Language, Truth, and Logic

Language, Truth, and Logic

Classic introduction to objectives & methods of schools of empiricism & linguistic analysis, especially of the logical positivism derived from the Vienna Circle. Topics: elimination of metaphysics, function of philosophy, nature of philosophical analysis, the a priori, truth & probability, critique of ethics & theology, self & the common world etc. Classic introduction to objectives & methods of schools of empiricism & linguistic analysis, especially of the logical positivism derived from the ...

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Title:Language, Truth, and Logic
Author:A.J. Ayer
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Edition Language:English

Language, Truth, and Logic Reviews

  • Kenghis Khan

    Polemical? Yes. Dogmatic? Sure. Pretentious? Absolutely.

    This is still among my favorite books of all time. You will never look at the world the same way ever again after reading it. It changed my life. And for the better.

  • David Gross

    Brash, ballsy, brainy, take-no-prisoners philosophy from a guy who was in his mid-twenties.

    Now I understand why logical positivism and its ilk got such an enthusiastic response.

    Much of what is marketed today as philosophy isn't philosophy. It's so mistaken that it isn't even coherent enough to be wrong. Metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, theology, and their cousins are all hereby banished. All of the opinions that have been expressed on these topics are agglomerations of wo/>Shorter

    Brash, ballsy, brainy, take-no-prisoners philosophy from a guy who was in his mid-twenties.

    Now I understand why logical positivism and its ilk got such an enthusiastic response.

    Much of what is marketed today as philosophy isn't philosophy. It's so mistaken that it isn't even coherent enough to be wrong. Metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, theology, and their cousins are all hereby banished. All of the opinions that have been expressed on these topics are agglomerations of words that are impenetrable by meaningful philosophical investigation and are therefore meaningless linguistic artifacts that can be of no interest except to disciplines like psychology, sociology, & anthropology. I shall now go on to solve the mind/body and idealism vs. realism non-problems, the monist/pluralist debate, reveal the nature of the self, and abolish all "schools" of philosophy as superfluous, so that we can get on with business.

  • Bob Nichols

    In the preface (to the first edition) Ayer gives his argument in a nutshell. Regarding a metaphysical assertion, he writes “that there is a non-empirical world of values, or that men have immortal souls, or that there is a transcendent god is neither true nor false but literally senseless.” Truth and knowledge are statements that can be validated by experience.* From this, he titles his first chapter, “The Elimination of Metaphysics,” by which he means that metaphysics is not philosophy. Philoso

    In the preface (to the first edition) Ayer gives his argument in a nutshell. Regarding a metaphysical assertion, he writes “that there is a non-empirical world of values, or that men have immortal souls, or that there is a transcendent god is neither true nor false but literally senseless.” Truth and knowledge are statements that can be validated by experience.* From this, he titles his first chapter, “The Elimination of Metaphysics,” by which he means that metaphysics is not philosophy. Philosophy’s function, rather, is to excise speculative (metaphysics) and a priori truths from language and to prepare assertions of truth (propositions) for scientific validation (verification).

    Though he dismisses normative absolutes,** Ayer asks “whether statements of ethical value can be translated into statements of empirical fact.” As I understand his response to this question, Ayer is open to the philosophical-scientific analysis of value, but only after such value is posited (i.e., not as a fact, but simply, as a preferred value). As a patient or a doctor might posit health as a higher-end value, an analysis can indicate those treatment or behavior factors that are necessary to obtain the posited value. Viewed this way, the higher-end values in traditional ethical philosophy such as the Good, freedom, pleasure, justice, equality still are unverifiable metaphysical assertions. But as posited values precisely stipulated, they are nevertheless amenable to analysis regarding what factual steps are necessary as means to obtain the said, posited end.***

    Ayer’s argument then seems to morph into a different sort of philosophical (scientific?) analysis that asks about the reasons why one might hold such beliefs such as, “What are the moral habits of a given person or group of people, and what causes them to have precisely those habits and feelings? Rather than consistency, Ayer is now looking at the factual explanation for various, valued beliefs, and this enquiry he says falls wholly within the scope of the existing social sciences. From here, Ayer says we can “account for the Kantian and hedonistic theories of morals. For one finds that one of the chief causes of moral behavior is fear, both conscious and unconscious, of a god’s displeasure, and fear of the enmity of society. And this, indeed, is the reason why moral precepts present themselves to some people as ‘categorical’ commands.’” He uses the same approach for aesthetics. We can, he says, look into the causes of aesthetic feeling, “why various societies produced and admired the works of art they did, why taste varies as it does within a given society, and so forth. And these are ordinary psychological or sociological questions.”

