1. Two Senses of "Positivism"
Positivism may be thought of as the philosophical ally of natural science. The word was coined by Auguste Comte (1798-1857) for his philosophy.
The word "positivism" is ambiguous, and helpfully so from the point of view of understanding what the movement stands for. On the one hand, it connotes "definiteness" or "confident certainty" or "strictness"and this aptly expresses the task positivism in philosophy sets for itself: it aims definitively to lay down what can be known and what cant, what is in and what is out with regard to "proper" intellectual activity.
On the other hand, it connotes "optimism" or "enthusiasm"and this aptly picks up the driving motivation for much of positivism in philosophy. By taking its inspiration from the astonishing, unprecedented success of the natural sciences after roughly the time of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), and especially enthused by the burst of science-inspired technological innovation in the industrial revolution, positivism was almost boundlessly enthusiastic about the future. Humanity was on the up and up, in a process of improvement. In the 19th century, this was explained in several ways.
2. Metaphysical skepticism
Positivism, besides being inspired by science, was motivated by a visceral allergy to metaphysics.
Note that there is a more generous principle that attempts to overcome the fact that scientific generalizations based on the principle of induction cannot pass the test of the verification principle as usually understood:
Another motivating force for positivism was logic.
4. Philosophy of science
Positivism, because of its affinity to science, has sponsored a massive investigation into the procedures and logical foundations of scientific activity.
This process of inquiry, somewhat ironically in view of positivisms antagonism toward metaphysics and theology, has discovered that science is a vaguer process than had been thought. Thomas Kuhns The Structure of Scientific Revolutions gives an indication of that, as does Paul Feyerabends Against Method, and Imre Lakatoss work in scientific research programs.
Working from the side of theology and metaphysics, scholars have noticed profound similarities between scientific method thus reconstrued and the methods of metaphysics and theology. Thus it appears that positivism may have saved theology and metaphysics in the very process of seeking to silence them, making the original irony twice as comic.
Of course, the people who have given the best and the earliest account of the reasons for the similarity between these methods were the pragmatists, to whom we shall come next time.
Notes on Comtes Cours de Philosophie Positive.
The work began in 1826 as series of lectures. It was published in 6-volumes from 1830-42. In 1853, Harriet Martineau translated and condensed/abridged Comtes 6-volume work as Cours, The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, 2 vols. She notes it is more condensation than abridgment, but abridgement nonetheless. Comte approves Martineaus work, so much so that he substitutes it for the 6-vol. version in the "Positivist Library" (his list of books that should survive). [See Arline Reilein Standley, Auguste Comte (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981) 160, n. 1 ( ch. 3).] A new edition of the Martineau translation/aridgement has been published with an introduction by Abraham S. Blumberg in the Language, Man and Society, Foundations of Behavioral Sciences Series, ed. R. Rieber. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1974.
1. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
John L. Austins conception of speech acts in How to Do Things with Words was one of the formative impulses in linguistic philosophy. Ludwig Wittgenstein is another the key figure for understanding linguistic philosophy. In its connection with Wittgenstein, it is clear that linguistic philosophy owes a great deal to positivism.
Wittgensteins first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), was a work at the junction of logical positivism and linguistic philosophy.
2. Philosophical Investigations
Wittgenstein corrected his early work in his other breakthrough book, Philosophical Investigations (1953). This is, from one point of view, the manifesto of linguistic philosophy.
3. Influence on Theology
Linguistic philosophy, under the influence of Wittgenstein, has had two especially important influences on theology.
One is the view of "theological traditions" as extended language games. Theology is thus defined as the distinctive intellectual activity of particular religious traditions, and adequacy of theological work is defined in terms of fidelity to that tradition of discourse. This helpfully gives theology a role in the contemporary world. But it also has the liability of removing theology to a considerable extent from the realm of public discourse, so that it does not need to evaluate the intelligibility of its assertions against any other standards than those of its specialized linguistic culture.
The other is the philosophical study of religious language.
Early Life, Schooling
His parents were not religious. His father was Jules Louis Cyprien Ayer, of French Swiss background, gentile. He worked for Alfred Rothschild. Ayer was named after Rothschild but he didnt like name so he was called by "Freddie" or by his first two initials. His mother was Reine Citroen, born in Belgium, raised in England. She converts to Christianity after marriage, but was "never clear on details." Her maternal grandparents were Jewish, from Holland.
Soon after Ayers birth, his father went bankrupt after speculating and lost his job. Ayers maternal grandfather (Citroen) rescued family. Ayers father was set up by Citroen as a timber merchant. They lived modestly.
Ayer was apparently "high strung" as child, intelligent, fairly solitary, loved to read but not good with his hands.
1917-23: Ascham St. Vincents, boarding school in Eastbourne.
