Old Scores

Colin McGinn

  • The Meaning of Life, and Other Essays by A.J. Ayer
    Weidenfeld, 212 pp, £17.00, June 1990, ISBN 0 297 82041 9

When I was a quivering graduate student at Oxford in 1973, fresh from the Northern provinces, I sat for the John Locke Prize, a voluntary two-day examination for Oxford postgraduates in philosophy. As I had hitherto been a psychology student at Manchester, I thought this would be good practice for my upcoming B.Phil. philosophy exams. It was quite an ordeal (I nearly gave up at one point), and afterwards I felt I had a long way to go philosophically. A few days later Professor Ayer, who was one of the examiners, informed me that he had been obliged to require that my papers be typed, on account of their extreme illegibility: I would have to dictate them to a typist in the presence of an invigilator, both of whom I would have to pay. I apologised to him for my calligraphic delinquency and expressed some mumbled misgivings about going to all that trouble and expense, in view of my poor performance. To my surprise, he said he thought I was ‘worth it’, on what basis I am not sure. I therefore did as I was told, spending a couple of wincing days reading out my script to be converted into cold type. I really must improve my handwriting, I thought.

Two or three weeks later Professor Ayer told me that I had been awarded the prize. He seemed almost as pleased as I was, clapping me warmly on the back and congratulating himself on his former perspicacity. As a result of this, I was enabled to pursue a career in philosophy, which I doubt would have been possible otherwise, given my educational background. Thus I owe a considerable debt to A.J. Ayer for giving me a break when it would have been easy to allow my bad hand to count against me. Since I later became a John Locke Prize examiner myself, I know what an unusual step this was for him to authorise.

Some years later, when I was teaching at University College London, in the department Ayer had done so much to create, I met him before some lecture or other. I had just published a review in Mind of a collection of essays dedicated to him, which included his replies to these essays, and in the course of this review I described his remarks on the subject of de re necessity as ‘wholly worthless’, a phrase I had hesitated over but felt was literally correct. As I feared, he raised the topic of this review. I steeled myself for his rebuke for dismissing his views so summarily, but he made no mention of the phrase or the verdict it enshrined, which indeed was only the most recent instalment of a long-standing disagreement between us. Instead, he took me to task over another word I had used. I had commented in the review that his present assessment of metaphysics was far more tolerant than that of his ‘callower years’, i.e. the years of Language, Truth and Logic, written when he was a mere 26. His complaint was not, as might be expected, that I was here implying that his earlier rejection of metaphysics was merely callow: no, his objection was to what he took to be the suggestion that he was now callow. I was puzzled at first that he could read the offending locution in that way, and I assured him that I had not intended it thus, pointing out that it did not logically bear that entailment, any more than use of the phrase ‘younger days’ would imply that he was now young. In fact, I had chosen the comparative form precisely to avoid implying that he was positively callow when young, not even imagining that it might be taken to imply septuagenarian puerility. But my protests went unheeded: the elderly man of distinction was determined to interpret me as accusing him of advanced immaturity. It was not a comfortable encounter, I can tell you. On reflection, it seemed to me that I had unwittingly twanged a raw nerve in him, which revealed more about his own estimate of himself than about my verbal sloppiness: he was less sensitive to being convicted outright of having ‘wholly worthless’ philosophical views than to there being even a hint (however subtextual or unintended) that he was in some respect intellectually unripe.

It must have been fairly soon after this that he came to read a paper at UCL, which again touched on the topic of de re necessity. He had flu and had lost his voice, but he didn’t let that put him off. He arranged to have Richard Wollheim read his paper out for him. As the paper was mellifluously read, in cadences quite unlike Freddie’s own clipped and headlong mode of speech (‘prshn’ for ‘proposition’), he nodded his vigorous assent to the arguments that were being advanced, as if congratulating an esteemed colleague on his remarkable probity, and occasionally fixing me with a beady stare where he imagined I might disagree. He was not to be deterred from fighting his corner.

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