    But Ayer does not go beyond posited ends. He is jaded, rightly, by assertions of metaphysical absolutes and Kantian-like a priori truths, though he also states that “naturalistic” theories of ethics, which appear to be utilitarian pleasure-pain calculations, are no better. Pleasure and pain are anything but absolute. Ayer states that they are the emotive expressions of the subjective self. But here I lost his trail. In his chapter on “The Self and the Common World,” Ayer says he disagrees with Hume’s belief that there is no self because we are the products of our collective sensory experiences. Ayer seems to be saying that this gives us a self-identity, but it is, and can be, only a sui generis self, a private self that has been formed by life experiences and the environment.****

    With the renewed appreciation for the role of evolutionary science in human behavior, Ayer’s objection to a naturalistic ethic needs to be revisited. Who or what, exactly, is this private self? From an evolutionary science perspective, the private self is also an objective self who seeks to live (and replicate). That is a factual statement (though humans can override the survival instinct, that’s quibbling about the main point). Ayer himself seems to acknowledge this when he writes that “our ability to make successful predictions depends the satisfaction of even our simplest desires, including the desire to survive.” Yet with that desire comes a suite of species-wide, and evolutionarily-derived, behaviors that may also be seen as objective. These are the needs for nurture, for security, for protection and for the freedom to pursue and defend these needs. Ayer backs his way into this same line of thought when he writes about the general role of fear and the specific concern about the “enmity of society.” Where does this fear come from? Why does one care about what society thinks? Is there not something about ourselves that precedes and explains the reasons why X, Y, and Z are relevant, as opposed to A, B, and C, and isn’t this, ultimately, about evolutionary survival?

    It is not inaccurate for Ayer to say that we are formed by our experiences, but it is not quite right either. Fear is a factual, human universal, but the content of fear differs with the situation. Modern-day fears (car accidents) differ from the fears of the hunter-gatherer (drought-famine), but the underlying form, fear, is the same. The need to be part of group life is another human universal but the customs and mores of each group varies. Group life is like language. It’s a universal form that varies in content.

    Even if Ayer cannot accept the concept of a universal, biological self, his approach still allows for a philosophical-scientific treatment.***** Rather than assert that survival, and the underlying species behavioral structures that go with this, is an absolute value, it can be posited as a value. Then Ayer’s approach allows for an analysis about what constitutes, factually, the means to get there. But the answer to that question, ultimately, might be boiled down to two different poles (as seen throughout our history): We can respect the freedom to pursue ends, which limits overly assertive behavior, or we can endorse the “might is right” approach with its winner-take-all approach. Interestingly, from an evolutionary point of view, there is no preference for one approach over the other. Here too Ayer is correct: one cannot state, factually, that one approach is better than the other. Evolution, as with the cosmos, doesn’t care.

    I was encouraged to read this book by a philosopher friend. The book was excellent.

    *Ayer adds that such validation is and can never be absolute as, in theory, exceptions are possible. He writes that “what is irrational is to look for a guarantee where none can be forthcoming; to demand certainty where probability is all that is obtainable.” He adds, though, that “whereas a scientific generalization is readily admitted to be fallible, the truths of mathematics and logic appear to everyone to be necessary and certain.”

    **Their existence in the supra-sensible world means they are not subject to empirical verification.

    ***“[W]e find that argument is possible on moral questions only if some system of values is presupposed. If our opponent concurs with us in expressing moral disapproval of all actions of a given type t, then we may get him to condemn a particular action A, by bringing forward arguments to show that A is of type t. For the question whether A does or does not belong to that type is a plain question of fact. Given that a man has certain moral principles, we argue that he must, in order to be consistent, react morally to certain things in a certain way. What we do not and cannot argue about is the validity of these moral principles.”

    ****“We know that a self, if it is not to be treated as a metaphysical entity, must be held to be a logical construction out of sense-experiences. It is, in fact, a logical construction out of the sense-experiences which constitute the actual and possible sense-history of a self….it follows necessarily that the series of sense-experience which constitute the sense-histories of different selves cannot have any members in common. And this is tantamount to saying that it is logically impossible for a sense-experience to belong to the sense history of more than a single self.”

