Old Scores

Colin McGinn

  • The Meaning of Life, and Other Essays by A.J. Ayer
    Weidenfeld, 212 pp, £17.00, June 1990, ISBN 0 297 82041 9

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 philosophy. As I had hitherto been a psychology student at Manchester, I thought this would be good practice for my upcoming B.Phil. philosophy exams. It was quite an ordeal (I nearly gave up at one point), and afterwards I felt I had a long way to go philosophically. A few days later Professor Ayer, who was one of the examiners, informed me that he had been obliged to require that my papers be typed, on account of their extreme illegibility: I would have to dictate them to a typist in the presence of an invigilator, both of whom I would have to pay. I apologised to him for my calligraphic delinquency and expressed some mumbled misgivings about going to all that trouble and expense, in view of my poor performance. To my surprise, he said he thought I was ‘worth it’, on what basis I am not sure. I therefore did as I was told, spending a couple of wincing days reading out my script to be converted into cold type. I really must improve my handwriting, I thought.

Two or three weeks later Professor Ayer told me that I had been awarded the prize. He seemed almost as pleased as I was, clapping me warmly on the back and congratulating himself on his former perspicacity. As a result of this, I was enabled to pursue a career in philosophy, which I doubt would have been possible otherwise, given my educational background. Thus I owe a considerable debt to A.J. Ayer for giving me a break when it would have been easy to allow my bad hand to count against me. Since I later became a John Locke Prize examiner myself, I know what an unusual step this was for him to authorise.

Some years later, when I was teaching at University College London, in the department Ayer had done so much to create, I met him before some lecture or other. I had just published a review in Mind of a collection of essays dedicated to him, which included his replies to these essays, and in the course of this review I described his remarks on the subject of de re necessity as ‘wholly worthless’, a phrase I had hesitated over but felt was literally correct. As I feared, he raised the topic of this review. I steeled myself for his rebuke for dismissing his views so summarily, but he made no mention of the phrase or the verdict it enshrined, which indeed was only the most recent instalment of a long-standing disagreement between us. Instead, he took me to task over another word I had used. I had commented in the review that his present assessment of metaphysics was far more tolerant than that of his ‘callower years’, i.e. the years of Language, Truth and Logic, written when he was a mere 26. His complaint was not, as might be expected, that I was here implying that his earlier rejection of metaphysics was merely callow: no, his objection was to what he took to be the suggestion that he was now callow. I was puzzled at first that he could read the offending locution in that way, and I assured him that I had not intended it thus, pointing out that it did not logically bear that entailment, any more than use of the phrase ‘younger days’ would imply that he was now young. In fact, I had chosen the comparative form precisely to avoid implying that he was positively callow when young, not even imagining that it might be taken to imply septuagenarian puerility. But my protests went unheeded: the elderly man of distinction was determined to interpret me as accusing him of advanced immaturity. It was not a comfortable encounter, I can tell you. On reflection, it seemed to me that I had unwittingly twanged a raw nerve in him, which revealed more about his own estimate of himself than about my verbal sloppiness: he was less sensitive to being convicted outright of having ‘wholly worthless’ philosophical views than to there being even a hint (however subtextual or unintended) that he was in some respect intellectually unripe.

It must have been fairly soon after this that he came to read a paper at UCL, which again touched on the topic of de re necessity. He had flu and had lost his voice, but he didn’t let that put him off. He arranged to have Richard Wollheim read his paper out for him. As the paper was mellifluously read, in cadences quite unlike Freddie’s own clipped and headlong mode of speech (‘prshn’ for ‘proposition’), he nodded his vigorous assent to the arguments that were being advanced, as if congratulating an esteemed colleague on his remarkable probity, and occasionally fixing me with a beady stare where he imagined I might disagree. He was not to be deterred from fighting his corner.

The last time I saw Freddie was in the autumn of 1988, when we were both attending an Oxford discussion group he had formed well before my time. He was suffering badly from emphysema and could only walk a few paces before losing his breath. He greeted me in the friendliest way and said, half-apologetically, that he was ‘not the man I was’. I found this difficult to reply to. During the ensuing discussion of a colleague’s paper he made strenuous interventions of a wholly characteristic kind: amusing, petulant, a bit axe-grinding, exuberantly deflationary. Afterwards he needed a taxi to take him the hundred yards from University College to New College. A member of the group remarked to me that it would have been good to have tape-recorded that session.

