Macmillan. (Essays on knowledge, man as a subject for science, chance, philosophy and politics, existentialism, metaphysics, and a reply to Austin on sense-data theory [Ayer 1967] .)
* 1971, "Russell and Moore: The Analytical Heritage", London: Macmillan.
* 1972a, "Probability and Evidence", London: Macmillan.
* 1972b, "Bertrand Russell", London: Fontana.
* 1973, "The Central Questions of Philosophy", London: Weidenfeld.
* 1977, "Part of My Life", London: Collins.
* 1979, “Replies”, in G. Macdonald, ed., "Perception and Identity: Essays Presented to A. J. Ayer, With His Replies", London: Macmillan; Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
* 1980, "Hume", Oxford: Oxford University Press
* 1982, "Philosophy in the Twentieth Century", London: Weidenfeld.
* 1984, "Freedom and Morality and Other Essays", Oxford: Clarendon Press.
* 1986, "Ludwig Wittgenstein", London: Penguin.
* 1984, "More of My Life", London: Collins.

External links

* [ Ayer's Elizabeth Rathbone Lecture on Philosophy & Politics]
* [ A. J. Ayer at Philosophy]

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  • Alfred Ayer — Alfred Jules Ayer (* 29. Oktober 1910 in St. John’s Wood , London; † 27. Juni 1989) war ein britischer Philosoph. Er trug wesentlich zur Popularisierung des Logischen Empirismus in englischsprachigen Ländern vor allem durch seine Hauptschriften… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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  • Ayer (disambiguation) — Ayer may refer to:*Ayer, Massachusetts, United States *Aller, Asturias, a municipality in Spain known in Asturian as Ayer *Ayer, Switzerland, a municipality in the Val d Anniviers, canton of Valais *Ayer, Val d Hérémence, a village in the canton… …   Wikipedia

  • Alfred Jules Ayer — Sir Alfred Jules Ayer (Londres, 29 de octubre de 1910 ibid., 27 de junio de 1989). Pedagogo y filósofo británico, padre del positivismo lógico. Divulgador en Inglaterra de la obra y de la filosofía del Círculo de Viena. Su obra principal fue… …   Wikipedia Español

  • Alfred — /al fred, frid/, n. a male given name: from the Old English words meaning elf and counsel. * * * I known as Alfred the Great born 849 died 899 King of Wessex (871–99) in southwestern England. He joined his brother Ethelred I in confronting a… …   Universalium

  • Alfred — (as used in expressions) Adler, Alfred Ayer, Sir A(lfred) J(ules) Binet, Alfred Birney, (Alfred) Earle Blalock, Alfred Brauchitsch, (Heinrich Alfred) Walther von Alfred Bryant Renton Leonard Alfred Schneider Alfred Gerald Caplin Cerf, Bennett… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Alfred Jules Ayer — (* 29. Oktober 1910 in St. John’s Wood, London; † 27. Juni 1989) war ein britischer Philosoph. Er trug wesentlich zur Popularisierung des Logischen Empirismus in englischsprachigen Ländern vor allem durch seine Hauptschriften Language, Truth and… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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