Philosophy in the 20th Century 
by A.J. Ayer.
Weidenfeld, 283 pp., £12.50, September 1982, 0 297 78179 0
Show More
Show More

‘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 recognition of the fact by devoting one chapter of his history to Collingwood and another to selected representatives of phenomenology and existentialism. But the rest of his 20th-century pundits are analytical philosophers, and few professionals in the English-speaking world would quarrel with this choice. It is true that Ayer himself speaks of the greater part of his book as devoted to two main schools: he distinguishes American pragmatism from ‘the analytic movement’ and assigns Goodman and Quine as well as James and Lewis to the former, while the coverage of the latter runs from Russell to Dummett via the members of the Vienna Circle and a number of familiar English and American names. But if Lewis, Quine and Goodman were, or are, content to call themselves pragmatists, one suspects that it is more from local piety than from any sense of belonging to a different ‘school’ from that which accommodates the representatives of the ‘analytic movement’. Quine owes more to Russell and Carnap than he does to William James. James is really the odd man out. Apart from Ayer himself, who has devoted some sympathetic pages, here and elsewhere, to his work, James has not received much attention from philosophers in the last fifty years.

Any history written by one who himself played a great part in the events he recounts is likely to reflect the interests and partialities of the historian. It is right it should be so. One does not expect, or wish, Ayer to take a detached view of the history of 20th-century philosophy any more than one expects, or wishes, Clarendon to take a detached view of the Great Rebellion. The vitality of the work would suffer if the attempt were made: and neither Ayer’s work nor Clarendon’s suffers from lack of vitality. So Ayer is both selective and argumentative. Not that he is an unfaithful historian: he faithfully alludes to most of the more important doctrines espoused by most of the major figures he discusses. But for relatively full and detailed exposition and discussion he selects their views on matters which have primarily interested him; and when he thinks those views are wrong, or inadequately supported, he says so and says why.

Some areas of the subject, in consequence, receive relatively scanty treatment. One of them is ethics. Ayer is quite out of sympathy with the ethical cognitivism or objectivism of Moore and Prichard, doctrines which invoke and rest upon a dubious power of intuition of the intrinsically good (Moore) or of the simply obligatory (Prichard). Philosophically, Ayer is an unrepentant subjectivist; morally, he prefers Prichard’s ‘serious concern with the details of obligation’ to Moore’s limited and over-refined conception of the good as consisting solely in the enjoyment of beauty and the love of those of one’s friends whose mental and physical qualities merit it – a view, it must be acknowledged, which could be taken only by one who lived in highly protected and privileged circumstances and who was comparatively indifferent to the ‘grosser’ pleasures. On later developments in ethics Ayer is silent: he does not refer to Hare’s prescriptivism or to that more recent swing of the philosophical pendulum which seems likely to restore a cautious form of moral objectivism to at least partial and temporary favour.

What is variously known as the philosophy of language, philosophical logic or the theory of meaning receives rather more attention: but still rather less than might seem warranted, or demanded, by the dominant position it has held in philosophical discussion of the last thirty years – since, roughly, the systematic work of Frege became well-known. Questions about sense, reference, semantics and logical syntax interest Ayer less for their own sakes than in so far as doctrine on these matters impinges on issues which he finds truly passionnants – such as essentialism, realism, verificationism.

On questions he finds more congenial Ayer expands. Much of the space saved on ethics and logic is devoted to the problems of perception and the physical world and of the relation of mind and body. The views, in particular, of Russell, Moore, Lewis, Carnap, Broad and Goodman on the first of these problems are scrupulously expounded and criticised; their various degrees of intricacy, inconclusiveness and ingenuity are duly noted; and their final inadequacies exposed. Ayer himself has retreated, or advanced, from his early phenomenalism to what he has elsewhere described as ‘a sophisticated form of realism’. Early allegiances, however, are not altogether abandoned; if private sense-contents or sense-data no longer hold pride of logical place, their successors in this position are recognisably their descendants: sense-qualia, conceived of as initially enjoying an ontologically neutral status as between the private and the public, the particular and the general, supply the logical ground and material for a ‘theory’ which is both close to the common picture of the world in that it distinguishes sensibly propertied physical things from sensory experiences of them, allowing the latter to be causally dependent on the former, and at the same time is not exclusive of the apparently starker version of the facts associated with the physical sciences. For a full statement of his position on this inexhaustibly interesting topic Ayer rightly refers his readers to Chapters Four and Five of his book, The Central Questions of Philosophy. In respect of their starting-points there is a family resemblance between Ayer’s account and those of the philosophers he criticises; and of all the members of this family of theories Ayer’s must be judged the most thorough and the most convincing.

The mind-body problem receives less extensive treatment, Ayer’s fire being mainly reserved for currently fashionable versions of materialism or physicalism. Broad, who deserves, and is treated with, respect, appears as a rather half-hearted forerunner in this fashion. That respectable philosopher viewed with favour the doctrine that all mental events were identical with physical events, while contemptuously rejecting the notion that the mental characteristics of such events were reducible to physical characteristics; mentality, as characterising physical events, was an emergent feature of the latter when they attained a certain kind and degree of complexity. Ayer’s objection to this view, as to those of Ryle and the present reviewer, is that it leaves too many questions unanswered. His principal targets, however, are Armstrong and Davidson. The materialism of the former is too crude for his and perhaps for any sensitive stomach; and he effectively exposes the weaknesses in Davidson’s ingenious and celebrated argument: its premises are both questionable in themselves and at odds with each other. To what Ayer conceives of as the central problem in this area – viz. what grounds the fact that a particular experience is ‘had’ by a particular human being? – his answer is uncharacteristically tentative.