    *****Philosophy, Ayer says, works with science, not separately from it. Still, there’s a fuzzy line between the two, raising the question whether “philosophy,” as defined by Ayer, has a distinctively significant role to play in scientific analysis.

  • Elena Holmgren

    A work that usefully lays out some of the key arguments for seeing the status of metaphysical knowledge as being crucially dependent on the theory of meaning. The arguments (and, especially, the rhetorical maneuvers) provided by this book have crucially contributed to the linguistic turn in 20th century thought, which was a philosophical approach aimed at reducing metaphysical questions to questions about the proper use of symbolism. This is the essence of Ayer's (in)famous "elimination" of meta

    A work that usefully lays out some of the key arguments for seeing the status of metaphysical knowledge as being crucially dependent on the theory of meaning. The arguments (and, especially, the rhetorical maneuvers) provided by this book have crucially contributed to the linguistic turn in 20th century thought, which was a philosophical approach aimed at reducing metaphysical questions to questions about the proper use of symbolism. This is the essence of Ayer's (in)famous "elimination" of metaphysics: he follows the early Wittgenstein in seeing metaphysical problems as the result of a pathological misuse of language. This misuse occurs especially through a reification of grammatical forms which treats these as fundamental ontological structures. This linguistic reification procedure, in Ayer's estimation, basically generates the entire subject matter of metaphysics. On Ayer's view, the metaphysician is not even a failed poet, for the poet sometimes accidentally tells the truth about experience, while the metaphysician never even in principle does. The great problems of metaphysics aren't even fiction; they are nonsense.

    Ayer proposes his verification criterion of meaning as a universal acid test of valid philosophical theorizing. That is, the criterion states that a theory is meaningful if and only if it is cobbled together out of observed facts and/or analytic (logical or mathematical) truths. Metaphysics, as a whole, fails his meaningfulness test. Its questions cannot even be coherently formulated. Thus, a metaphysical question such as "What is the meaning of life?" has as much sense as "Gur Gar Glarglr." One might wonder, then, how intelligible debate on these questions is possible at all. And, rightly seen, ethics is just a collection of emotive squeaks of approval and grunts of disapproval.

    The question is whether one CAN adopt a metaphysically-neutral stance from which one can go on to critique all other metaphysics, as Ayer attempts to do, or whether any possible perspective implies "ontological commitments," as Quine would go on to point out. I am of the latter persuasion. I hold that any coherent perspective requires, for its explanation, a rather robust metaphysics. Ayer's logical empiricism is no exception. So the first trouble I have with his theory is that it is metaphysically dishonest: it (necessarily, if only implicitly) projects a metaphysics without offering us the resources required to make it explicit and to critically evaluate it. By keeping his metaphysics a closeted affair, he renders it immune from criticism. This leads him to selectively pour acid on all OTHERS' ontological commitments while being self-effacing about his own by affecting a position of absolute neutrality. This move seems fairly commonplace in the Analytic philosophy I have read thus far (i.e. Frege, Russell, Moore, the early Wittgenstein). Linguistic philosophy for this reason cannot provide a basis for eliminating metaphysics.

    The second problem I have with his theory of meaning is that it implies an unstable position that nobody can actually occupy. We just can't derive the continuous field of experience from this theory; too much is "eliminated" as senseless that seems crucial to holding an integrated perspective on the world. For one, there's the metaphysical necessity that we must postulate in order to explain the continuity of our experience of the world. That can't be reduced to logical necessity, as Ayer and Wittgenstein suggest. In the end, even if the status of metaphysics may depend on our theory of meaning, the theory of meaning must itself depend on our best account of experience. You can't just build a theory of meaning in a phenomenological vacuum, as if the absurdities that follow when we try to account for lived experience using this theory of meaning don't count. A coherent empiricism must merge with the data of phenomenology.

    And whatever happened to Kant? One would think that his first Critique had already in many ways refuted many of the foundational tenets of this analytical approach. Why do all the Analytics basically ignore Kant's arguments for the synthetic a priori as a category of knowledge? Are they right in doing so? Or is it maybe that their failure to understand Kant on this point is what leads to these phenomenologically absurd, eliminativist views that nobody can actually, coherently entertain in practice? My own opinion is that Analytic philosophy is the dead end street you get stuck into when you fail to understand Kant. We can better understand the limits of metaphysical knowledge through Kant's framework, by mapping the structure of cognition from within.

