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Western Philosophy
20th-century philosophy
A. J. Ayer
A. J. Ayer
Name: Alfred Jules Ayer
Birth: October 29, 1910
Death: June 27, 1989
School/tradition: Analytic
Main interests
Language, Epistemology, Ethics, Meaning
Notable ideas
Logical positivism, verification principle, emotivist ethics
Influences Influenced
Hume, Vienna Circle, Popper, Russell, Wittgenstein, Kant |
R. M. Hare, Strawson, Honderich

Sir Alfred Jules Ayer (October 29, 1910 – June 27, 1989), better known as A. J. Ayer (or Freddie by his friends), was a British philosopher known for his promotion of logical positivism, particularly in his books Language, Truth and Logic (1936) and The Problem of Knowledge (1956).

Ayer was the Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at the University College London from 1946 until 1959, when he became Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1951 to 1952. He was knighted in 1970.


Ayer received an education in the humanities at Eton College, and served in the British military during World War II, working in military intelligence for a time. He was a noted social mixer and womanizer, and was married four times, including to Dee Wells and Vanessa Lawson. Reputedly he liked dancing and attending the clubs in London. He was a keen supporter of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and was a well known face in the crowd, known to other fans as 'the prof'.

Ayer was an avowed atheist,[1] and followed in the footsteps of Bertrand Russell by debating with the Jesuit scholar Frederick Copleston on the topic of religion.

Ayer was closely associated with the British humanist movement. He was an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association from 1947 until his death. In 1965, he became the first president of the Agnostics' Adoption Society and in the same year succeeded Julian Huxley as president of the British Humanist Association, a post he held until 1970. In 1968 he edited "The Humanist Outlook", a collection of essays on the meaning of humanism.

He taught or lectured several times in the United States, including serving as a visiting professor at Bard College in the fall of 1987. At a party that same year held by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, then 77, confronted Mike Tyson harassing Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: "Do you know who the fuck I am? I'm the heavyweight champion of the world," to which Ayer replied: "And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men".[2] Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out.

Shortly before his death in 1989 he received publicity after having an unusual near-death experience, which some erroneously interpreted as a move away from his lifelong and famous religious skepticism. Of the experience, Ayer said that it "slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death ... will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be."[3]


Ayer is perhaps best known for his verification principle, as presented in Language, Truth, and Logic (1936), according to which a sentence is meaningful only if it has verifiable empirical import, otherwise it was either "analytical" if tautologous or "metaphysical" (i.e. meaningless) if neither empirical nor analytical. He started work on the book at the age of 24 and it was published when he was 26. Ayer's philosophical ideas were deeply influenced by those of the Vienna Circle and David Hume. His clear, vibrant and polemical exposition of them makes Language, Truth and Logic essential reading on the tenets of logical positivism -- the book is regarded as a classic of 20th century analytic philosophy, and is widely read in philosophy courses around the world.

In some ways, Ayer was the philosophical successor to Bertrand Russell, and he wrote two books on the philosopher: Russell and Moore: The Analytic Heritage (1971) and Russell (1972). He also wrote an introductory book on the philosophy of David Hume.

In 1972-73 Ayer gave the Gifford Lectures at University of St Andrews, later published as The Central Questions of Philosophy. He still believed in the viewpoint he shared with the logical positivists: that large parts of what was traditionally called "philosophy" - including the whole of metaphysics, theology and aesthetics - were not matters that could be judged as being true or false and that it was thus meaningless to discuss them. Unsurprisingly, this made him unpopular with several other philosophy departments in this country and his name is still reviled by many British professors to this day.

In "The Concept of a Person and Other Essays" (1963), Ayer made several striking criticisms of Wittgenstein's private language theory.

Ayer's sense-data theory in Foundations of Empirical Knowledge was famously criticised by fellow Oxonian J. L. Austin in Sense and sensibilia, a landmark 1950's work of common language philosophy. Ayer responded to this in the essay "Has Austin Refuted the Sense-data Theory?", which can be found in his Metaphysics and Common Sense (1969).

See also



  1. Ayer believed that religious language was unverifiable and as such literally nonsense. Consequently "There is no God" was for Ayer as meaningless and metaphysical an utterance as "God exists." Though Ayer could not give assent to the declaration "There is no God," he was an atheist in the sense that he withheld assent from affirmation's of God's existence. That stance of a person who believes "God" denotes no verifiable hypothesis is sometimes referred to as igtheism (defined in The New Skepticism: Inquiry and Reliable Knowledge, ISBN 0-87975-766-3 Paul Kurtz, page 194)
  2. Rogers (1999), page 344.

Further reading


  • 1936, Language, Truth and Logic, London: Gollancz. (2nd. Edition, 1946.)
  • 1940, The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge, London: Macmillan.
  • 1954, Philosophical Essays, London: Macmillan. (Essays on freedom, phenomenalism, basic propositions, utilitarianism, other minds, the past, ontology.)
  • 1957, “The conception of probability as a logical relation”, in S. Korner, ed., Observation and Interpretation in the Philosophy of Physics, New York, N.Y.: Dover Publications.
  • 1956, The Problem of Knowledge, London: Macmillan.
  • 1963, The Concept of a Person and other Essays, London: Macmillan. (Essays on truth, privacy and private languages, laws of nature, the concept of a person, probability.)
  • 1967, “Has Austin Refuted the Sense-Data Theory?” Synthese vol. Xviii, pp. 117-40. (Reprinted in Ayer 1969).
  • 1968, The Origins of Pragmatism, London: Macmillan.
  • 1969, Metaphysics and Common Sense, London: Macmillan. (Essays on knowledge, man as a subject for science, chance, philosophy and politics, existentialism, metaphysics, and a reply to Austin on sense-data theory.)
  • 1971, Russell and Moore: The Analytical Heritage, London: Macmillan.
  • 1972a, Probability and Evidence, London: Macmillan.
  • 1972b, Bertrand Russell, London: Fontana.
  • 1973, The Central Questions of Philosophy, London: Weidenfeld.
  • 1979, “Replies”, in G. Macdonald, ed., Perception and Identity, London: Macmillan.
  • 1980, Hume, Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • 1982, Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, London: Weidenfeld.
  • 1984, Freedom and Morality and Other Essays, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • 1986, Ludwig Wittgenstein, London: Penguin.
  • 1977, Part of My Life, London: Collins.
  • 1984, More of My Life, London: Collins.

External links

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