Ayer, Anscombe and Empiricism

Alasdair MacIntyre

  • Perception and Identity: Essays presented to A.J. Ayer with his replies to them edited by G.E. MacDonald
    Macmillan, 358 pp, £15.00, December 1979, ISBN 0 333 27182 3
  • Intention and Intentionality: Essays in Honour of G.E.M. Anscombe edited by Cora Diamond and Jenny Teichmann
    Harvester, 205 pp, £16.95, December 1979, ISBN 0 85527 985 0

Locke, Berkeley and Hume were three very different philosophers with very different preoccupations, modes of argument and attitudes towards the world. But by the middle of the 19th century it had become the custom to view them as the successive representatives of a single empiricist tradition. It is the English rather than the British who excel in the invention of traditions. And although the presence of an Irish bishop and a Scottish sceptic in the empiricist trinity made it necessary to think of the tradition under the title of ‘British’ rather than ‘English’ empiricism, it was always as a very specifically English cultural tradition – like cricket, afternoon tea and Anglicanism – that empiricism flourished.

It has flourished as more than a philosophy, if by philosophy we understand the conventionally bounded academic discipline. For it has provided the intellectual basis for a distinctively secular and liberal view of the world. Its cultural power has derived above all from its ability to produce at intervals representatives who have both made large contributions to academic philosophy and been effective public spokesmen for the secular and liberal causes of their day. John Stuart Mill was one such, and Bertrand Russell another. In our own time, the latest and perhaps the last of this chain of great figures has been Sir Alfred Ayer. Ayer shares with Russell and with Mill not only an intellectual allegiance to empiricist doctrine, and a willingness to identify himself with a certain kind of public cause: he shares, too, a certain temper of mind, which blends acerbity with generosity, and an admirably elegant and lucid English prose style. It has indeed become difficult to imagine what a cogent statement of empiricism would be like in any language other than English.

This last claim may at first sight seem absurd to anyone who has read the sometimes witty and always rigorous exposition of logical positivist doctrine that appeared in Erkenntnis in its great days. And it is of course true that in the Thirties in Oxford the young A.J. Ayer was seen by most of his philosophical elders as expounding an alien and distinctively Germanic doctrine in Language, Truth and Logic. Ayer himself, although recognising how much he shared with the native analytical school of philosophers who had learnt their methods from G.E. Moore – Susan Stebbing and John Wisdom, for example – saw himself as above all in debt to and an adherent of the views and arguments of the Vienna Circle. But, in retrospect, what is remarkable is the extent to which he had already domesticated Austrian positivism and turned it into something much more different from the original than either he or the hostile Oxonians, such as H.L.A. Prichard and W.B. Joseph, suspected – into, in fact, a new and newly exciting version of British empiricism.

Empiricism, like every other major philosophical perspective, creates many of its problems out of its solutions. So the empiricist insistence that all genuine empirical knowledge is founded upon our sense-experiences, a conviction whereby the empiricist hopes to distinguish beliefs for which, on an empiricist view, we have adequate rational grounds – such as beliefs about cricket bats and tea-tables – from beliefs for which on an empiricist view there are no adequate grounds – such as the belief that there are unicorns or (for most, although not all, empiricists) the belief that God exists – itself immediately generates problems about our knowledge of other people, about the relationship of our experiences of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling to the physical objects which ostensibly cause them, about the nature of personal identity, and about how scientific generalisations which extend beyond our experiences could be warranted by them.

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