The polymath Collingwood, who stands clearly outside the analytic tradition, is honoured, as already remarked, by a chapter to himself – partly, one suspects, because, like Ayer himself, he writes well. Ayer treats his more extravagant doctrines with indulgence, tempered by irony. A point which Ayer does not explicitly remark on, though it emerges clearly from the pages of his book, is the existence of an unexpected affinity between certain of the views of Collingwood, Carnap and, in the last period of his life, Wittgenstein. Collingwood spoke of the ‘absolute presuppositions’ which underlay all empirical inquiry in a given cultural epoch and were sharply to be distinguished from all the verifiable or falsifiable propositions for which they supplied (for the time) the unquestioned background. Car-nap’s ontological frameworks, which we may find it expedient to employ but of which it makes no sense to inquire whether or not they correspond to reality, have a comparable status. Finally Wittgenstein, in On Certainty, spoke of propositions which ‘have the form of empirical propositions’ but which are not themselves up for question or verification, supplying rather, as for Collingwood, the ‘inherited background’ against which we pursue our inquiries or the ‘scaffolding’ of our structures of belief. One wonders whether the spirit of Kant would have been gratified to find the synthetic a priori thus re-emerging from the shades. Probably not: since it comes in what, for him, would be ‘such a questionable shape’

On essentialism Ayer is uncompromisingly faithful to his early self and, as in much else, to Hume. The only necessities he is prepared to recognise, apart from the formally logical or mathematical, are those which analytically link, or separate, descriptions. Here he is, at least superficially, at odds with current doctrines associated mainly with the names of Putnam and Kripke. Perhaps superficially only: for in the case of natural kinds the notion of ‘essence’ might plausibly be interpreted in a sufficiently anodyne fashion; and in the case of particular identities the adoption of a suitable semantic theory renders the doctrine innocuous and even trivial. But the terms in which these doctrines are expounded are certainly provocative. If intentionally so, the intention is fulfilled.

In the opening chapter of his book Ayer gives a spirited résumé of the unresolved conflicts which have characterised philosophy for two millennia and more. Nevertheless, he claims, there has been progress – in two respects in particular. First, there has been a gain in self-consciousness: philosophers have arrived at a more realistic conception of the limitations and possibilities of their discipline. Second, and connectedly, there has been, he argues, a gain in clarity of thought and style; and this he attributes to the surviving spirit of Viennese positivism.

In so far as the second of these claims is justifiable, the attribution of credit is questionable. Ayer here does less than justice to Moore, of whom he quotes Russell as saying: ‘For some years he fulfilled my ideal of genius.’ It is true that, from a literary point of view, Moore’s style cannot be unreservedly admired and that we owe him no exciting new doctrines. Yet he made a unique contribution of inestimable value. He was the most pertinacious enemy of obscurity that the subject has known. Eschewing, almost completely, technical jargon, and completely eschewing tropes and all the persuasive devices of rhetoric, he laboured to make the questions to which he addressed himself absolutely clear, believing, perhaps, that the answers to them would then be obvious. It cannot be said that this belief, or hope, was well founded. But the example he set has surely, at least in England, contributed as much to the genuine gains in clarity which have been made as the confident dogmatisms of Vienna.

The claim itself – of a gain in clarity – is not unjustified. But it too requires qualification. Old jargons perish. New jargons take their place. What Quine, once and somewhat ironically, referred to as the ‘limpid vernacular’ characteristic of some English philosophical writing of the Fifties is less in evidence in the style of the Seventies and Eighties. Moreover, old doctrines, once thought safely dead and buried, show a tendency to reappear, admittedly in new and generally more sophisticated forms. A revival of essentialism in metaphysics and of objectivism in ethics has already been noted; and the atomism which was characteristic of the early 20th-century revolt against Hegelianism and its heirs is giving way, not indeed to a renewal of the excesses of Absolute Idealism, but to what is now known as ‘holism’. In all this there is really nothing to deplore. In their endless attempt to get a clear, coherent and intellectually satisfying view of the complexities which confront them, philosophers are almost inevitably prone to corrective exaggeration of aspects of those complexities which the exaggerations of other philosophers have minimised; and their tendency to grasp at new techniques which offer new hopes of illumination is equally intelligible. The game will never be played to a finish. It would be a great loss if it were.

Of Wittgenstein, Quine, Austin and Chomsky, Ayer – while making clear his reservations – writes urbanely, with due recognition of their influence and power; he quotes in full Austin’s eloquent peroration to ‘Ifs and Cans’. His urbanity, understandably, comes under greater strain when he considers the work of Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and Sartre; overheated prose, charlatanism and bad argument do not escape censure. As was to be expected, Ayer’s own prose is impeccable. He has written, not a comprehensive history, but a vivid, graceful and selective account of some major figures and issues of the period. He makes it clear that he has not wavered in his philosophical allegiance. In his last sentence he proclaims himself ready to accept with pride the label of an ‘old-fashioned empiricist’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences