Alfred J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic was first published in 1936, a second, revised edition appeared in 1946. Chapter 1 (‘The Elimination of Metaphysics’) of this book opens with the following paragraph:
“The traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful. The surest way to end them is to establish beyond question what should be the purpose and method of a philosophical inquiry. And this is by no means so difficult a task as the history of philosophy would lead one to suppose. For if there are any questions which science leaves it to philosophy to answer, a straightforward process of elimination must lead to their discovery.” (Ayer 2001: 13)
The author of these words was only twenty-five when he finished writing a book which became a milestone in contemporary philosophy. It was indeed “a young man’s book” (…) “written with more passion than most philosophers allow themselves to show”, as Ayer admitted in the second edition (Ayer 2001: 173). “With these and similar assertions the young Ayer embarked on a course of discussion that was designed to shake the philosophical establishment” (Hanfling 1997: 4). And even though time has clearly demonstrated the flaws and shortcoming of Ayer’s text and its main ideas, it needs to be acknowledged that Language, Truth and Logic (henceforth LTL) is a major achievement in the field, with long lasting influence, provoking over the years vivid discussions and reactions, especially in the areas of philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics.
The volume edited by Adam Tamas Tuboly reconsiders the philosophical and historical importance of LTL, and discusses its more contemporary legacy in several different disciplines. Tuboly specifies that the questions that need to be asked and discussed: “are the following: how did Ayer preserve or distort the views and conceptions of the logical empiricists, especially those of Otto Neurath and Rudolf Carnap? How are Ayer’s arguments different from those he aimed to reconstruct? How influential was LTL really, and what are the factors that explain its success in Britain and especially at Oxford?” (3).
The book comprises an introduction and five parts (each consisting of two chapters). The introduction gives necessary background information, part one contextualizes Ayer’s book, part two concentrates on philosophy of language in LTL, part three discusses philosophy of mind and psychology, part four looks at epistemology and truth, and part five focuses on ethics and values. The individual chapters provide critical re-examinations of LTL, with the final chapter offering a highly critical analysis within a wide context of philosophy and culture. Each chapter is furnished with an extensive list of references.
In the first, introductory chapter, ‘From Spying to Canonizing – Ayer and His Language, Truth and Logic’, Tuboly traces Ayer’s road to LTL, his first encounters and contacts in Vienna, and provides a brief overview of the book’s content and its main theses. He observes that Ayer’s main task is “twofold: to show that all metaphysicians try to go beyond the empirical realm and to buttress his core thesis that only empirical propositions are meaningful in a literal sense” (12).
An important part of this chapter is devoted to discussing the controversy surrounding the significance and influence of LTL. Tuboly offers here a brief overview of the most important references on the subject and concludes this section observing that “the influence of LTL can be measured on two grounds. First, it was quite negatively received by the philosophical community, as it stepped on many toes and produced a mainly critical response among both philosophers and public intellectuals. (…) On the other hand, Ayer’s book was more than successful in other ways. LTL is one of the best-selling philosophy books of the twentieth century; every student of analytic philosophy has to read it at least once (…), and many educated laymen know it as a source of inspiration and a seminal text from the intellectual history of positivism – a distinction shared by only a few books in analytic philosophy. Whether institutional success is enough for philosophical success, however, is a different question” (27-28). Tuboly also stresses that LTL, though written when the Vienna Circle was past its peak, provides rather scarce information on logical positivism and its historical and theoretical developments. These remarks prepare the ground for more detailed analyses in the following parts of the volume.