    All objections aside, this work has set the agenda for a thriving cottage industry in Anglo-American philosophy during the last century. The overriding motive seems to be to show how the philosophical tradition is nothing but a cesspool of delusion. One can win at this game if one can show that everybody - but oneself! - is a fool that is duped by his own comforting illusions. As a philosopher, one must above all stand apart as the intransingent illusion-busting demystifier. There's something of a hero rescue narrative that Ayer is rhetorically playing up here, and one that his countless ideological clones among the Analysts would also attempt to replicate. This hero narrative supplies a large part of the force that his arguments alone fails to generate. Contemporaries such as Dan Dennett are indebted for much of their rhetorical ammo to Ayer. He has defined what philosophy means for at least two generations of philosophers around these parts, and continues to do so to this day, for better or for worse. Thus, he is an intellectual force for everyone to contend with.

  • Jibran

    I remember this book fondly, for in the hauteur of my youth I identified with the author's arguments in toto perhaps because I was the same age as he when he'd written this book.

    Ayer operates from an absolute position: all legitimate knowledge is empirical knowledge and everything that exists outside the realm of the senses is mythical mumbo-jumbo one will do well to get rid of. H

    I remember this book fondly, for in the hauteur of my youth I identified with the author's arguments in toto perhaps because I was the same age as he when he'd written this book.

    Ayer operates from an absolute position: all legitimate knowledge is empirical knowledge and everything that exists outside the realm of the senses is mythical mumbo-jumbo one will do well to get rid of. He attacks metaphysics from the get-go and argues for its "elimination" from the philosophical discourse, which, to him, is not worth wasting time over, as it does not lead to conclusions grounded in

    . Theology, ethics, aesthetics are stuff of the linguistic mind games of the dark ages.

    I kept nodding in agreement to Ayer's argument, taken in by his ability to compress hard discourse in intelligible, impressive language.

    I don't know if he matured later on; I did not follow his intellectual journey so I cannot view this treatise in the light of his subsequent writings. But this book remains a stern reminder of the superiority of logical positivism written in a godlike style, that sometimes reads like a gospel to its staunch believers.

  • Elliott Bignell

    Historically, this is an important work for the English-and American-speaking worlds because it largely brought the thinking of the Vienna Circle to public attention. Logical positivism has taken a series of blows in the intervening time, including Gödel's Theorem and the uncertainty unleashed by modern physics, and more recently by our increased understanding of neuroscience. There is still much that I would agree with in this synopsis, and more where I would say that Ayer has a point. His reje

    Historically, this is an important work for the English-and American-speaking worlds because it largely brought the thinking of the Vienna Circle to public attention. Logical positivism has taken a series of blows in the intervening time, including Gödel's Theorem and the uncertainty unleashed by modern physics, and more recently by our increased understanding of neuroscience. There is still much that I would agree with in this synopsis, and more where I would say that Ayer has a point. His rejection of metaphysics, for instance, I cannot really contest as it stands, although I think he defines metaphysics in advance in a way that guarantees his outcome.

    Much of logical positivism is recognisable to any adolescent advocate of scientism, or even student of Hume. He basically repeats (and quotes) Hume's dictum that if a work contains neither analytical tautologies nor empirically-verifiable assertions then one should use it as Winter fuel. His case seems solid, but incomplete. There are obviously fields such as law and ethics where values seem to be perfectly useful, or even indispensable. One could use evolutionary science to say that these can be reduced to utilitarian or adaptive predispositions of the physical brain, but this seems a stretch to me. Ethical reasoning may require neural subsystems based on clan life on the Savanna, but the body of reasoning comprising modern law could not be mastered by a pre-literate culture or single brain. It seems to me to be emergent, and therefore legitimately to involve operations which cannot be reduced to evolutionary or neural empirical statements.

    Unfortunately, the work is a bit dry and not all that easy to follow. I cannot quite say why, as the English is clear enough, but it somehow lacks an animating spirit that keeps the beginning of a sentence alive until I reach the end.

  • Roy Lotz

    SOC: Hello? How may I help you?

    AYER: Hello! My name is Alfred Jules Ayer, but most people call me Freddie. How are you today?

    SOC: I’m fine, quite fine, thanks. Are you selling something? Because I’m a

    SOC: Hello? How may I help you?

    AYER: Hello! My name is Alfred Jules Ayer, but most people call me Freddie. How are you today?