- decides doesnt believe in Christianity, becomes "militant atheist"
- acquainted with Moores work
- meets Renée Lees summer before going to Oxford
Oxford (1929-32): Student
1929: Begins studies at Christ Church, Oxford
- Studied for "Greats" (philosophy, ancient history). Gilbert Ryle was his philosophy tutor.
- There is considerable hostility at Oxford toward the Cambridge philosophers, particularly Russell, but also Moore. But Ryle is more open-minded, interested, so Ayer exposed to this thought and is encouraged to pursue philosophy.
- Interested in literature, writers throughout life. Read Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Verlaine.
Wittgenstein, Logical Positivists
1932: Read Tractatus
- Wittgensteins ideas were hardly known at Oxford, but Ryle suggested Ayer read the work. Made a huge impression on Ayer. Read a paper on the Tractatus at the Jowett Society, which was probably the first discussion at Oxford on Wittgenstein (Part, 119).
- Already "predisposed" to accept "view of philosophy as logical analysis", feels Wittgenstein gives authority to this position. "Allies" self with Cambridge "school." Acquainted with Russells theories on logic second hand (Stebbings) - doesnt have mathematical/ scientific background. Also influenced by F. P. Ramsey.
Read William James Pragmatism.
-1932 summer: Ryle takes Ayer to Cambridge to meet Wittgenstein. Meeting is successful, Wittgenstein treats Ayer as "protegée".
- Ayer returns to Cambridge 2-3 times during 30s to give papers at the Moral Science Club, where he first meets Keynes, Moore.
Marriage (11/32) to Renée Lees
Though neither he nor Renée were believers, they agreed to a R. Catholic wedding for her parents sake. He signed that he will raise his children in the Catholic faith, knowing his wife will not enforce this, but mutters "the tongue has sworn but the mind has not sworn" (Euripides) under his breath. (Part 127). Their 2 children, Valerie and Julian, were never baptized and never embraced Christianity, though Ayer was open to their learning about it.
Ryle encouraged Ayer to go to the University of Vienna, to learn more about work of Vienna Circle (very little was known about them in England). Schlick arranged for him to attend meetings once each week. [Part includes sketches on VC members like Carnap, Neurath, Waismann.]
Oxford (1933-39): Lecturer, Research Fellow
1933: Begins Lectureship at Christ Church.
- lectures on Russell, Wittgenstein, Carnap
- Joins Mind Association/Aristotelian Society - opportunity to discuss philosophy with Moore during these. Ayer startles some by his "vehement onslaught on metaphysics" and makes some enemies (Part 150).
- Nov. 1933: starts the journal Analysis with others interested in analytic philosophy.
Begins work on Language, Truth, and Logic (LTL)
- Ayer comments that most thoughts in it were not original, but a blend of "the positivism of the Vienna Circle [which Ayer at that time also ascribed to Wittgenstein], reductive empiricism from Hume and Russell, the analytic approach of Moore... and a dash of pragmatism...." (Part 154).
- Also felt in his struggle to make his meaning clear, sacrifices depth to clarity. In his autobiography, Ayer critiques mistakes and problems of the book, but says he is broadly"still in sympathy with spirit of book" and with the verificatory approach. (156)
By the mid-30s, logical positivism and the Cambridge "School" were gaining ground in England.
Whitehead read typescripts for couple of chapters of LTL. He called him a beginner in mathematical logic, but had a good opinion of book. Said though he himself not a positivist and feels its claims "overstated," the Oxford logical positivists are good for the philosophical scene, make for a balance and for more open-mindedness about questions, will "rescue the philosophy of the 20th century from repeating its complete failure in the 19th, when history and science overwhelmed it." (Ayer cites from a letter from Whitehead, Part 162-3).
1934: 5-yr appointment as Research Student
Ayer wanted to research symbolic logic, philosophy of science, but because of lack of skill in mathematics, and of scientific training, decides to pursue epistemology.
Language, Truth and Logic
Completed July 1935, published 1936. Sold well, widely reviewed.
1936: birth of daughter, Valerie Jane. Ayer calls himself a "proud father, even becoming quite adept at seeing to babys comfort."
- first serious involvement in politics. "Vaguely left", interest awakened by outbreak of Spanish Civil War.
- He and Renée decide to work for Labour Party: step-ladder speeches on street corner, canvassing, writes pamphlet. Runs for City Council (lost).
- Growing interest in political theory, lectures at Oxford on topic. Says these were too abstract. Gives an example: he raised the question of whether we should take into account the effects of our actions on human beings only, or also on animals. A working-class listener, former miner, complains to another that "that man, Ayer, supposed to be one of the best lecturers. Talks about the sensations of pit-ponies. Id like to see him ride one." (Part, 184)
Friendship with E.E. Cummings, Family problems, B. Russell
1937: begins lasting friendship with Cummings and his wife Marion Morehouse when they visit Oxford. Ayer tells anecdote about showing them around Christ Church, translates the Latin inscription over one of the quads, doesnt realize Cummings was a classics scholar at Harvard. Cummings only mentions this long afterward. Cummings jokingly calls Ayer the "stainless steel mind."