Further contextualization of Ayer’s book is provided by the two chapters in Part One (‘The Book and Its Context’). Andreas Vrahimis discusses LTL and the Anglophone reception of the Venna Circle, he further investigates the issue of omissions made by Ayer in tackling the history of logical positivism, the debate around the Neurath-Haller thesis, and Ayer’s divergences with Carnap. Vrahimis observes that the linguistic Empiricism of LTL is presented as partly conceding the Rationalist critique of classical Empiricism, while rejecting the metaphysical conclusions the critique had driven them to; fortifying Empiricism by rejecting the mistaken assumptions of its classical proponents; and both aligning itself with the Empiricist side of the dispute, and also resolving the dispute in an Empiricist manner (47). In concluding remarks on the aftermath of the publication, Vrahimis observes that:
“Ayer’s book focused on discussions of particular problems and only very briefly touched upon the context in which they had initially been addressed by the Vienna Circle and its predecessors. The reception of his work also followed course, and the bold claims made by LTL resulted in bringing a critical debate over the viability of verificationism to the center of Anglophone philosophy during the 30s and 40s. Within this debate, there had been little concern about the acceptability of Ayer’s brief history of Logical Empiricism”. (63)
Chapter 3, by Siobhan Chapman, concentrates on ‘Viennese Bombshells’, i.e. reactions to LTL from Ayer’s philosophical contemporaries, especially John L. Austin, Arne Naess, and L. Susan Stebbing. All three philosophers found interesting elements in LTL but also had objections to the implications of Ayer’s study for the study of language. Chapman focuses on the reaction of these three philosophers to LTL, and on their further influence upon the study of language. Austin’s name is closely associated with ordinary language philosophy, one prominent version of the ‘linguistic philosophy’ (acknowledged by Ayer in his retrospective). Naess is less well known in Anglophone philosophy, “but was extremely influential in the development during the middle part of the twentieth century of philosophy in Norway, where he was celebrated as the founder of the school of empirical semantics” and finally Stebbing’s work “has been relatively neglected in recent decades, but in the 1930s and 1940s she was recognized as a leading figure in British analytic philosophy, particularly in relation to what became known as the Cambridge School of directional analysis” (71). In the remaining parts of the chapter Chapman discusses some subsequent developments connected with LTL and ordinary language philosophy in the fields of philosophy and linguistics, and she claims that after initial criticism connected with the fact that Ayer failed to recognize the disjuncture between philosophical inquiry and the assessment of ordinary linguistic usage, in the last few years “some analytic philosophers have returned to the idea that ordinary language might be of relevance, and even of vital methodological significance, to philosophical inquiry” (85). She also points at some interesting developments in Critical Discourse Analysis which might have been inspired by the close attention to different uses of language explicit in ordinary language philosophy (92).
The two chapters in Part Two are explicitly devoted to philosophy of language in LTL. Nicole Rathgeb discusses Ayer’s stance on analyticity, and Sally Parker-Ryan studies Ayer and early ordinary language philosophy. Ayer’s definition of analyticity is of great significance for his whole philosophy, not least because he regards philosophical truths as analytic propositions, hence his conception is often cited as ‘truth in virtue of meaning’ (101). Rathgeb carefully traces the inspirations and sources for Ayer’s ideas, the developments of this conception, changes between the first and second edition of LTL, and objections voiced against this approach. In the conclusion, the author suggests that Ayer’s account of analyticity is fundamentally correct, and that “the two definitions of analyticity given in LTL and in the introduction to the second edition can be brought into accord, that the truth of analytic propositions so understood is not contingent upon the existence of language, and that the different factors Ayer appeals to in his explanation of the necessity of analytic propositions are all important, although one of them is more fundamental than the others” (120).
In chapter 5, Parker-Ryan examines the development of two approaches to language: the concept of ideal language, and the concept of ordinary language. The former is connected with Ayer’s views expounded in LTL, whereas the latter is discussed by Parker-Ryan with reference to the work of John Wisdom. The author briefly presents the origins of the method of linguistic analysis, the influence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and of his later views, succinctly introduces ordinary language philosophy and contrasts it with theories advocating ideal language. In conclusion, Parker-Ryan claims that Ayer and the positivists “understood linguistic analysis as the weeding out of nonsense, such that the ‘logic of science’ could emerge. Such a language would be ideal, in the sense of being perfectly transparent logical form, and comprised exhaustively of empirically verifiable propositions, logical propositions and nothing else” (146). On the other hand, for ordinary language philosophy, the aim was also to resolve philosophical confusion; proponents of this movement “believed that a closer and more thoughtful examination of how language really is used, in various circumstances, can be philosophically revealing” (147).