    SOC: I’m fine, quite fine, thanks. Are you selling something? Because I’m afraid I am not interested…

    AYER: Oh, no—no, no. I’m a member of the Vienna Circle, and I'm going door to door to promote our doctrine of logical positivism. It’s the amazing new doctrine that solves all philosophical problems now and for good. May I come in?

    SOC: Really? Is that so? Yes, sure, come in. Sit down here on the couch.

    AYER: Thanks for letting me in! You’re the first one all week. Most people seem to think I’m a Mormon.

    Nice place you got here. What do you do, if I may ask?

    SOC: Oh, me? People think I’m a philosopher, but I just like to ask questions.

    AYER: A philosopher? Neat! Well, then you’ll be real glad to hear what I have to say!

    SOC: I don’t doubt it. So what’s this, um… logical positivism? Is it a religion?

    AYER: A religion? Of course not! Logical positivism is the opposite of a religion! It’s a doctrine that tells us everything we ever want to know. If you learn about logical positivism, you’ll never be wrong again. Every problem you’ve ever asked about philosophy will be answered!

    SOC: Wow, that sounds impressive… How does it work?

    AYER: It’s simple! Here: let me demonstrate it by solving a philosophical problem. What’s something you want resolved?

    SOC: Well, I’ve always been a bit puzzled by Hume’s problem of induction. I’m not at all satisfied with Kant’s treatment of it, and even Russell seems to shrug his shoulders.

    AYER: The problem of induction? That’s child’s play! Let me read the solution from my new book, and you’ll see the answer clearly.

    Language, Truth, and Logic

    “… it appears that there is no possible way of solving the problem of induction, as it is ordinarily conceived. And this means that it is a fictitious problem, since all genuine problems are at least theoretically capable of being solved: and the credit of natural science is not impaired by the fact that some philosophers continue to be puzzled by it.”

    SOC: So, wait. You’re saying that because you can’t figure out a way to solve the problem, it’s not a real problem?

    AYER: Exactly! That’s the beauty of logical positivism! Anything that you can’t solve you just decide isn’t a real problem. Isn’t that great?

    SOC: Really, is that all you have to do?

    AYER: Well, you have to wave your hand around a bit, but that’s the general idea.

    SOC: Hmm, how about another problem, like ethics. What do logical positivists say about what it means to do the right or wrong thing?

    AYER: Ethics? Oh, please! That’s another easy one. Let me find the right passage. Here it is: “We can now see why it is impossible to find a criterion for determining the validity of ethical judgements. It is not because they have ‘absolute’ validity which is mysteriously independent of ordinary sense-experience, but because they have no objective validity whatsoever.”

    SOC: Ah, I understand now. You’re saying that, since you can’t figure out a way to shoehorn ethical statements into your system, they aren’t real statements at all. Is that right?

    AYER: Absolutely! That’s how it all works. All you have to do is say what you think—no argument is needed at all! And anyone who disagrees with you, just call them a metaphysician with a sneer.

    SOC: So what’s the upshot of all this?

    AYER: The upshot? Philosophy is over! It’s really incredible: all these smart philosopher-guys thought about all this stuff for thousands of years. But the solution was so obvious! Just stop having substantive arguments, and start dismissing everyone who disagrees with you as a befuddled moron. That way, you can be sure to get at the truth.

    SOC: Wow, that’s quite a strategy. But I’m still a little curious about the specifics. For example, how do logical positivists deal with the question of truth?

    AYER: Oh, Socrates, you ask the silliest questions! Well first, we just take an idea from Kant and Hume, and divide up all statements into analytic and synthetic statements. Then, we take an idea from William James, and insist that nothing is meaningful unless it is either a tautology or can be verified in experience. So that’s all of truth, either tautologies or science. It’s called the verification principle.

    SOC: Interesting approach there… But, I wonder, what about this ‘verification principle' itself? How does

    fit into the system? How is this principle either empirical or a tautology? Clearly, the verification principle

    doesn’t picture any facts; in other words, the principle itself can’t be verified—so it's not empirical. (Also, it would be absurd to verify a principle with the principle itself; that leads to a

    .) Then, in order for it not to be meaningless, in your view, it must be a tautology. But it clearly isn’t a logical contradiction to assert that there are other criteria we might use to distinguish truth from falsity than the verification principle. So since the principle itself is clearly neither empirical nor a tautology, how can you justify it in your system?

    AYER:

    it? We don’t

    things. We assert that it’s true, and anyone who points out the contradictions we then assert are metaphysicians.