- Ayer and Renée begin to have marital problems, Ayer has affairs with other women, Renée has one with a friend of Ayers.
- Russell comes to Oxford to lecture (will give lectures again as W. James lectures at Harvard in 1940, published as Inquiry Into Meaning and Truth). Ayer and Russell become acquainted, though not really friends until late 1940s.
1939: Involved in a failed attempt to laicize Christ Church College.
January 1939: Birth of son, Julian David.
- Though relationship between Renée and Ayer still tense, decide to try to keep together. Ayer tries to lead more "domesticated life."
- Begins work on Foundations of Empirical Knowledge
- Moore comes to Oxford (Wittgenstein succeeds him in chair at Cambridge)
WORLD WAR II
Enlists as officer in Welsh Guards. Assigned to intelligence work for Special Operations Executive (SOE) first in London, then in New York, London, Africa. Gathers information on political situations, assists French Resistance movement. Throughout wishes there is more for him to do, frequently feels not doing much to help war effort. For example: he was sent on mission to Algiers, but his superior there unwelcoming, tells him there is nothing for him to do in Algiers. Takes Ayer to Italy and leaves him at villa there, telling him to stay till end of war. Ayer reads Whiteheads Process and Reality there, finds it "obscure." Ayer finds "intolerable" to stay in Salerno, makes way back to Algiers, and then talks an officer there into giving him a pass into southern France toward front because his "spirit of adventure" was up. There is assigned by local SOE to tour liberated areas and assess political situation. At one point he wires London to get advice -- they havent known his whereabouts since he left for Algiers, and tell local SOEs to detain Ayer and return him to London. There he receives a "mild rebuke." (Part 275)
- Children evacuated to USA (1940-3) with a wealthy family in Rye, NY.
1942: Ayer and Renée divorced. They remain affectionate, and Renée remains strong influence for 18 years until Ayer remarries (Part 255)
- shares a cab with Myrna Loy while visiting Washington D.C. but doesnt have courage to speak with her.
- works briefly as film critic for The Nation under pseudonymn "P.H. Rye" ("P" "Rye" from Gk panta rei (felt this applied to films), reference to Heraclitus thus "H", and Rye also referring to where children lived).
- dates Betty (later Lauren) Bacall several times, before her film fame. Thirty years later she only vaguely remembers having met him.
- While in Paris meets and becomes friends with Camus, Merleau-Ponty, and also George Orwell then a foreign correspondent for the Observer.
Return to Oxford: Tutor at Wadham
Fall 1945: Tutorial Fellowship at Wadham, Oxford. Also appointed Dean.
- notes change in atmosphere, new trends in philosophy. Ayers ideas, once revolutionary, now "old fashioned." John Austins linguistic philosophy dominant, becomes the "school" with which Oxford principally associated at that period by 50s. Austin antagonistic toward Ayer, who is skeptical about Austins work. But overall, Ayer notes that the analytic movement "in one form or another" now has taken control of English scene (Part, 296).
- Ryles Concept of Mind (1949) now strong influence on Ayer.
- Becomes close friends with Russell.
1946: Inadvertently insults Wittgenstein by statement made during a broadcast on contemporary British philosophy. Their relationship never recovers, though Ayer tries to apologize.
University College London (1946-59)
Fall 1946: Accepts Grote Professorship of Philosophy of Mind and Logic
- when arrives, finds department of philosophy occupying 2 rooms in a section of the University that had been bombed during war. About 6 undergraduates, no graduate students, 2 teachers (one of whom was the secretary who had been made a temporary teacher), no telephone.
- Ayer (Chair) builds up department: brings in S. Hampshire, R. Wollheim, increases numbers of students, including graduate, eventually acquires own building. Calls his 13 yrs. there the happiest in his professional life (Part 311).
1947: Publication of Thinking and Meaning.
1949: Founds Metalogical Society
- brings together philosophers, and physical and biological scientists. Includes Russell and Karl Popper.
Dominant Philosophical Trends
- Russell during this period feels his (Russells) work undervalued relative to that of Wittgenstein and Moore. Though opposed to logical positivism, he shares Ayers interest in epistemology which at the time is "in eclipse." Ayer notes that dominant instead were Wittgensteins "language games approach," ideas like those of Ryle who attacked traditional notions of mind as "ghost in the machine," and Austin who treated philosophy as an investigation of ordinary language usage. (More, 51-2).
1952: Elected to British Academy.
1953: Reads Philosophical Investigations.
