A.J. Ayer

A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic was published in 1936, when he was 25. Between 1959 and 1978 he was the Wykeham Professor of Logic at New College, Oxford. His autobiography, Part of My Life, came out in 1977. He died in 1989.

Someone might go into the past

A.J. Ayer, 5 January 1989

Professor Hawking’s Brief History of Time thoroughly deserves the praise with which it has been widely received. With only one formula, Einstein’s celebrated E = mc2, which he could just as well have put into prose simply by saying that energy is the arithmetical product of mass and the square of the velocity of light, Hawking gives a more lucid account than any that has yet come my way of such arcane matters as quantum theory and its wave-particle duality, the general and special theories of relativity, the blending of space and time into a four-dimensional continuum, the ways in which physicists measure the age and structure of the universe, the ‘big bang’ with which it is thought to have started, the reasons for holding that it continues to expand, the shrinkage of stars into ‘black holes’.

Psychoneural Pairs

A.J. Ayer, 19 May 1988

The problem first of clarifying and then of answering the questions how far human thoughts and actions are subject to causality and whether this is consistent with their being free is one to which many different approaches have been made throughout the history of philosophy. I doubt if any of them has been the product of such intense research as Professor Honderich has devoted to the construction, the defence and the evaluation of his theory of determinism. Agreement among philosophers, especially on fundamental questions, is difficult to reach, and I shall be arguing against Honderich’s theory at many crucial points. Nevertheless, I think that his readiness to accept even the most startling implications of his views, the patience he displays in examining alternatives to them, his assiduity in setting out and trying to meet a wide range of objections, are all highly creditable to him.

World Cup

A.J. Ayer, 24 July 1986

When it comes to soccer’s World Cup, it is not always the case that the best team wins. One notable counter-example was the World Cup of 1954, when the West Germans defeated the Hungarians, and another, possibly, was that in which the West Germans defeated the Dutch. This year, however, I think it probable that the best team did win. Admittedly the first goal scored by Argentina against England in the quarter-finals ought not to have stood, but the second goal scored by Maradona was the most brilliant single episode of the tournament, and it is unlikely that the Argentinians would have allowed the English to come as near as they did to equalising at the very end of the match if they had not been two goals ahead. The fact that they did allow the Germans to equalise under similar conditions in the final is not a decisive counter-argument, since they immediately responded with the winning goal, and I believe that if the match against England had gone to extra time, the Argentinians would still have won.’

In Piam Memoriam

A.J. Ayer, 20 June 1985

Alfred North Whitehead, who lived from 1861 to 1947, is chiefly remembered in England as Bertrand Russell’s collaborator in the three volumes of Principia Mathematica. He was, however, not only a professional mathematician – which Russell ceased to be after coming out joint seventh Wrangler in the first part of the Cambridge Tripos in 1893 – but a philosopher in his own right. It was as a philosopher that he was invited to occupy a Chair at Harvard in 1924, after retiring from the Chair of Applied Mathematics at the Imperial College of Science in the University of London. He retained his professorship at Harvard until 1937 and continued to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts until his death. His association with the English Cambridge lasted from 1880, when he came up to Trinity as a mathematical scholar from Sherborne, until 1910, when he resigned the Fellowship at Trinity which he had held for 26 years.’

Diary: More of A.J. Ayer’s Life

A.J. Ayer, 22 December 1983

On 29 October I celebrated my 73rd birthday. All in all, this has been a good year for me. A year ago I was living with my future family at Hanover, New Hampshire, as the result of being appointed a Montgomery Fellow and Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Dartmouth College. Mr Kenneth Montgomery, a millionaire alumnus of the college, had endowed a fellowship which made generous provision for anyone whom the college chose to appoint. There was no requirement that it be an academic, nor was any period set to the tenure of the Fellowship. Mr Edward Heath had held it in the course of a very short visit to Dartmouth; my immediate predecessor, the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, for the best part of a year. I was originally invited only for the autumn term of 1982, but the invitation was extended to the winter term of 1983. We returned to London for the month of December 1982 and spent January to March back in Hanover.


