- 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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 12 No. 18 · 27 September 1990
Colin McGinn’s most fair assessment of A.J. Ayer (LRB, 30 August) took me back. Ten years ago Dora Russell thought that it was about time that her late ex-husband had a memorial to his name and person. Fenner Brockway agreed and brought in Freddie Ayer and myself. The site they had in mind was Red Lion Square where, in Conway Hall, I was the General Secretary of the South Place Ethical Society. Fenner had the right connections with Camden Council, whose support was essential, and I took on the Appeal. It was one of those rare occasions when all doors open and everything goes well. In October 1980 Dora unveiled the bust to Bertie and we adjourned to a reception in the Hall. So today Russell, in classic style, adorns one end of the square while Fenner himself, as Agitator, stands at the other.
It is the sequel that occasions this letter, however. It must have been a couple of years later that Freddie invited me round to 51 York Street to spend an evening with himself and Vanessa. We talked for hours as we got through a whole bottle of whisky. Towards the end of the evening he mentioned that he had just finished a book that surveyed 20th-century philosophy. I said, ‘Have you included John Rawls?’ and he replied: ‘No. Should I?’ I was lost for words and fumbled a way out. What I was saying in my head was: ‘If you have left Rawls out your book is a dead duck.’ But for some reason there was no way I could make such an utterance. In due course the book appeared and so far as I can make out has never been heard of since. How right then is Colin McGinn’s judgment that Ayer was ‘less than fully receptive’ (!) of ideas ‘emanating from America’ and that he wrote ‘as if philosophy was essentially over’.
In my review of A.J. Ayer’s The Meaning of Life, I made the point that postulating the existence of an afterlife to confer meaning on our mortal life is viciously regressive, since the question must arise as to the meaning of this alleged afterlife; and similarly for postulating God. I have since stumbled upon a passage in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus which must be making essentially the same point:
Not only is there no guarantee of the temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say of its eternal survival after death; but, in any case, this assumption completely fails to accomplish the purpose for which it has always been intended. Or is some riddle solved by my surviving for ever? Is not this eternal life itself as much of a riddle as our present life? The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time.
It is interesting enough that Wittgenstein makes this point, which I have not myself seen made elsewhere; but it is doubly interesting that he does so in the Tractatus in the light of his logically parallel argument concerning the nature of linguistic meaning in the Investigations. I noted the parallel in my review, but was not then aware that he makes both points (though in different places). I do not, however, know of anywhere in his writings in which he brings them both together. Was he aware of the homology between the two arguments?
Vol. 12 No. 22 · 22 November 1990
Colin McGinn asks whether Wittgenstein ever brought together his argument in the Tractatus that postulating an afterlife, or a God, would not explain the meaning of life, and his argument in the Investigations that postulating linguistic meaning would not explain the meaning of words (Letters, 27 September). As he points out, both arguments depend on seeing that the preferred explanations begin a vicious regress, as one can still ask what gives them their meaning.
Wittgenstein does draw a parallel between two very similar arguments in the Philosophical Grammar, where he compares the demand for a final explanation of the meaning of a word with the conviction that the world must have a creator. There, he points out that any chart one might draw up which correlated words with their meanings is itself open to more than one interpretation. On page 94 he writes:
The chart doesn’t guarantee that I shall pass from one part of it to another in a uniform manner. It doesn’t compel me to use it always in the same way. It’s there like a field, with paths leading through it: but I can also cut across.
(What kinds of propositions are these? – They are like the observation that explanations of signs come to an end somewhere. And that is rather like saying ‘How does it help you to postulate a creator, it only pushes back the problem of the beginning of the world.’ This observation brings out an aspect of my explanation that I perhaps hadn’t noticed. One might also say: ‘Look at your explanation in this way – now are you satisfied with it?’)
Strangely, the published translation has a misprint at a crucial point: instead of ‘world’, it reads ‘word’.
There is another striking connection between the two arguments in Wittgenstein’s writings from this period. He repeatedly contrasts a ‘living’ meaningful sign with ‘dead’ meaningless marks, and asks: what gives the sign its life? And just as he denies that an immortal soul could explain the meaning of a person’s life, he denies that the life of the sign can be explained by invoking a soul, an object which gives it meaning: ‘The meaning [Sinn] of a proposition (or a thought) isn’t anything spiritual, it’s what is given as an answer to a request for an explanation of the meaning … The meaning of a proposition is not a soul.’ (Philosophical Grammar, page 131.) However, arguments, like words, are open to more than one interpretation. In particular, the passage McGinn quotes from the Tractatus leads to a very different conclusion to the one he drew in his recent LRB discussion of Ayer. McGinn concluded that the meaning of life lies in satisfying bodily and intellectual experiences. Wittgenstein, on the other hand, concluded that the meaning of life cannot be put into words at all, but rather ‘lies outside space and time’, and is a matter of living in the present in such a way that the problem vanishes.
University of Iowa