Out of Sight, out of Mind

Frank Kermode

  • A.J. Ayer: A Life by Ben Rogers
    Chatto, 402 pp, £20.00, June 1999, ISBN 0 7011 6316 X

A.J. Ayer, says Ben Rogers, had a ‘pampered upbringing, even by Edwardian standards’. He suffered much at prep school, then went to Eton, where he suffered less and got over it. The next move, to Christ Church, was painless. Oxford gave him Gilbert Ryle as his tutor and appointed him to a lectureship before he graduated.

Having volunteered for war service he was drawn, by the irresistible voice of privilege, into a Guards regiment. Thereafter his military career passed through several glamorous and comfortable stages: he was, in his own words, ‘a soldier in England, a British government official in the United States, an apprentice commando in Canada, a civil servant in the Gold Coast, a staff officer in London, a political observer in North Africa, a tourist in Italy and a liaison officer in the invasion of Southern France’. A little later, the Ambassador, Duff Cooper, declared that he was ‘extremely anxious to have him’, so Ayer became ‘a diplomat in Paris’, where he met everybody – Bataille, Artaud, Leiris, Giacometti, Tzara and so on. He had some affairs and developed an interest in Existentialism which produced good articles on Sartre and Camus. Times were hard for most Parisians, but Ayer lived in Guy de Rothschild’s house in Paris, supported by a butler, a cook and a good cellar.

When this arduous postwar service was over he returned to Oxford, at a time when philosophy in Oxford had yet to become Oxford philosophy and, in his view (Ryle, perhaps, apart, and H.H. Price), needed a good shaking. Real philosophy was what went on in Cambridge. Ayer read Wittgenstein when hardly anybody else in Oxford thought of doing so. But at Ryle’s suggestion he gave up the idea of sitting at Wittgenstein’s feet in Cambridge and instead went to Vienna to work with Moritz Schlick – this at a time when hardly anybody in England had even heard of Logical Positivism. In his early twenties he published what is probably to this day the most widely read work of English philosophy, Language, Truth and Logic (1936), and followed it with The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge (1940). Late in life he doubted whether much of Language, Truth and Logic was right, and complained that students are required to read it primarily in order to pick holes in it; but it survives and sells by the thousand, partly, no doubt, because it is very well written. ‘Sixty years on,’ says Rogers, ‘the book’s vigour, elegance and ease are as remarkable as ever. Never has philosophy been so fast, so neat.’

In view of all these successes it may be surprising to find that Ayer habitually thought of himself as an ‘outsider’ and ‘self-made’, exaggerating the poverty of his family, looking at the world, as his widow, Dee Wells, puts it, with ‘big desiring eyes’, and, despite a career of equal brilliance as philosopher and hedonist, often a little anxious about where he stood on the borders of outside and inside.

Certainly Oxford, despite that lectureship, was reluctant to admit him to true insider academic status. Oxford philosophy was a competitive business; there were certain prizes that one had to win, the John Locke Prize, the All Souls Fellowship; but Ayer’s fate was to be pipped by his contemporaries, Isaiah Berlin, Goronwy Rees and the slightly younger J.L. Austin. As an undergraduate he had been taken up by Maurice Bowra and acquired a certain celebrity by having a mistress, but this was no help to his professional career. The wind that favoured Berlin and the others seemed set against him.

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