I hope these personal reminiscences succeed in revealing various facets of Freddie Ayer’s character, at least as it appeared to a former student of his and junior colleague: kind and decent to young aspirants, unstuffy, with an upfront vanity and vulnerability, a streak of intellectual insecurity wider than might be expected, personal directness, and a strong need never to be in the shade. I always liked him, and was sadder at his death than I expected.

In this posthumous collection of essays Ayer’s strengths and weaknesses as a philosopher show forth clearly. The essays range from a 1944 piece for Cyril Connolly’s Horizon on the concept of freedom to an article written for the Sunday Telegraph in 1988 on the subject of his four-minute ‘death’ and what he experienced while in that suspended state. Between these are essays on the nature of philosophy, transcribed broadcast dialogues with Father Copleston and Arne Naess, a summary of Russell’s work, an introduction to J.S. Mill, a statement of humanism, and a lecture on the meaning of life. There is the accustomed fluency of style and air of lucidity, and the sense that philosophy is an enjoyable subject: but also the impression of a man in a hurry, talking and thinking too fast for his subject-matter, skidding over difficulties, curiously closed to philosophical perplexity, keener sometimes to score points than to win them. You never get the feeling, reading Ayer, that philosophy is painful – that thinking seriously about it hurts. Neither do you get much of a sense of the nature of philosophical creativity. Indeed, he always seems to me to be writing as if philosophy is essentially over, as if there are no more new ideas to be had. Certainly he was less than fully receptive to many of the ideas that philosophers of my generation take for granted, especially those emanating from America. Original theories were almost invariably referred to as ‘fashions’. His was the world of Russell and Moore, Peirce and James, a bit of Carnap here, the odd mention of Quine there.

The famous radio dialogue with Copleston provides some choice moments. In it Ayer undertakes the difficult task of defending logical positivism against a shrewd philosopher, and historian of philosophy, of the despised old school. It is clear now, as it may not have been then, that Copleston roundly refutes Ayer’s position, doing so with courtesy, clarity and intellectual discipline. At times Ayer flails wildly, as his astute tormentor drives him from one uninhabitable corner to another – though it is not clear that Ayer sees it that way. The anti-positivist points that Copleston fastens on are basically four. First, the verifiability criterion of meaningfulness simply has built into it, by stipulation, the very rejection of metaphysics it is intended to motivate, since on anybody’s view metaphysical propositions are not going to be verifiable by means of sensory observation: their acceptance will depend upon considerations of rational coherence, economy, systematicity, and so forth. The traditional problem of the status of universals, for example, will not be decided by checking the world out experimentally: it will be decided, if it is, well, philosophically. Second, no cogent argument has ever been offered for the verificationist criterion. It is simply a dogma designed to do pre-set polemical work: why should meaningfulness consist in what can be perceptually verified? Third, the principle is open to obvious counter-examples: not merely statements from ethics, aesthetics and metaphysics, but also such homely remarks as that there will come a time when there are no human beings – for who will verify that? Fourth, and most embarrassing, the principle of verifiability is self-refuting: for either it is itself empirically verifiable, or it is ‘merely formal’ (whatever that may mean), or it is meaningless. Since it cannot claim to belong to either of the first two categories, it seems condemned to belong to the third, in which case it says of itself that it is gobbledygook. In fact, of course, it is just an ordinary piece of philosophy, as meaningful as any, though wildly implausible. The problem is that it is a piece of philosophy that denies its own meaningfulness – which is not a good way to get yourself accepted. Copleston also, en passant, makes mincemeat of Ayer’s crude conventionalism about logical truth, forcing him to assert that the law of non-contradiction has no deeper status than the arbitrary rules of a game. The only area of weakness in Copleston’s defence of traditional philosophy is his reliance on theological examples: he would have been wiser to choose a less controversial field of battle.

