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A J Ayer, 1910-89

From 1946 to 1959, Ayer was a Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at the University College London. In 1959 he became a Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. In 1970 he was knighted: Sir Alfred Jules Ayer. His best-known work: Language, Truth and Logic, was first published in 1936.

Ayer attempted to put more discipline into the use of language. He claimed that statements of value, for example "X is good," or "hurrah for X," are neither true nor false, that in understanding what we are talking about we should differentiate between value-statements and fact.

Regarding statements believed to describe fact, if I say that God exists, that would be a meaningful statement to me and to a lot of other people. But Ayer objects. He is anti-metaphysics. For Ayer a statement is meaningful only if it is either analytic or empirically verifiable.

Ayer asked that his position on the existence of God not be confused with atheism, because claiming that God does not exist also lacks analytic or empirical verifiability. Ayer was agnostic.

Some have said Ayer's work – called logical positivism – could not pass its own test. Ayer's work has been described as most influential in the twentieth century, but passé. 

Here is Ayer in his own words, lifted from Language, Truth and Logic:

We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express – that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false. If, on the other hand, the putative proposition is of such character that the assumption of its truth, or falsehood, is consistent with any assumption whatsoever concerning the nature of his future experience, then, as far as he is concerned, it is, if not a tautology, a mere pseudo-proposition. The sentence expressing it may be emotionally significant to him, but it is not literally significant. And with regard to questions the procedure is the same. We inquire in every case what observations would lead us to answer the question, one way or the other; and, if none can be discovered, we must conclude that the sentence under consideration does not, as far as we are concerned, express a genuine question, however strongly its grammatical appearance may suggest that it does.

Some claim that Ayer was metaphysical in his attempt to prove metaphysics erroneous, but Ayer's position was that large parts of what is traditionally called "philosophy" – including the whole of metaphysics, theology and aesthetics – are not matters that can be judged true or false and therefore it is meaningless to discuss whether they are true or false. Regarding the metaphysics accusation, some of Ayer's critics have not recognized the difference between believing something and saying "I do not know."

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