    SOC: Wow, I see. Let me see if I get it. First you take ideas from other philosophers, then you throw them together into a half-coherent system, and finally you yell at anyone who disagrees. Is that right?

    AYER: You got it! Logical positivism! You know, Socrates, you’re really a quick learner. Now there is no longer any legitimate reason to disagree with someone in philosophy. If they’re logical positivists, they’re right; and if not, they’re wrong. The Vienna Circle has arrived at the truth, and no further work need be done! As I say in my book: "One of the main objects of this treatise has been to show that there is nothing in the nature of philosophy to warrant the existence of conflicting philosophical parties or 'schools.'" In other words, now that we figured everything out, there isn't any good reason to fundamentally disagree with us. So all you have to do is join us, adopt our dogmas, and you will be saved from all falsity and metaphysics; you can believe exactly what we believe, and read the holy books of Russell and Wittgenstein and Hume.

    SOC

    : Actually, I have to go somewhere… so I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave. But it was nice talking to you.

    AYER

    : Oh, of course! Can I leave a book with you?

    SOC: Sure…

    AYER: Alright.

    Nice talking with you. I hope to again!

    SOC: Yep, yep.

    XAN: Who was that, dear?

    SOC: Oh, never mind him, honey. Just a Mormon.

  • Ali Reda

    This book is the English explanation of the main doctrine of Vienna Circle, an association of philosophers that applied verificationism on Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus which formed the basis for the group's philosophy. Ayer wrote: "Wittgenstein did not then figure in the Oxford curriculum, and I knew nothing about him at all until I started to read this book. Its effect on me was overwhelming ... This was exactly what I wanted, the very conclusions I had been groping towards on

    This book is the English explanation of the main doctrine of Vienna Circle, an association of philosophers that applied verificationism on Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus which formed the basis for the group's philosophy. Ayer wrote: "Wittgenstein did not then figure in the Oxford curriculum, and I knew nothing about him at all until I started to read this book. Its effect on me was overwhelming ... This was exactly what I wanted, the very conclusions I had been groping towards on my own. All the difficulties that had perplexed me were instantly removed?"

    Ayer starts by defining a few terms: A sentence is factually significant if, and only if, we know how to verify the proposition it purports to express that is, if we know what observations would lead us to accept the proposition as true or reject it as false. A proposition is analytic when its validity depends solely on the definitions of the symbols it contains, and synthetic when its validity is determined by the facts of experience. A proposition is verifiable in the strong sense if, and only if, its truth could be conclusively established by experience. But If we adopt conclusive verifiability as our criterion of significance, our argument will prove too much, for even general laws such as "all men are mortal" or "arsenic is poisonous" cannot be established with certainty by any finite number of observations. So we need a weak verification principle "if it is possible for experience to render it probable".

    Applying this weak verification principle leads us to say Metaphysical sentences, ethics and atheistic are nonsensical; only tautologies (a priori truth) and empirical hypotheses are significant propositions.

    For example, rationalists uphold, and empiricists reject, the idea that there is a supra-sensible world accessible to intuition and alone wholly real. We have already seen that it is senseless. And therefore we are entitled to deny the possibility of such a world and to dismiss as nonsensical the descriptions which have been given of it. Also We have no empirical grounds for believing that mind and matter are independent.

    Also It is impossible to find a criterion for determining the validity of ethical judgements. When someone disagrees with us about moral value we do not attempt to show that he has wrong ethical feelings. We attempt to show that he is mistaken about the facts of the case, or we employ general arguments about which actions produce what effect. But if our opponent has had different moral conditioning from ourselves so that, even when he acknowledges all the facts he still disagrees, we say that it is impossible to argue with him because he has a distorted moral sense. On this view it is impossible to dispute questions of value, only questions of fact. Our judgement that it is so is itself a moral judgement, and so outside the scope of argument. Kant accused metaphysicians of ignoring the limits of understanding, we accuse them of disobeying the rules of significant language.

    Also the view that philosophy is the business of building a system of first principles and to offer them and their consequences as a complete picture of reality is abondened. This is illustrated in the barrenness of Descartes system, where he attempts to base all our knowledge on the 'cogito' But according to Ayer, he was mistaken, for 'I exist' does not follow from 'there is a thought now'. The fact that a thought occurs at a given moment does not entail that any other thought has occurred at any other moment. As Hume showed, no one event intrinsically points to any other. We infer the existence of events which we are not actually observing, with the help of general principles. But these principles must be obtained inductively. By mere deduction from what is immediately given we cannot advance a single step beyond.

    The most that philosophy can do is to show what are the criteria used to determine the truth or falsehood of any given proposition. And this applies equally to science as to common sense. The propositions of philosophy are not factual, we may say that philosophy is a branch of logic, concerned with the formal consequences of our definitions and not with questions of empirical fact. Philosophy is wholly critical, an activity of linguistic analysis. Philosophy is not concerned with meaning, but with definitions in use. We define a symbol in use, not by saying that it is synonymous with some other symbol, but by showing how the sentences in which it significantly occurs can be translated into equivalent sentences, which contain neither the definiendum itself, nor any of its synonyms. (Analyze the symbols). A complete philosophical elucidation of any language would consist in enumerating the types of sentence significant in that language, and then displaying the relations of equivalence that held between sentences of various types. This is made complicated in languages such as English by the prevalence of ambiguous symbols. If we were guided merely by the form of the sign, we should assume that the 'is' in the sentence 'He is the author of that book' was the same as that in 'A cat is a mammal'. 'is' is an ambiguous symbol for existence, class-membership, identity and entailment. Accordingly, one should avoid saying that philosophy is concerned with the meaning of symbols, because the ambiguity of their 'meaning' on different groups of people. Thus there arc many people for whom these sentences do, in this common sense of 'meaning', have different meanings.

    The principles of logic and mathematics are true universally and the reason for this is that we cannot abandon them without contradicting ourselves so they are analytic propositions or tautologies. They lack factual content. One might pardonably suppose the propositions of geometry to by synthetic. For it is natural for us to think, as Kant thought, that geometry is the study of the properties of physical space. We conclude, then, that the: propositions of pure geometry are analytic. And this leads us to reject Kant's hypothesis that geometry deals with the form of intuition of our outer sense. His own Theory is that the sense of invention and discovery in mathematics belongs to it in virtue of mathematical induction, the principle that what is true for the number 1, and true for n + 1 when it is true for n, u is true for all numbers. And he claims that this is a as 'true for a when it is true for n+ I', synthetic a priori principle. It is, in fact, a priori, but it is not synthetic. It is a defining principle of the natural numbers. As Poincaré says: 'If all the assertions which mathematics puts forward can be derived from one another by formal logic, mathematics cannot account to anything more than an immense tautology'. A being whose intellect was infinitely powerful would take no interest in logic and mathematics. For he would see at a glance everything that his definitions implied. But our intellects are not of this order. Even so simple a tautology as 91x79=7189 is beyond the scope of our immediate apprehension and requires us to resort to calculation, which is simply a process of tautological transformation.

    This brings us to God. The existence of regularity in nature does not prove "God exists", unless by that you just mean "there is regularity in nature". Unlike atheists (who say god does not exist) or agnostics (who say god might exist), we hold that no statement about god can possess any literal significance. And our view that all utterances about the nature of God are nonsensical. For if the assertion that there is a god is non-sensical then the atheist's assertion that there is no god is equally nonsensical. As for the agnostic, although he refrains from saying either that there is or that there is not a god, he does not deny that the question whether a transcendent god exists is a genuine question. He docs not deny that the two sentences 'There is a transcendent god' and 'There is no transcendent god' express propositions one of which is actually true and the other false. All he says is that we have no means of telling which of them is true. Thus we offer the theist the same comfort we gave to the moralist. His assertions Cannot possibly be valid, but they cannot be invalid either. As he says nothing at all about the world, he cannot justly be accused of saying anything false, or anything for which he has insufficient grounds. It is only when the theist claims that in asserting the existence of a transcendent god he is expressing a genuine proposition that we are entitled to disagree with him. Where deities are identified with natural objects I may conclude that the words "Jehovah is angry" mean exactly the same thing as, for instance, "it is thundering". But sophisticated religions foster the illusion that god is real by giving the concept a noun. In fact our views accord with theists, to whom God is a mystery which transcends human understanding, and therefore cannot significantly be described. An interesting feature of this conclusion is that it accords with what many theists are accustomed to say themselves. For we are often told that the nature of God is a mystery which transcends the human understanding. But to say that something transcends the human understanding is to say that it is unintelligible. And what is unintelligible cannot significantly be described. Again, we are told that God is not an object of reason but an object of faith, since it cannot be proved. If a mystic admits that the object of his vision is something which cannot be described, then he must also admit that he is bound to talk nonsense when he describes it.

