Out of Sight, out of Mind

Frank Kermode

  • A.J. Ayer: A Life by Ben Rogers
    Chatto, 402 pp, £20.00, June 1999, ISBN 0 7011 6316 X

A.J. Ayer, says Ben Rogers, had a ‘pampered upbringing, even by Edwardian standards’. He suffered much at prep school, then went to Eton, where he suffered less and got over it. The next move, to Christ Church, was painless. Oxford gave him Gilbert Ryle as his tutor and appointed him to a lectureship before he graduated.

Having volunteered for war service he was drawn, by the irresistible voice of privilege, into a Guards regiment. Thereafter his military career passed through several glamorous and comfortable stages: he was, in his own words, ‘a soldier in England, a British government official in the United States, an apprentice commando in Canada, a civil servant in the Gold Coast, a staff officer in London, a political observer in North Africa, a tourist in Italy and a liaison officer in the invasion of Southern France’. A little later, the Ambassador, Duff Cooper, declared that he was ‘extremely anxious to have him’, so Ayer became ‘a diplomat in Paris’, where he met everybody – Bataille, Artaud, Leiris, Giacometti, Tzara and so on. He had some affairs and developed an interest in Existentialism which produced good articles on Sartre and Camus. Times were hard for most Parisians, but Ayer lived in Guy de Rothschild’s house in Paris, supported by a butler, a cook and a good cellar.

When this arduous postwar service was over he returned to Oxford, at a time when philosophy in Oxford had yet to become Oxford philosophy and, in his view (Ryle, perhaps, apart, and H.H. Price), needed a good shaking. Real philosophy was what went on in Cambridge. Ayer read Wittgenstein when hardly anybody else in Oxford thought of doing so. But at Ryle’s suggestion he gave up the idea of sitting at Wittgenstein’s feet in Cambridge and instead went to Vienna to work with Moritz Schlick – this at a time when hardly anybody in England had even heard of Logical Positivism. In his early twenties he published what is probably to this day the most widely read work of English philosophy, Language, Truth and Logic (1936), and followed it with The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge (1940). Late in life he doubted whether much of Language, Truth and Logic was right, and complained that students are required to read it primarily in order to pick holes in it; but it survives and sells by the thousand, partly, no doubt, because it is very well written. ‘Sixty years on,’ says Rogers, ‘the book’s vigour, elegance and ease are as remarkable as ever. Never has philosophy been so fast, so neat.’

In view of all these successes it may be surprising to find that Ayer habitually thought of himself as an ‘outsider’ and ‘self-made’, exaggerating the poverty of his family, looking at the world, as his widow, Dee Wells, puts it, with ‘big desiring eyes’, and, despite a career of equal brilliance as philosopher and hedonist, often a little anxious about where he stood on the borders of outside and inside.

Certainly Oxford, despite that lectureship, was reluctant to admit him to true insider academic status. Oxford philosophy was a competitive business; there were certain prizes that one had to win, the John Locke Prize, the All Souls Fellowship; but Ayer’s fate was to be pipped by his contemporaries, Isaiah Berlin, Goronwy Rees and the slightly younger J.L. Austin. As an undergraduate he had been taken up by Maurice Bowra and acquired a certain celebrity by having a mistress, but this was no help to his professional career. The wind that favoured Berlin and the others seemed set against him.

Apart from their differing views on womanising, Ayer and Berlin seemed at first to have a lot in common. Both were from Jewish families in the timber trade, both were torrential talkers and both had ways of speaking that were not only rapid but might have been thought affected. Both young men were socially successful but Ayer was more flamboyant and far more likely to put people off. They were friends but not close, for the difference between their temperaments was great; for example, Ayer was uninterested in his Jewishness, while Berlin of course wasn’t.

Despite the clarity of his mind and his prose, Ayer as lecturer was not easy to follow. He was aware of this and tried hard to halt the rush of his language. This ambition he to some extent achieved; his fame was such that everybody wanted to hear him anyway, and his way of talking came to be part of the attraction. But Christ Church, and Oxford more generally, were still unkind to him. The formidable J.L. Austin began as a disciple but later was hostile; each thought the other overrated. Rogers gives a good account of the running battle between the two; Berlin said ‘they were in a state of almost continuous collision,’ but remembered their jousts as ‘true intellectual happiness’. They fought in the ring provided by Language, Truth and Logic, the fame of which may in some respects have become a bit of a nuisance. Anyway, Oxford philosophers, while interested in his polemical style, did not want him. His book became a historical document; fresh starts were being made, Austin’s especially. One rather spiteful colleague later remarked on the coincidence that ayer is Spanish for ‘yesterday’.

