Language, Truth, and Logic by A.J. Ayer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
[SOCRATES is sitting in his living room on an easy chair, reading a newspaper. Suddenly, he hears a knock on the door, and gets up to answer it. Standing there is AYER, a skinny young man in a grey suit, with short-cropped hair. He is smiling and staring intently at SOCRATES.]
SOC: Hello? How may I help you?
AYER: Hello! My name is Alfred Jules Ayer, but most people call me Freddie. How are you today?
SOC: I’m fine, quite fine, thanks. Are you selling something? Because I’m afraid I am not interested…
AYER: Oh, no—no, no. I’m a member of the Vienna Circle, and I’m going door to door to promote our doctrine of logical positivism. It’s the amazing new doctrine that solves all philosophical problems now and for good. May I come in?
SOC: Really? Is that so? Yes, sure, come in. Sit down here on the couch.
[The two men sit down, SOC on his easy chair, and AYER on the couch.]
AYER: Thanks for letting me in! You’re the first one all week. Most people seem to think I’m a Mormon. [Looks around.] Nice place you got here. What do you do, if I may ask?
SOC: Oh, me? People think I’m a philosopher, but I just like to ask questions.
AYER: A philosopher? Neat! Well, then you’ll be real glad to hear what I have to say!
SOC: I don’t doubt it. So what’s this, um… logical positivism? Is it a religion?
AYER: A religion? Of course not! Logical positivism is the opposite of a religion! It’s a doctrine that tells us everything we ever want to know. If you learn about logical positivism, you’ll never be wrong again. Every problem you’ve ever asked about philosophy will be answered!
SOC: Wow, that sounds impressive… How does it work?
AYER: It’s simple! Here: let me demonstrate it by solving a philosophical problem. What’s something you want resolved?
SOC: Well, I’ve always been a bit puzzled by Hume’s problem of induction. I’m not at all satisfied with Kant’s treatment of it, and even Russell seems to shrug his shoulders.
AYER: The problem of induction? That’s child’s play! Let me read the solution from my new book, and you’ll see the answer clearly. [Pulls out a copy of Language, Truth, and Logic, and starts reading.] “… it appears that there is no possible way of solving the problem of induction, as it is ordinarily conceived. And this means that it is a fictitious problem, since all genuine problems are at least theoretically capable of being solved: and the credit of natural science is not impaired by the fact that some philosophers continue to be puzzled by it.”
SOC: So, wait. You’re saying that because you can’t figure out a way to solve the problem, it’s not a real problem?
AYER: Exactly! That’s the beauty of logical positivism! Anything that you can’t solve you just decide isn’t a real problem. Isn’t that great?
SOC: Really, is that all you have to do?
AYER: Well, you have to wave your hand around a bit, but that’s the general idea.
SOC: Hmm, how about another problem, like ethics. What do logical positivists say about what it means to do the right or wrong thing?
AYER: Ethics? Oh, please! That’s another easy one. Let me find the right passage. Here it is: “We can now see why it is impossible to find a criterion for determining the validity of ethical judgements. It is not because they have ‘absolute’ validity which is mysteriously independent of ordinary sense-experience, but because they have no objective validity whatsoever.”
SOC: Ah, I understand now. You’re saying that, since you can’t figure out a way to shoehorn ethical statements into your system, they aren’t real statements at all. Is that right?
AYER: Absolutely! That’s how it all works. All you have to do is say what you think—no argument is needed at all! And anyone who disagrees with you, just call them a metaphysician with a sneer.
SOC: So what’s the upshot of all this?
AYER: The upshot? Philosophy is over! It’s really incredible: all these smart philosopher-guys thought about all this stuff for thousands of years. But the solution was so obvious! Just stop having substantive arguments, and start dismissing everyone who disagrees with you as a befuddled moron. That way, you can be sure to get at the truth.
SOC: Wow, that’s quite a strategy. But I’m still a little curious about the specifics. For example, how do logical positivists deal with the question of truth?
AYER: Oh, Socrates, you ask the silliest questions! Well first, we just take an idea from Kant and Hume, and divide up all statements into analytic and synthetic statements. Then, we take an idea from William James, and insist that nothing is meaningful unless it is either a tautology or can be verified in experience. So that’s all of truth, either tautologies or science. It’s called the verification principle.
SOC: Interesting approach there… But, I wonder, what about this ‘verification principle’ itself? How does that fit into the system? How is this principle either empirical or a tautology? Clearly, the verification principle itself doesn’t picture any facts; in other words, the principle itself can’t be verified—so it’s not empirical. (Also, it would be absurd to verify a principle with the principle itself; that leads to a reductio ad absurdum.) Then, in order for it not to be meaningless, in your view, it must be a tautology. But it clearly isn’t a logical contradiction to assert that there are other criteria we might use to distinguish truth from falsity than the verification principle. So since the principle itself is clearly neither empirical nor a tautology, how can you justify it in your system?
AYER: Justify it? We don’t justify things. We assert that it’s true, and anyone who points out the contradictions we then assert are metaphysicians.
SOC: Wow, I see. Let me see if I get it. First you take ideas from other philosophers, then you throw them together into a half-coherent system, and finally you yell at anyone who disagrees. Is that right?
AYER: You got it! Logical positivism! You know, Socrates, you’re really a quick learner. Now there is no longer any legitimate reason to disagree with someone in philosophy. If they’re logical positivists, they’re right; and if not, they’re wrong. The Vienna Circle has arrived at the truth, and no further work need be done! As I say in my book: “One of the main objects of this treatise has been to show that there is nothing in the nature of philosophy to warrant the existence of conflicting philosophical parties or ‘schools.'” In other words, now that we figured everything out, there isn’t any good reason to fundamentally disagree with us. So all you have to do is join us, adopt our dogmas, and you will be saved from all falsity and metaphysics; you can believe exactly what we believe, and read the holy books of Russell and Wittgenstein and Hume.
SOC [Getting up from his seat]: Actually, I have to go somewhere… so I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave. But it was nice talking to you.
AYER [Getting up as well]: Oh, of course! Can I leave a book with you?
AYER: Alright. [Lays book on table.] Nice talking with you. I hope to again!
SOC: Yep, yep.
[AYER leaves through front door, after vigorously shaking SOCRATES’ hand. A moment later, SOCRATES’ wife XANTHIPPE walks in.]
XAN: Who was that, dear?
SOC: Oh, never mind him, honey. Just a Mormon.
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