Alfred Jules Ayer (A.J.) (1910 - 1986)
Jules (A. J.) Ayer
was a British philosopher born on October
29, 1910 in London, England to Jules Ayer, a Swiss Calvinist financier,
and Reine Citroën from the Dutch-Jewish family who founded the Citroën
car company in France.
Ayer was an only child whose early youth was somewhat lonely until he
attended the prestigious Eton College after winning a scholarship. He
then attended Christchurch College, Oxford through a classics
After studying with the members of the Vienna Circle, Ayer published
his major work Language, Truth, and Logic
in 1936 when he was only 26 years old. The Vienna Circle was an
association of philosophers who met to discuss the concept of logical
positivism (combination of empiricism and rationalism, also known as
analytic philosophy) as drawn from Ludwig
Wittgenstein's Tractates Logico-Philosophicus.
In Language, Truth, and Logic
Ayer put forth the central views of logical positivism which included
the use of verifiability as a criterion of meaning. For example, a
sentence is factually significant if, and only if, it is empirically
verifiable to derive a number of conclusions, including the conclusions
that (1) all metaphysical theories are meaningless, and (2) in
describing things as being morally 'good' or 'bad', we are really just
expressing our own attitudes
As an illustration, if we were to say that "killing is wrong", we would
be attributing to acts of killing a certain moral property of it being
wrong. According to Ayer, however, what we are really doing is
expressing our attitude towards killing rather than a true or false
claim about the act of killing itself.
It would be similar to saying "Hooray for the Yankees!" This sentence
is not used to make any sort of claim, but is being used instead to
express approval and support of a team. In Ayer's view the sentence,
‘Killing is wrong’, is used similarly to express our disapproval of
killing rather than making a claim about the sentence being true or
While Ayer acknowledges that ethical terms can be included in factual
statements, their inclusion adds nothing to its factual content:
"If I say to someone, 'You acted
wrongly in stealing that money', I am not stating anything more than if
I had simply said, 'You stole that money'. In adding that this action
is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply
evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, 'You stole
that money', in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the
addition of some special exclamation marks."
In Language, Truth and Logic,
Ayer also rejected atheism in the same way he dismissed any religion -
on the grounds that religious discourse is meaningless. He believed
that religious language is unverifiable and, as such, nonsense. As a
result, "There is no God" was for Ayer as meaningless and metaphysical
a proclamation as "God exists."
Although Ayer himself was an atheist, he distinguished himself
from both agnostics and atheists by declaring that both of these
positions take the statement "God exists" as a meaningful hypothesis,
which Ayer does not.
In endorsing the views of logical positivism, Ayer saw himself as
continuing in the tradition of British empiricism established by Locke,
and more recently Bertrand
Russell. Throughout his career he continued to reject the
possibility of an a priori knowledge. Instead, he
saw the role of philosophy to be one of analyzing the meaning of such
terms as 'causality', 'truth', 'knowledge', 'freedom' and the like.
Thus the major portion of Ayer's work focused on exploring our claims
to knowledge, particularly perceptual knowledge and knowledge that was
dependant upon inductive reasoning for its credibility.
Amongst British philosophers of the 20th Century, Alfred, Jules Ayer
has been ranked as second only to Bertrand Russell.
In fact, some believe that his contribution to the theory of knowledge
and general metaphysics is equal to that of Bertrand Russell.