A. J. Ayer -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

A. J. Ayer

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"‘There’s glory for you!’ I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ Alice said. ‘I meant, "there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’" ‘But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean "a nice knock-down argument,"’ Alice objected. ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what i choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’" (Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.)

The most widely-read of the neo-positivists was A. J. Ayer. Whereas Wittgenstein’s writings are obscure treatises written for a few initiates, Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic (1936) and The Problem of Knowledge were written with a mass audience in mind. The basic postulate is that nothing can be learned except through the "methods of the empirical sciences." This boils down to the old empiricist argument that "I interpret the world through my senses." (cf. Locke’s famous phrase: "Nothing is in the mind which was not first in the senses".)

Like Mach, of whom his entire position is merely a plagiarism, Ayer pretends to reject subjective idealism, but, in practice, he argues that we can only know sense-contents (Mach’s sense-impressions), and therefore we cannot prove the existence of the physical world. In The Problem of Knowledge, he repeats, almost word for word, Mach’s dishonest polemic against so-called na•ve realism (materialism). To this subterfuge, Lenin replied:

"The reference to ‘na•ve realism,’ supposedly defended by this philosophy, is sophistry of the cheapest kind. The ‘na•ve realism’ of any healthy person who has not been a inmate of a lunatic asylum or a pupil of the idealist philosophers consists in the view that things, the environment, the world, exist independently of our sensation, of our consciousness, of our self and of man in general. The same experience (not in the Machist sense, but in the human sense of the term) that has produced in us the firm conviction that independently of us there exist other people, and not mere complexes of my sensations of high, short, yellow, hard, etc.—this same experience produces in us the conviction that things, the world, the environment exist independently of us. Our sensation, our consciousness is only an image of the external world, and it is obvious that an image cannot exist without the thing imaged, and that the latter exists independently of that which images it. Materialism deliberately makes the ‘na•ve’ belief of mankind the foundation of its theory of knowledge." (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 14, p. 69-70.)

The logical contortions which are a constant feature of the writings of logical positivists reach the most bizarre proportions, as we see in the following extract from The Problem of Knowledge, where Ayer ties himself in knots, over the question of whether it is possible to prove that other people and their minds really exist. For example, if somebody else has a toothache, how do I know it? We apologise in advance for abusing the reader’s patience, since, for our part, we have no doubt about their existence, or their ability to suffer considerable discomfort, on having to read the following lines. We can only plead as a mitigating circumstance that, if we were to omit it, people might think that we were making it all up!

"The suggestion is that if I say of myself that I am in pain I am referring to a feeling of which I alone am conscious; if my statement is true it may be that I also show certain outward signs of pain, but I do not imply that this is so: it is not part of what my statement means. Or even granting that it is part of what my statement means, it is not all that it means. But if I say of someone else that he is in pain, all that my statement is supposed to mean is that he displays signs of pain, that his body is in such and such a state, or that he behaves, or is disposed to behave, in such and such ways. For this is all that I can conceivably observe.

"An obvious objection to this thesis is that it entails that the statements which I make about my feelings cannot have the same meaning for any other person as they have for me. Thus, if someone asks me whether I am in pain and I answer that I am, my reply, as I understand it, is not an answer to his question. For I am reporting the occurrence of a certain feeling; whereas, so far as he was concerned, his question could only have been a question about my physical condition. So also, if he says that my reply is false, he is not strictly contradicting me: for all that he can be denying is that I exhibited the proper signs of pain, and this is not what I asserted; it is what he understood me to be asserting but not what I understood myself." (Ayer, op. cit. pp. 214-5.)

The reason for these mental gymnastics is that Ayer knows that the inescapable conclusion of his own position is solipsism—the notion that only I exist. Lenin showed quite clearly in relation to Mach that logical positivism necessarily means a denial of the objectivity of the material world. There is no way round this. Like Mach, Ayer resorts to a subterfuge, pretending to polemicise against this position, which he calls scepticism, while simultaneously distancing himself from materialism (na•ve realism). He correctly says of scepticism that "...if the theory were correct, this distinction between the mental and the physical, between what is private and what is public, could not be made in any case but one’s own...The picture which this theory tries to present is that of a number of people enclosed within the fortresses of their own experiences. They can observe the battlements of other fortresses, but they cannot penetrate them. Not only that, but they cannot even conceive that anything lies behind them." (Ibid., pp. 215-6.)

The fact that Ayer, just like Mach, tries to distance himself from these outrageous conclusions, does not change anything. From his philosophical point of view, he has no real arguments against the so-called sceptics. At the end of the day, he is reduced to appealing to "common sense," and belief in the existence of a physical world, other people, and the fact that there was a world before he, or anyone else, was present to observe it. None of this can be logically deduced from his own arguments, which are, in fact, far less consistent than the position taken by those who openly deny the existence of the objective world. The problem is that it is impossible to argue with lunatics, using the logic of lunatics.

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