Ayer was always interested in perception and its relation to our knowledge of the external world. He was worried that what we perceive of the world (if anything) does not seem to justify what we believe about it – the problem of scepticism. This is indeed a legitimate concern, but I do not think Ayer handles it at all satisfactorily. He remarks here, as he often does elsewhere, that the causal theory of perception is inconsistent with naive realism. This is a peculiar claim, for why should the fact that the table causes me to have perceptual experiences imply that I do not really see the table? That is like saying that a causal theory of collision implies that objects never touch! He seems not to have been able to rid himself of the idea that what lies outside the mind, causing events in us and other bodies, is somehow cut off from the mind’s direct apprehension. And perhaps that underlies his desire to find a description of experience that is neutral as to the way the world stands – a sense-datum language. There are interpretations of this project that make sense, but I have never been convinced that Ayer’s is one of them. The central difficulty, over which Ayer’s prose is apt to lose its usual limpidity, is what kind of vocabulary should be employed (or invented) to capture this neutral experiential content. It is not supposed to consist of words for qualities of objects, apparently, since these ‘go beyond’ what is ‘immediately given’, but then we are never quite told what other words we might use. Nor is it clear how his own account of how we move inferentially from perceptual data to the world is supposed to quell the sceptic’s doubts. Okay, we can think of our ordinary beliefs as constituting a theory in respect of the sensory evidence, but what is to exclude the claims of rival theories – the ones we have no tendency to believe? For example, what is it about the evidence that rules out the theory that we are all brains in vats being fed these very sensory inputs by a godlike Martian physiologist? We are not told, so the common-sense theory has not yet been vindicated.

Philosophers are often rebuked for not asking what the meaning of life is or for failing to offer an answer. In his 1988 lecture Ayer both asks and answers this question. Predictably enough, he denies that life has meaning in virtue of a presiding deity, and he locates its meaning in the actual projects and fulfilments of mortal existence. He says a number of sensible and familiar things, but I do not think he quite puts his finger on the essential considerations, which I take to be as follows. To begin with, we need to scrutinise that little phrase, ‘the meaning of life’: what kind of meaning is being envisaged here? It cannot be what Paul Grice called natural meaning – as when clouds mean rain – since the question is not what causal or lawlike relations our lives stand in to other occurrences. Neither can it be a question of semantic meaning – as when a certain English sentence means that it is raining – since my life clearly does not express any kind of proposition. What must be intended is probably best put by dropping the word ‘meaning’ altogether and substituting a word like ‘point’ or ‘purpose’: the question then is what point or purpose there is to human life.

It seems to be very tempting to feel, as a matter of metaphysical exigency, that it must have some point – that there must be something external to it that gives it a point. And here religious ideas are commonly invoked: it is either the existence of God that gives human life a point, or the fact of some more or less supernatural previous or subsequent life. These extra-mortal entities are supposed to inject a point into our life that it would otherwise wholly lack. Now the essential thing to notice about these point-conferring beings is that they are themselves instances of kinds of life, either divine or supernatural in some other way. And the idea is that they are in some way ‘unmeant meaners’: they give point to our lives without themselves needing to have point conferred upon theirs. But now the flaw should be apparent: why should these lives be allowed to have meaning intrinsically while our lives are required to have meaning conferred extrinsically upon them? If the lives of some beings must carry meaning within themselves, as God’s is supposed to, or the selves of the afterlife, then why can’t our lives achieve that now? Clearly it is no use to postulate further lives – a God for God or an afterlife for our afterlife – on pain of an infinite regress. So if there is a genuine metaphysical problem about what gives human life meaning, the religious answers do not solve it; they just push it back a stage. The logical position here is precisely parallel to Wittgenstein’s argument against the tempting idea that linguistic signs get their meaning from other (possibly supernatural) signs. As he saw, since this process has to terminate somewhere, why not halt it at the first stage? The only legitimate sense in which supernatural lives could give natural lives a point is the trivial sense in which the existence of other mortal lives gives point to my life: but then we have that already. There is no metaphysical problem of the meaning of human life which could be solved by multiplying lives, however supernatural those other lives may be.

Once this logical point has been clearly grasped, the only point that human life could have is to be found in what is internal to it. Ayer takes this view too, but I think he only partially locates the internal facts in question. He tends, though he is not entirely consistent in the matter, to locate the value of life in the kinds of fulfilment available to a person leading the kind of life he leads – which brings him to deny, or underestimate, the value of life for people not belonging to what he calls a ‘privileged minority’. ‘The vast majority of the human race,’ he says, ‘in Asia, in Latin America, in Africa, in the so-called underclasses of the more affluent Western societies, are far too fully occupied in waging a losing struggle to achieve a tolerable standard of living for it to be rational for them to wish their miseries prolonged.’ And presumably, for much the same reasons, he would deny value to the lives of animals, on account of the poverty of their life-projects.

