A.J. Ayer

A.J. Ayer, who died in 1989, was the author of Language, Truth and Logic, published in 1936 when he was 25, and The Problem of Knowledge, among other books. After the war he became Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at UCL and between 1959 and 1978 was Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford.

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.

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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Minimalism

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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