A. J. Ayer

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A. J. Ayer bigraphy, stories - English philosopher

A. J. Ayer : biography

29 October 1910 – 27 June 1989

Alfred Jules "Freddie" Ayer (29 October 1910 – 27 June 1989) 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 a Special Operations Executive and MI6 agent during the Second World War. He was the Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at 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.

Life

Ayer was born in St John’s Wood, London, to a wealthy European family. His mother, Reine Citroën, was from the Dutch Jewish family who founded the Citroën car company in France. His father, Jules Ayer, was a Swiss Calvinist financier who worked for the Rothschild family.

He was educated at Ascham St Vincent’s Preparatory School and Eton. It was at Eton that Ayer first became known for his characteristic bravado and precocity. In the final examinations at Eton, Ayer came second in his year, and first in classics. In his final year, as a member of Eton’s senior council, he unsuccessfully campaigned for the abolition of corporal punishment at the school. He won a classics scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford. He served as an officer in the Welsh Guards during World War II, working for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and spying for MI6. He was an extrovert, social mixer and womaniser, and was married four times, including to Dee Wells and Vanessa Salmon (thus becoming stepfather to Nigella Lawson). Reputedly he liked dancing and attending the clubs in London and New York. He was also obsessed with sport: he had played rugby for Eton, and was a noted cricketer and a keen supporter of the Tottenham Hotspur football team. For an academic, Ayer was an unusually well-connected figure in his time, with close links to ‘high-society’ and the establishment. Presiding over Oxford high-tables, he is often described as charming, but at times he could also be intimidating.

In Language, Truth and Logic (1936), Ayer rejected atheism, as he understood it, on the grounds that any religious discourse was meaningless. 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 affirmations 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. He also criticises C A Mace’s opinion"Representation and Expression," Analysis , Vol.1, No.3; "Metaphysics and Emotive Language," Analysis Vol. II, nos. 1 and 2, that metaphysics is a form of intellectual poetry.Language, Truth and Logic 1946/1952, New York/Dover The stance of a person who believes "God" denotes no verifiable hypothesis is sometimes referred to as igtheism (for example, by Paul Kurtz). In later years Ayer did refer to himself as an atheist"I trust that my remaining an atheist will allay the anxieties of my fellow supporters of the British Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press Association and the South Place Ethical Society." (Ayer 1989, p. 12) and stated that he did not believe in God."I do not believe in God. It seems to me that theists of all kinds have very largely failed to make their concept of a deity intelligible; and to the extent that they have made it intelligible, they have given us no reason to think that anything answers to it." Ayer, A.J. (1966). "What I Believe," Humanist, Vol.81 (8) August, p 226. He followed in the footsteps of Bertrand Russell by debating with the Jesuit scholar Frederick Copleston on the topic of religion.