Part Three is devoted to philosophy of mind and psychology. Gergely Ambrus traces the evolution of Ayer’s views on the mind-body relation, whereas Thomas Uebel investigates the puzzle about other minds in early Ayer. Ambrus observes that the analysis of Ayer’s views, “beyond being interesting in itself, is also important in that it provides further details about the large-scale development of analytic philosophy, stretching from the logical positivists’ radical anti-metaphysicalism in the 1930s to the 1960s when (some) classical metaphysical problems like realism or idealism, and the mind-body problem, were treated as being meaningful and legitimate once more” (153). The chapter discusses the phenomenalist background, focuses on the relations between the mental and physical events (a core issue in contemporary philosophy of mind) and on reinterpretations of the psychophysical relation within Ayer’s ‘sophisticated realist’ framework. Ambrus sums up the developments in Ayer’s thought in the following way: “the changes in Ayer’s views about the nature of the psychophysical relation were embedded in the evolution of his overall approach to philosophy. He departed from the radically anti-metaphysical attitude of logical positivism and arrived at a sort of pragmatist realism” (187). The shift from radical anti-metaphysical to ‘soft’ metaphysical views (with simultaneous faithfulness to earlier empiricist foundations) is characteristic of developments in Ayer’s thought (188).
Chapter 7 provides additional evidence for Ayer’s changing views in what today might be referred to as proto-philosophy of mind. Uebel concentrates on the account of knowledge of other minds as formulated in LTL, provides different interpretations and reinterpretations, and discusses Ayer’s approach to logical behaviorism: “once it is noted how his verificationism limited his options, it is of course difficult to dispute Ayer’s conclusion that no knowledge of other minds is provided at all, but this limitation does not apply unless the doctrine of logical behaviorism is also reinterpreted” (211). Uebel also points to the discrepancies between the argument as presented in LTL, and as later interpreted by Ayer himself (240), a very interesting observation connected with authorial methodological consciousness (or lack of it).
Part Four deals with epistemology and truth. First Hans-Joachim Glock takes a close look at Ayer’s verificationism, next László Kocsis focuses on the problem of truth and validation. Truth, the second element in the title of Ayer’s book, was crucial both for the author’s line of investigation, and for the interpretation of his theory. Glock opens his chapter observing that the most fundamental aspiration of LTL is meta-philosophical: “Its stated aim is to argue for a positivist, anti-metaphysical conception of philosophy, its tasks and proper methods” (251). Further in this chapter, Glock discusses the importance of verificationism in LTL, different criteria of verifiability, the principle of verification, and the differences between the two (also in the context of Wittgenstein’s use-theory of meaning); it follows from this discussion that “there remains more to be said both against and for Ayer’s verificationism” (275).
In chapter 9, Kocsis starts with examining the difference between the definition and the criterion of truth and how they can be connected; next, he devotes some space to Ayer’s deflationism about the nature of truth and his place in the famous protocol-sentence debate, including his defense of a correspondence conception of the criterion of truth. In the final section he shows that Ayer’s deflationism about the nature of truth is not in conflict with his correspondence conception of the criterion of truth. This is because, contrary to his logical positivist contemporaries, Ayer did not admit any intimate connection between the two above-mentioned truth-theoretical tasks. According to Kocsis, “Ayer was convinced that the correspondence criterion could be applied to synthetic propositions, but as a fallibilist he did not distinguish between epistemically basic and incorrigible propositions (…) and all other non-basic propositions (hypotheses)” (301).
