Scholar, Eton College. Scholar with honors 1st class in Literature Hum., Christ Church Oxford, 1932. Master of Arts, Christ Church Oxford, 1936.
Doctor honorary, University Brussels, 1962. Doctor of Literature honorary, East Anglia, 1972. Doctor of Literature honorary, University Trent.
Doctor of Literature honorary, London University. Doctor of Literature honorary, Durham University. Doctor of Humane Letters honorary, Bard College, 1983.
Lecturer in philosophy Christ Church, 1932-1935, research student, 1935-1944. Fellow Wadham College, Oxford, England, 1944-1946, honorary fellow England, 1957, dean England, 1945-1946. Grote professor philosophy of mind and logic University London, 1946-1959, dean arts faculty, 1950-1952.
Wykeham professor logic University Oxford, 1959-1978. Fellow New College, University Oxford, 1959-1978, honorary fellow, 1980. Fellow Wolfson College, 1978-1983.
Honorary fellow College University London, 1979. Visiting professor New York University, 1948-1949, City College of New York, 1961-1962, Surrey University, 1978, Bard College, from 1986. Montgomery fellow Dartmouth College, 1982-1983.
Ayer impressed himself emphatically on the philosophical consciousness of his age with the publication of Language. Truth and Logic in 1936.
For the rest of his long career he was largely engaged in developing the ideas it contained, often by attenuating them. Its striking effect was due to a number of factors: the provocative nature and expression of its contents, its notable literary merits, perhaps, even, its refreshing brevity.
The ideas it put forward were not without British exponents—Russell. Moore and the marginally British Wittgenstein—and, before them, W. K. Clifford and Karl Pearson. But they had been passed through the Vienna Circle, which had endowed them with a particularly uncompromising character. The first, and crucial, thesis was that a sentence is significant only if it is verifiable by experience.
From this it follows that metaphysics, to the extent that it claims to supply information about what lies beyond or behind experience, is impossible. Metaphysical sentences are without meaning and so neither true nor false. From this elimination of metaphysics it follows, in turn, that the only proper business of philosophy is analysis, the definition, in some sense, of intellectually essential words and types of sentence.
The definitions in question will not be explicit definitions of the sort to be found in a dictionary. They will be definitions in use, or ‘contextual’ definitions, giving rules for translating sentences in which a problematic term occurs into sentences in which only less problematic, epistemologically more elementary, terms are to be found. There is, however, one kind of non-cmpirical. a priori, sentence which has an acceptable method of verification. This is the kind of sentence of which logic, mathematics and, it turns out, philosophy proper are composed.
These sentences arc analytic: true in virtue of the meaning of the terms they contain. In elementary cases they cannot be understood unless their truth, is acknowledged. Others, whose truth is not intuitively obvious, can be derived from them by proofs which rely on rules which themselves correspond to evidently analytic truths. The most disconcerting consequence of the verification principle was the insignificance and emptiness, not of metaphysics, but of moral utterances and of the doctrines of religion.
Religious creeds are transcendentally metaphysical. The basic terms of morality and evaluation generally—good, right, ought—are neither natural, that is to say empirical nor can there be non-cmpirical properties for them to apply to. The function of value-judgements is to express the emotions, favourable or unfavourable, of the speaker and to arouse, in a way that is neither explained nor evidently explainable, similar emotions in the hearer. Attempts at the constructive task of analysis are made on material objects, the past, the self and the minds of others.
What is empirically given in perception is sense-data, momentary and private to the perceiver, so, Ayer concluded, material objects must be logical constructions out of actual and possible sense-data. Mill’s phenomenalism stated in more linguistic terms. The self, equally, is not an underlying substratum of experience, but the series, in each case, of the experiences each of which contains as an clement an experience of a particular, identifiable human body.
Since experiences can enter into the construction of both bodies and minds they are neither mental nor physical, but neutral, in the style of neutral monism, as in Russell. Past events are startlingly analysed in terms of the future experiences which will verify their occurrence. Other people’s minds are analysed in terms of their empirical manifestations in bodily behaviour. Ayer's next book.
Foundations of Empirical Knowledge (1940), develops in quite persuasive detail the phenomenalist account of material objects briefly sketched in its predecessor. A wholly original idea—that theories of perception are ‘alternative languages', proposals, to be justified by their convenience, for discussing the facts of perception—was soon abandoned without traces. There is further consideration of the problem of other minds, reinstating the argument from analogy by the supposition that it is only a contingent fact that another's experience is his and not mine.