All this was irritating, but there was a world elsewhere, specifically in London. In 1946, at 36, he went to the philosophy chair at University College. At the time the department was far from famous, but had the advantage of needing energetic reconstruction, and the further advantage of being in London. Ayer agreed with Hume about many things, including, as Rogers points out, the view that the town, not the country, was ‘the true scene for a man of letters’. At University College he transformed the department, first by appointing Stuart Hampshire, who happened to have been the co-respondent when Ayer divorced his first wife. Three years later he recruited Richard Wollheim from Oxford, but thereafter he appointed his own students. Since he was a fine teacher this proved a better idea than might ordinarily be thought. He had a department of varied talents and no orthodoxy except an un-Oxfordian devotion to Russell. The department, housed in Gordon Square, became famous, not least because of the Professor’s furious lifestyle. London offered everything: in Gordon Square a stream of celebrated visiting speakers and perpetual high-level discussion; in nearby Charlotte Street, and in milieux much grander, the pleasures of the town, not least dancing and seduction (‘great fun,’ as he and Philip Toynbee agreed). And of course there was Tottenham Hotspur, and Ayer was a pioneer intellectual football fan. However, in 1959 he applied for and got the Wykeham Chair of Logic and went back to Oxford, a place he professed not to like. He was nearly 50 and world-famous, but his election was quite strongly opposed.

Non-philosophers often have trouble making out why philosophers remain fascinated by questions they themselves gave up as hopeless at the age of six or seven: why what is, is; what one can know of minds other than one’s own; what it is for words to mean what they do, and the like. Wordsworth was heavily censured by Coleridge for addressing a six-year-old as ‘Thou best philosopher’, and he may, in that passage of the Ode, have been guilty of a degree of what Coleridge called ‘mental bombast’, but there is still some truth in the root idea; children sometimes do ask themselves what can be thought of as unrefined philosophical questions about identity, perception, God and so forth. When shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing child these naive speculations are abandoned as hopeless or irrelevant. And probably most future philosophers give them up, too; but later they discover that the same questions have been put, immemorially, by persons of admirable intellect, who have also provided languages in which to talk about them. To use or improve or dispute the utility of such languages becomes a job, not quite like any other, but a job all the same, a profession.

For philosophers like Ayer the profession of philosophy is set apart from the rest of life. He was a passionate thinker and debater, but he was equally passionate about pleasure and non-philosophical company. He knew pretty well everybody of importance, and took an interest in literature; he was a friend of e.e. cummings as well as the English poets of the period. He was flattered by Einstein and fancied that Wittgenstein fancied him. He was certainly vain yet in some ways strangely modest. He did good work for good causes, mostly leftwing and humanitarian. He challenged an Eton statute that enabled discrimination against the admission of Jewish boys, and won. These benevolent activities belonged, like the pursuit of pleasure, to the hours of the day when he was not doing his job. But mostly, whether at work or play, he needed to win – whether with women or at chess, or bridge, or scrabble, or any kind of conversational contest, including philosophical argument. Here, despite the obvious discontinuity, was a connection between the activity of thought and the life of the senses. His philosophical ancestor Hume, in a famous passage, said: ‘I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find it in my heart to enter into them any further.’ But Ayer did not return to find his speculations cold; he wanted ardently to win the truth, and was as hot in the enjoyable pursuit of it as he was in the pursuit of girls.

Philosophical minds that are determined to resist transcendental explanations may find themselves obliged to pursue the study of truth by means of logic and enquiry into the language in which statements are made about the world. Most philosophers have humanistic educations and often envy the achievements of scientists, who can make their statements with confidence in their empirical observations. This envy may make philosophers even more impatient with the history of their own subject. Hence the desire, noted by Hampshire when Ayer recruited him to Logical Positivism, to ‘start philosophy all over again’.