Part Five brings two chapters dealing with ethics and values. In chapter 10, Krisztián Pete compares Ayer and Berkeley, and their concepts of the meaning of ethical and religious language. Ayer starts the preface of the first edition of LTL with the following claim: “The views which are put forward in this treatise derive from the doctrines of Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein, which are themselves the logical outcome of the Empiricism of Berkeley and David Hume” (Ayer 2001: 9). Berkeley’s and Hume’s influence on Ayer, and Ayer’s interpretation of Empiricism have already been discussed in chapters 1 and 2. Pete discusses in some detail Ayer’s and Berkeley’s views on emotional and theological use of language, he also explores the claim that Ayer is indebted to Berkeley “not only for the core ideas of his phenomenalism but also for his emotivism” (307), and provides a Berkeleyan reinterpretation of Ayer. Pete concludes that “by examining the semantic theory of one of Ayer’s distant empiricist predecessors, we can get some guidance on how to modify the ethical theory that Ayer outlined in LTL” (330).
The last chapter, by Aaron Preston, is significantly entitled ‘Ayer’s Book of Errors and the Crises of Contemporary Western Culture’. Preston offers a highly critical reading of LTL, with an equally critical assessment of its influence:
“Given that its flaws were both grievous and fairly obvious to many, LTL and the simplistic positivism it exemplified would be mere curiosities in the annals of a very curious century if it weren’t for the fact that they had massively harmful effects on culture, effects which persist to this day. (…)
LTL’s real significance lies here, in its role as a sophisticated and successful bit of propaganda for an ideology that played a critical role in loosing Western culture from its moral and epistemic moorings”. (334; 335)
Preston considers the rise of positivism in the light of the crises of contemporary western culture, including contemporary politics, fake news and post truth politics. Parts of this chapter sound rather like a political manifesto; however, it is interesting to see the line of argumentation leading the author from flaws in LTL to analyses (neither very deep nor original though) of Trump’s presidency. The tenor of the conclusion is predictable: “What, then, is the real significance of LTL? Sadly, its significance is overwhelmingly negative. It resides in the fact that it gave a distinctive and rhetorically powerful voice to a form of scientistic naturalism which has played a powerful role in fouling our relations to moral truth” (361). A brief critical remark with respect to these claims is included earlier in the volume, in chapter 8, where Glock observes that Preston’s dismissive attitude is precipitate, for:
“A. Ayer’s later assessment leaves open that LTL also includes important truths. B. Mistakes can be philosophically significant. C. By its own lights, LTL aims at introducing and implementing a method of clarification and critical thinking rather than at propounding a true doctrine.” (273-4)
The above points provide a good coda to this final chapter; however, it would be interesting to see a chapter polemic with regard to Preston’s stance.
In the conclusion of his brief introduction to Ayer’s work, Oswald Hanfling observed that “just as one must admire the bravado of his early book, so one must be impressed, when reading his later work, by his cautious and painstaking treatment of the questions at issue, and his constant striving to do justice to alternative views before arriving at his own conclusion” (Hanfling 1997: 51); and Ben Rogers added that the greatness of LTL resides in the fact that “it exudes a rare and inspiring passion for truth” (Rogers 2001: xvi). The papers collected in the reviewed volume attest to the depth and breadth of Ayer’s thought, they demonstrate that the shortcomings of his early work cannot overshadow its lasting influence in several philosophical disciplines.
Ayer’s book provoked reaction also within literary studies, and its title inspired at least two publications – Hamm (1960) and Martin (1975) – with both authors consciously alluding to the original title, and both investigating the benefits and shortcomings of logical positivism as applied to literary analyses. This aspect of Ayer’s influence is not discussed in the reviewed book, however, it additionally confirms the importance of LTL for various developments in several disciplines.
The Historical and Philosophical Significance of Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic provides an excellent overview of the topics discussed by Ayer, the controversies surrounding the publication and its influence. Additionally, it provides important (not only historical) considerations connected with the developments in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, and ethics.
Ayer, Alfred J. [1936/1946] 2001. Language, Truth and Logic. London: Penguin Books.
Hamm, Victor M. 1960. Language, Truth and Poetry. The Aquinas Lecture 1960. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press.
Hanfling, Oswald. 1997. Ayer. Analysing What We Mean. London: Phoenix.
Martin, Graham Dunstan. 1975. Language, Truth, and Poetry. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Rogers, Ben. 2001. “Introduction.” In: Ayer (2001), ix-xviii.