Ayer also gives up his earlier thesis that no empirical proposition can be known for certain to be true. He dilutes his phenomenalism by the admission that statements about material objects cannot strictly be translated into statements about sense-data. The two can be correlated only in an indefinite and schematic way. Further concessions appear in the substantial introduction to the second edition of Language.
Truth and Logic, ten years after its first publication. The chief of these concern the verification principle. It had originally been stated in a ‘weak’ form, as requiring, not conclusive verification, but only that observation be relevant to the determination of a statement’s truth or falsehood.
That, he saw, is weak in another way. The notion of relevance is too indefinite. Ayer proposed various, more precise versions of the principle, but admitted, in the face of criticism, that the aim of exact elucidation had eluded him.
His earlier, weird, reductive accounts of statements about future events and the minds of others were rejected. But reductive enthusiasm is evident in his London inaugural lecture of the same year. Thinking and Meaning.
Here the self that thinks, the process of supposed mental acts in which it does so and the substantive meanings on to which it is alleged to be directed are all analysed into the expression of thought in significant sentences. In Philosophical Essays (1954) topics in philosophical logic receive serious attention. Discussing individuals, he defends the implication of Russell’s theory of descriptions that a thing is no more than the sum of its qualities, something he was to reaffirm more forcefully later. Negation is ingeniously investigated.
The rest of the collection covers familiar ground in epistemology and ethics, going fully for the first time into the problem of free will, opposing it, not to causation, but to constraint. In The Problem of Knowledge (1954) three major issues with which he had been occupied throughout his career—perception, knowledge of the past and knowledge of other minds—are shown to have a common structure. In each case the only evidence that seems to be available—• sense-impressions, current recollections, observed behaviour—falls short of the conclusions drawn about material things, past events and the minds of others. The possible reactions are appraised: scepticism, an a priori principle to bridge the gap, its closure by reducing the inferred items to the evidence for them, non-empirical direct access to the problematic items.
Ayer offers a fifth option—roughly that of explaining the gap in detail and then doing nothing about it. The account of memory is excellent, dispelling an inheritance of confusion from Russell. In the opening chapter knowledge is distinguished from true belief by the right to be sure’, an evaluative notion whose credentials to objectivity are not discussed. Ayer’s later writings do not contain many new ideas.
There are two forceful and lucid historical studies: on Peirce and James and on Russell and Moore. Three more essay collections contain good things but no great surprises. There are small books on Hume, Russell and Wittgenstein and a history of twentieth-century philosophy written very definitely from his point of view.
The best and most substantial of his later books is The Central Questions o) Philosophy (1973) in which a very broad range of topics is treated with admirable liveliness and concision, but in which no new ideas are advanced. Nearly all Ayer’s doctrines were derived very recognizably from others, except for those he soon abandoned. The fact was not recognized at first because in 1936 they were exotic and unfamiliar. Most of his early thinking was fairly direct transcription of Carnap, modified, where particularly paradoxical, by infusions of Schlick.
He was, nevertheless, an exemplary philosophical writer: presenting definite theses for discussion, backing them up with explicit and often ingenious argument and expressing his thoughts in superbly lucid, slightly chilly, prose. He deserved his fame. Ayer became immediately well-known on the publication of his first book and strongly influenced his young contemporaries, perhaps giving them the courage of their own developing convictions.
After 1946, at University College, London, both staff and students philosophy of the department revealed the strong impress of his personality. But his self-regard did not take the form of requiring submissive disciples: philosophy to him was more a competitive game than a religious rite focussed on himself. His pupils have his intellectual style, but not usually his opinions.
His department, in the early postwar years, was the main effective opposition to the uneasy coalition between Cambridge Wittgensteinianism and the Oxford philosophy of Ryle and Austin. He came back to Oxford just when the latter, on Austin’s death, was disintegrating philosophically. In these years he was a dedicated and effective teacher and animator of philosophical discussion.
In the view of the interested public he was gradually transformed from being the prophet of moral nihilism into the paradigm of a philosopher.
Member Central Advisory Council for Education, 1963-1966. President independent Adoption Society, since 1965. Served in Welsh Guards, 1940-1945.
Served to captain Welsh Guards, 1940-1945, Attache at Her Majesty Embassy, Paris 1945. Member Humanist Association (president), Modern Language Association, International Institute Philosophy (chairman Booker Prize Committee 1978), American Academy Arts and Sciences (honorary), Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters (foreign member).
Married Grace Isabel Renee Lees, 1932. 2 children; married Alberta Constance Chapman (Dee Wells), 1960 (divorced 1983, remarried April 26, 1989). 1 child; married Vanessa Mary Addison Lawson Salmon (deceased).