Nothing must be allowed to pass that crosses the line into metaphysics. ‘We shall maintain that no statement which refers to a “reality” transcending the limits of all possible sense-experience can possibly have any literal significance; from which it must follow that the labours of those who have striven to describe such a reality have all been devoted to the production of nonsense.’ This was the manifesto of Language, Truth and Logic. The criterion for judging whether apparent statements of fact were or were not nonsense was the ‘criterion of verifiability’. Any sentence that fails by this criterion communicates nothing at all, is strictly nonsense.

In Schlick’s circle he found a modern version of an ancient empiricism, which denied intuitive or a priori knowledge. The latest version had a particular interest in science. Among the immediate ancestors of the logical positivists were the analytic philosophers of Cambridge, notably Russell and the earlier Wittgenstein. The history is complicated, but Language, Truth and Logic is forthright. Metaphysics was nonsense.

Some positivists concede that nonsense of this sort can nevertheless be important; but Ayer will not have this. God is strictly nonsense, and philosophy has nothing to do with enquiries like ‘how should I live?’ That is ‘ultimately up to us’, but at the same time an inescapable responsibility. Rogers detects an inconsistency here. ‘We can have knowledge of empirical truths and of the truisms of maths and logic, but not of values’ – yet to require individual responsibility is, in the teeth of that argument, to take the position of a philosophical moralist.

Rogers thinks of Language, Truth and Logic as a statement of philosophic rebellion analogous to the new poetry of Auden and his friends; it should be seen as a rejection of authority in both knowledge and morals, an attack on the imperialist pretensions of the great philosophers of the past. The attack on ethics and theology and the condemnation of all philosophy that goes beyond the evidence of the senses dealt such a blow to the almost canonical Principia Ethica of G.E. Moore that it ‘never recovered its prestige’. But in this respect Moore still belonged to a very distinguished company.

The doctrine as a whole is of course far more complex and qualified than this suggests; the present point is that the manner is aggressive, competitive, and involves an assault on God, on morality as usually understood, and on many other unverifiables. Although The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge, finished while Ayer was doing basic training at Caterham, was well received and thought by experts to be the better book, no future work of Ayer’s achieved the fame of his first. Rogers gives an account of them all, as well as of ‘a large collection of beautiful and accomplished girlfriends’ and wives which testifies overwhelmingly to Ayer’s belief that not everybody is monogamous by nature.

Perhaps curiously, perhaps not, several witnesses remark that Ayer was not very interested in other people. ‘He was observant about people and a good judge of intelligence,’ says Dee Wells: ‘He did not try to understand them ... If someone died he would not miss them ... If a cleaner or a secretary or someone left, he never mentioned them again. It was out of sight, out of mind ... he did not know what the rest of us were talking about when we spoke of feelings.’ No wonder he had such difficulty with the problem of other minds.

This is a very good biography in the tradition of Ray Monk’s Wittgenstein and his Russell. Like Russell, Ayer did an enormous amount of living, and Rogers understands its pleasures, its anxieties, its energies and its final exhaustion. Ayer travelled, lectured, broadcast, conversed, it seemed indefatigably; but he could not for ever escape age and illness. His volumes of autobiography were not much admired. Oxford was ungenerous to the end, obliging him to accept a reduced pension.

The insecurity that showed up occasionally through his life did not diminish with age. Anthony Grayling, his last graduate student, provides a touching record of his anxiety at the time of his retirement:

one day someone is going to point the finger at me: ‘You are a fraud. You got into Eton and to Christ Church, you were an officer in the Welsh Guards, you became Wykeham Professor at Oxford and you secured a knighthood. But underneath you are just a dirty little Jew-boy’ ... He worried that other philosophers did not think that he was as good as he was famous.

In a valedictory talk his limited claim for the achievements of 20th-century philosophy was this: ‘The answers are not much clearer, but the questions are.’

‘Other philosophers’ did indeed point the finger at ‘The Man who Hated Wisdom’ (the headline of Roger Scruton’s obituary in the Sunday Telegraph). But Ayer’s friend and pupil Ted Honderich, now himself the professor at University College, was more charitable and also nearer the mark when he spoke of Ayer as a philosopher ‘whose audacity was being true to truth’.