- Thinks brilliant work, but finds disappointing re questions Ayer is pursuing. Disagrees with its understanding of role of philosophy (should only describe, not explain), its approach to philosophical problems through recognition of the working of language, and its view that philosophy is a battle against "the bewitchment of our intellect by means of language." Ayer feels his own work challenges this claim (More, 92-4).
Sept. 1954: Invited to China as cultural representative for celebration of 5th anniversary of revolution.
1954: article: "Can There Be a Private Language?"
- counters Wittgensteins dictum "An inner process stands in need of outward criteria" (cf debate about his ideas about "no private language"). Ayer suggests instead that all understanding of signs ultimately depends on acts of primary recognition (More, 168).
1956: publication of Problem of Knowledge. Ayer feels a better work than LTL, less derivative, though never as popular (More, 122).
Private Life: since divorce, Ayer has many affairs, including several serious, long-term, and also remains on good terms with wife. Seems to have been a social and fairly uninhibited person. In 1956 he meets the American journalist Dee Wells, whom he will eventually marry.
The Brains Trust (1956-61)
A BBC television program. Involved a "question master" and 4 panelists who changed weekly, though many, like Ayer, were "regulars." Asked questions generated by audience, often on moral issues, sometimes politics, religion.
c1957-67: Ayer chair of the Society for Homosexual Law Reform. Apparently not a homosexual himself, felt it was a justice issue.
Wykeham Professor of Logic, New College, Oxford
- Ayer tells a story about an exchange with Austin soon after he comes to Oxford: Austin inquires about the subject of his first course. Ayer replies: "Propositions and Facts." Austin, "a shade derisively," says "Here you will find us all talking about speech-acts." (More, 181-2)
- Austin died the next year, and the Oxford "school" connected with his work soon after.
- returns to active involvement in Labour politics
1960: Dee and Ayer marry.
Story - Ayer and After-life
Once when Ayer visited his friend Somerset Maugham (c.1960), Lord Beaverbrook also called. They all talked about after after-life (both Maugham and Beaverbrook were elderly). Ayer says he saw no good reason to think there would be an after-life. Maugham shows that this is the answer hed hoped for, but Beaverbrook not comforted. Ayer, searching for something reassuring to say, comments that although he could find no good reason to accept any form of theism, if one were to be Christian, it would be most logical to embrace Calvinism/predestination. This seems to appease Beaverbrook somewhat, he appears certain that hell be among the saved, though resents Ayers atheism. (More, 196).
Story about Ayer in Washington, with Kennedys
Invited to lecture at Schlesingers house while visiting professor at City College (1961-2), for one of President Kennedys series on the social sciences. Though the President couldnt attend, Robert and other Kennedies there. Ayer summarizes the analytic tradition, gets fairly "silent" reception. Then Eunice Shriver whispers: "Is it possible this man doesnt believe in God?" Ethel asks Ayer why he didnt talk about Aquinas, and Ayer replies he doesnt know much about him. Ethel seems triumphant at this, but Ayer then suggests that she probably hasnt read much Aquinas either, but rather knows of the neo-Thomist tradition, which he, Ayer, did know something about. They then discuss Maritain, Ethel gets confused at one point, and Robert is heard to say quietly from the back of the room, "Drop it, Ethel." (More, 208-9).
1962: "Philosophy and Science," published in Voprossi Filosofii, at their request. 1st time a philosopher unsympathetic to Marxism invited to do so.
1963: Publication of The Concept of a Person. Well-received.
April, 1963: Birth of his and Dees son, Nicholas Hugh. The last sentence of his memoirs: "My love for this child has been a dominating factor in the remainder of my life." (More, 219).
Lecture tours, Philosophical congresses, Series editor
- Ayer travelled widely to give lectures: South America, Scandinavia, United States, China, Soviet Union, India, Yugoslavia, Morocco.
- Also regularly attended philosophical meetings, congresses around the world, including those of the Aristotelian Society/Mind Association, Association des Societés Philosophiques de Langue Française, Institution Internationale de Philosophie, the World Congress of Philosophy.
- 1950-63: Series editor for Penguin Series on Historical Philosophy
- 1960-65: Series ed. for International Library of Philosophy and Scientific Method. Ayer first publishes the Pears/McGuinness edition of Tractatus, and then works representative of various philosophical approaches.
Sources for this Report
1) Ayer, A.J. Part of My Life: the Memoirs of a Philosopher by A. J. Ayer. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1977.
2) Ayer, A.J. More of My Life. London: Collins, 1984. Ayer notes he relies largely on memory for both volumes, though uses some documentary evidence.
3) Griffiths, A. Phillips, ed. A.J. Ayer: Memorial Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
4) Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1967. S.v. "Alfred Jules Ayer," by D.J. OConnor.
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