Now it is not that I dispute the miseries and limitations in question, but I suggest that Ayer’s inference from them betrays a lopsided conception of what makes life worthwhile. In a word, he ignores, or downplays, the importance of what might be called ‘basic experiences’: enjoying a cool drink, hearing a friend’s voice, even taking a shit. These experiences constitute what life most primitively is – for Oxford dons, Amazonian bushmen, children, dogs and snakes – and it stays that way even when your novel doesn’t get published or your favourite team loses the World Cup. And doesn’t everyone at some time feel, especially when their life has been threatened, that these basic experiences are infinitely precious, that it will be a terrible day when you can feel them no more? The film Robocop, about a man who survives comprehensive violence by being made mainly robot, is precisely an exploration of this theme: the metallic man longs for the days when ordinary experiences were available to him; he wants his ‘lower nature’ back, because without it life is hollow. What we need, I think, is a kind of two-layer theory of the value of life: on top we have the projects and satisfactions we think mostly about; beneath that, the foundation of biological consciousness we tend to take for granted. For a man not averse to the offerings of the senses, it is surprising that Ayer neglects this latter source of value. Was there a repressed ascetic lurking beneath the frankly sybaritic exterior?

The book ends with two pieces recounting his experience of four minutes of heart failure, caused by a piece of smoked salmon going down the wrong way. It seems that during these four minutes he had an experience as of being confronted by an exceedingly bright red light which he was somehow aware governed the universe. This light had two ministers who were in charge of space, which they periodically inspected. They had recently fallen down on the job because space had become slightly out of joint and the laws of nature had gone awry. It was up to Ayer to rectify matters, which he sought to do by operating on time. However, the ministers of space took no notice of him as he walked up and down waving his watch at them. He became desperate, and then the experience came to an end.

At the time this episode was reported there was some question as to whether Ayer took himself to have, or even really had, ‘crossed to the other side’. As he makes clear in a postscript, however, no such thing is implied: by far the most likely explanation is that his brain was still functioning to generate experiences while his heart had temporarily stopped. I can see, though, why some readers may have been misled by what he wrote immediately after describing the experience in question: ‘This experience could well have been delusive ... a slight indication that it may have been veridical has been supplied by my French friend ... these experiences, on the assumption that the last one was veridical, are rather strong evidence that death does not put an end to consciousness.’ The problem here comes from un-clarity about what exactly Ayer means by ‘delusive’ and ‘veridical’. From the context it seems pretty clear to me that he means to be discussing whether he had such experiences during the four minutes he was heart-dead, not whether in having those experiences he was really seeing a red light, its ministers, disjointed space, and so on. He is not doubting that it was all some kind of dream; the doubt attaches only to its time of occurrence. The trouble is that the words he chooses mean the opposite of what he means: to ask whether an experience is veridical is to ask whether the world was really the way the experience made it seem, not whether one really had the experience. Here, I fear, his faulty philosophy of perception let him down, causing him to utter words that would naturally be seized upon as an abnegation of his lifelong opposition to the supernatural. This was very unfortunate, and it is not adequately cleared up in the postscript. It is clear to me, however, that he was not in any way taking seriously the idea that he had temporarily ‘crossed to the other side’. The sober truth is simply that he had a rather strange dream during the time his heart had stopped beating.

Freddie Ayer was a man who liked three sorts of scoring: goals in football, points in philosophy, women in life. Of these three impulses I would speculate that the first represented the deepest part of his nature. His enthusiasm for sport while at Eton is stressed in his autobiography and his passion for football was obviously totally genuine. He belongs to a type abundantly exemplified on the American side of the Atlantic, referred to by the cognoscenti as the jock nerd: men of thwarted sporting ambition who sublimate their sporting instincts into intellectual pursuits. This type is to be firmly distinguished from the nerd jock: the kind of man who finds himself good at sports and has to conceal his intellectual abilities from his fellow sportsmen (it was tough being a nerd jock). Quite different intellectual styles may be expected of these two types of person: compulsive competitiveness from the former, its absence from the latter (he got all that out of his system on the sports field). The jock nerd is always trying to score goals against his intellectual opponents. For obvious reasons this type is far commoner in academic life than the nerd jock, and he is generally found more acceptable there – especially if he has a ‘Sir’ in front of his name. Freddie Ayer tended to do philosophy as if it were a sport, as his fondness for the metaphor of playing a game indicates. The trouble is: it is not a sport.

The Meaning of Life has an introduction by Ted Honderich that is ill-written, plodding, and faintly nauseating in places. It adds nothing to the essays that follow; and the book itself is poorly edited.