A.J. Ayer, 20 May 1982

It is not easy to see what purpose this book is meant to serve. Koestler himself has written two excellent works of autobiography, An Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing, and two others, The Spanish Testament and Scum of the Earth, of which the main interest is autobiographical. Mr Hamilton admits to drawing heavily upon these works, but does no more than summarise their contents in a less forceful style than Koestler’s own. His prolongation of the story beyond the year 1940, where Koestler abandons it, is mainly devoted to Koestler’s politics, with some side-glances at his scientific and philosophical pretensions. It throws little further light upon his character and apart from diffusing an aura of reverence makes no attempt to assess his contribution to literature.

Past, Present and Future

A.J. Ayer, 21 January 1982

These three volumes of Professor Anscombe’s collected papers encompass everything of importance that she has published, apart from her work as literary executor and translator of Ludwig Wittgenstein and her three books: Intention, An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s ‘Tractatus’ and Three Philosophers, written in collaboration with Professor Peter Geach, and containing studies of Aristotle, Aquinas and Frege. Her interest in the topic of intention and the teachings of Aristotle reappears in these papers, but they have little overtly to do with either Aquinas or Frege, and the influence of Wittgenstein is much less obtrusive than one might have been led to expect. Only in one paper, ‘The Reality of the Past’, which first appeared in 1950, during Wittgenstein’s lifetime, do we find the submissive footnote: ‘The best that I have written is a weak copy of some features of the original, and its value depends only on my capacity to understand and use Dr Wittgenstein’s work.’

Cause and Effect

A.J. Ayer, 15 October 1981

On the flyleaf of Messrs Beauchamp and Rosenberg’s book about Hume’s theory of causation, Professor Donald Davidson says of it: ‘This is certainly the best available discussion of Hume and causality. It is much more than that, however: it is the best book-length treatment of causality.’ Professor Davidson is perhaps a little biased by the fact that the authors’ views on the nature of causality coincide so very closely with his own. I should not myself rank their book quite so highly, among those that have appeared in recent years, as J.L. Mackie’s The Cement of The Universe, to which indeed they pay respectful tribute. One of the merits of their book, which has, however, the defect of making it rather stodgy reading, is that with the exception of my own little book on Hume, in the OUP ‘Past Masters’ series – which, since they pay attention to my other writings, I take to have appeared only after their manuscript was completed – there is practically no modern contribution either to the philosophy of Hume or to the topic of causality that they fail to acknowledge and often to discuss, sometimes in greater detail than its interest seems to warrant. I was momentarily puzzled by a series of references to a philosopher called ‘Gertrude Anscombe’ until I remembered that Professor Elizabeth Anscombe’s initials were G.E.M.

Saving the appearances

A.J. Ayer, 19 March 1981

Professor Van Fraassen’s book is a recent addition to the Clarendon Library of Logic and Philosophy which Mr Jonathan Cohen is editing for the Oxford University Press. Its aim, as expressed in the blurb, is ‘to develop an empiricist alternative to both logical positivism and scientific realism’. In fact, Van Fraassen has very little to say about logical positivism, which he regards as philosophically outmoded, and devotes nearly all his energy to confronting scientific realism with what he calls a constructive alternative. This consists of three interlocking theories, one of them concerning the relation of scientific theories to the world, which Van Fraassen identifies with their ‘empirical import’, the second a theory of scientific explanation, and the third an account of probability as ‘it occurs within scientific theories’. Van Fraassen claims to have avoided technicalities throughout, but he presumes that his readers have a fair command of logic and mathematics, and I doubt if his treatment of probability, in particular, would mean very much to anyone who was not already well versed in quantum physics. Van Fraassen’s own command both of the history of physics and of the contemporary literature bearing on its philosophy is not in doubt.

What is what

A.J. Ayer, 22 January 1981

Professor Wiggins’s new book was originally intended to be a revision of his book Identity and Spatio-Temporal Continuity, which appeared in 1967 and had been allowed to go out of print. Like the earlier book, it is concerned with questions of identity, and especially with the identity of things which persist through change, and it advances the same theory of individuation. So much, however, has been added, and so earnest an attempt has been made to clarify what the earlier book had left obscure, that this ranks as an independent work. Though it is less arcane than its predecessor, the density of its argument and the author’s predilection for symbols still make it difficult reading, but the philosophical interest of its subject, and the thorough honesty of its treatment, more than make up for this deficiency. There is no denying the importance of having a proper theory of identity, and even if not all his arguments carry equal conviction, the attempt which Wiggins has made to supply this need deserves to be treated with very great respect.