    Assertions that an object exists are always synthetic propositions; and it has been shown that no synthetic proposition is logically sacrosanct. It is only tautologies which are certain. So it seems advisable to speak of the 'occurrence' of sense-contents and experience not objects. For realists and also Berkeley 'x is real' or 'x exists' is equivalent to 'x is perceived'. This is a mistake on their part because we have seen that sense-contents are not in any way parts of the material things which they constitute, thus it is possible for a material thing to exist without being perceived. Like a chair in the dark for example. Just as I must define material things and my own self in terms of their empirical manifestations, so I must define other people in terms of their empirical manifestations- that is, in terms of the behaviour of their bodies. Thus I have as good a reason to believe in the existence of other people as I have to believe in the existence of material things.

    The existence of a 'substantive ego' is completely unverifiable. If it is not revealed in self-consciousness, then it is not revealed anywhere. It is clearly no more significant to assert that an 'unobservable somewhat' underlies the 'self' than it is to assert that an 'unobserved somewhat' underlies material things. Hume, rejected the notion of a substantive ego on the ground that no such entity was observable. For, he said, whenever he entered most intimately into what he called himself, he always stumbled on some particular perception or other — of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure, He never could catch himself at any time without a perception, and never could observe anything but the perception. And this led him to assert that a self was 'nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions'. We accord with Hume in accepting that memory does not produce personal identity, but we solve his problem of personal identity in terms of bodily identity and bodily identity is to be defined in terms of the resemblance and continuity of sense-contents. And this procedure is justified by the fact that whereas it is permissible, in our language, to speak of a man as surviving a complete loss of memory, or a complete change of character, it is self-contradictory to speak of a man as surviving the annihilation of his body.' For that which is supposed to survive by those who look forward to a 'life after death' is not the empirical self, but a metaphysical entity - the soul. And this metaphysical entity, concerning which no genuine hypothesis can be formulated, has no logical connexion whatsoever with the self.

    We do not hold, as be apparently did, that every general hypothesis is, in fact, a generalization from a number of observed instances, We agree with the rationalists that the process by which scientific theories come into being is often deductive rather than inductive. The scientist does not formulate his laws only as the result of seeing them exemplified in particular cases. Sometimes he considers the possibility of the law before he is in possession of the evidence which justifies it. It 'occurs' to him that a certain hypothesis or set of hypotheses may be true. He employs deductive reasoning to discover what he ought to experience in a given situation if the hypothesis is true; and if he makes the required observations, or has reason to believe that he could make them, he accepts the hypothesis. He does not, as Hume implied, passively wait for nature to instruct him; rather, as Kant saw, does he force nature to answer the questions which he puts to her, So that there is a sense in which the rationalists are right in asserting that the mind is active in knowledge. But it is true that the activity of theorizing is, in its subjective aspect, a creative activity, and that the psychological theories of empiricists concerning 'the origins of our knowledge' are vitiated by their failure to take this Into account. But while it must be recognized that scientific laws are often discovered through a process of intuition, this does not mean that they can be intuitively validated.

    Regardless of the problems in the verification principle, saying that senseless propositions are meaningless is wrong. saying that the inexpressible is meaningless is wrong. Ayer later admitted that "the outlook of the Tractatus was misunderstood by the members of the Vienna Circle and the young English philosophers, including myself, who were strongly influenced by it". As Wittgenstein summrised "There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical" and "What can be shown cannot be said".

  • Richard

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  • Andrew

    Logical positivism, while massively influential, is widely regarded as a failure, and this is the manifesto of that failed movement. For that reason, unless you are a serious student of philosophy, there's not much point in reading Language, Truth, and Logic, especially given that Ayer's own principle of verification has been more or less completely replaced in the scientific community by Popper's principle of falsification. And I mean, the very concept of analytic vs. synthetic propositions on

    Logical positivism, while massively influential, is widely regarded as a failure, and this is the manifesto of that failed movement. For that reason, unless you are a serious student of philosophy, there's not much point in reading Language, Truth, and Logic, especially given that Ayer's own principle of verification has been more or less completely replaced in the scientific community by Popper's principle of falsification. And I mean, the very concept of analytic vs. synthetic propositions on which the book is based was undercut by Quine... and Ayer, honest man that he was, owned up to this. The one thing that remains awesome that a young Ayer pioneered was the notion of something not even being false, just being meaningless. That's about as good a bitchslap as any.

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