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.

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 that...

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.


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...

Making truth

24 July 1986

SIR: In successive sentences of his fascinating contribution to your issue of 17 April, Professor Rorty endorses the view that ‘great scientists invent descriptions of the world which are useful for purposes of predicting and controlling what happens,’ and asserts that ‘there is no sense in which any of these descriptions is an accurate representation of the way the world is in itself.’ If...

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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