Labour’s Lost Leader

A.J. Ayer, 22 November 1979

If only Hugh Gaitskell had not died when he did. If only he had led the Labour Party into the General Election of 1964. He had at last succeeded in imposing his ascendency over the party – an ascendency repeatedly challenged in the eight years he had led it, all the time in opposition. Would he not have become Prime Minister with a larger majority? Would not his government have dealt more successfully with the economic troubles of the Sixties? Might he not have retained power in 1970, and so saved us from the disastrous years of the Heath government? Might we not consequently have been spared our present discontents?

There is a fatal objection to the social interpretation of Wittgenstein’s theory of language which seems to have escaped the notice of some of his expositors. If A cannot use a sign S to refer to an object O unless he is already aware that B and C are so using it, and if B cannot so use it without already being aware that A and C are doing so, and if C cannot use it without already being aware...

Fateful Swerve

4 February 1988

SIR: In a letter published in your issue of 31 March, Mr Simon Critchley accuses me, by implication, of philosophical insularity. I regret that, in order to rebut this charge, I have to blow my own trumpet, I hope not too loudly. Since the war, I have received and accepted invitations to lecture in 32 foreign countries, 18 of them in Europe. I have lectured frequently in French, occasionally in Spanish...


24 July 1986

A.J. Ayer writes: ‘Stephen’ for ‘Steven’ was careless and I apologise. I know that Waddle came onto the field before Barnes, and I thought I remembered that Steven left it before Reid. If I was mistaken, it was no doubt because Waddle took on Steven’s role. Hoddle is certainly no cruncher, but I do not admit that he lacks courage. As for Mr Smith’s list of Northern...


23 May 1985

SIR: Much as I enjoyed Mike Selvey’s article in your issue of 23 May, I was astonished to learn that the cause of Women’s Liberation had made such progress in Australia by 1974-5 that a Ms Lillian Thomson was bowling bouncers in a Test Match: it was only in the pursuit of sleep that I caught the joke. Alan Bennett is always witty, but I thought that he excelled himself in his treatment...

The Oxford Vote

7 March 1985

SIR: I am in a position to comment on two of the rhetorical questions posed by A.C. Bramwell in the hysterical letter which you published in your issue of 18 April. Bertrand Russell made a substantial contribution to the foundations of mathematics and the ludicrously inept image of Wittgenstein’s cavorting around his room with a poker has no basis in fact.

Aux sports, citoyens

3 December 1981

SIR: Douglas Johnson, writing about French sport (LRB, 3 December 1981), refers to an occasion, located by him in 1910, when ‘the final of the FA Cup (Tottenham Hotspur against Everton) was watched by 110,000 people.’ There never was any such occasion. Some one hundred thousand people did indeed watch Tottenham Hotspur play in their first FA Cup Final, but their opponents were not Everton...

Old Scores

Colin McGinn, 30 August 1990

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...

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Slavery has been ubiquitous in history, with innumerable forms and functions: something of the truth of human nature is revealed by this fact. Horace saw nothing wrong in it, though himself the...

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David Pears, 19 February 1987

Philosophy’s critics have a variety of criteria from which to choose. The first question to ask about any philosopher’s claims is whether they are true. But there are other questions...

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A Billion Years a Week

John Ziman, 19 September 1985

A computer is a tool, working the intentions of its designer or user. It is no more malevolent than the village clock whose chimes wake us in the night, or the car whose failed brakes run us...

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An End to Anxiety

Barry Stroud, 18 July 1985

Wittgenstein predicted that his work would not be properly understood and appreciated. He said it was written in a different spirit from that of the main stream of European and American...

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The seventh volume of Russell’s Collected Papers contains the core of a book which he never completed. He stopped working on it, probably because he felt that he could not honestly go on....

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Gains in Clarity

P.F. Strawson, 4 November 1982

‘Philosophy in the 20th century’ or ‘Analytical philosophy in the 20th century’? Ayer is well aware that the two descriptions are not co-extensive. He marks his...

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Short Books on Great Men

John Dunn, 22 May 1980

To be truly a Master is to have authority. To claim to be a Master is to claim to possess authority. We can be confident that more persons claim to have authority than do truly have it. What is...

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