Skip to main content

A. J. Ayer: An Appreciation

  • T. L. S. Sprigge (a1)

As the editor noted in the last number Freddie Ayer, or Professor Sir Alfred Ayer, played a considerable part in launching the vast enterprise of the Bentham edition. It is fitting, therefore, that something be said in Utilitas about his achievement as a philosopher and the extent to which he falls within the same broad empiricist and utilitarian tradition to which Bentham and J. S. Mill belonged.

Hide All

1 Ayer, A. J., Language, Truth and Logic, London, 1936, revised edn., 1946.

2 Ayer, A. J., The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge, London, 1940; Ayer, A. J., Philosophical Essays, London, 1954; Ayer, A. J., The Problem of Knowledge, London, 1956; Ayer, A. J., The Central Questions of Philosophy, London, 1973.

3 James, William, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, New York, 1907, p. 12.

4 See his ‘Reflections on Existentialism’, Metaphysics and Common Sense, London, 1969, chapter 13. I might note in passing that he had a very good grasp of the thought of these existentialists and, if one purged his account thereof of its sharp criticisms, even enthusiasts for Heidegger might have to accept this essay as a helpful account, more so perhaps than the one he gave in Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, London, 1982.

5 Ayer, A. J., Probability and Evidence, London, 1972, pp. 89110.

6 This method is practised, though in a less debunking manner, against Bentham's egoistic hedonist psychology. See his ‘The Principle of Utility’, Philosophical Essays, pp. 264–67, reprinted from Jeremy Bentham and the Law, ed. Keeton, G. W. and Schwarzenberger, G., London, 1948.

7 Ayer, A. J., Thomas Paine, London, 1988.

8 See Metaphysics and Common Sense, p. 259.

9 Of course, utilitarians have been accused from Macaulay onwards of going on principles too much and not enough on facts. To the extent that this is true, it shows that none of these distinctions between types of thinkers hold without substantial qualifications. That does not deprive them of power to illuminate. Upon the whole it seems fair enough to say that the utilitarian inspiration is to suppose that moral and political judgements of any worth must arise from careful empirical enquiry.

10 James's pragmatism, incidentally, has been thought, not quite fairly, to work somewhat the other way, which is one reason why enthusiasm for him has usually been somewhat qualified among those empiricists, and near empiricists, whom he thought his natural brothers, as expressed in his dedication of Pragmatism to the memory of J. S. Mill. None the less, Ayer's own later views on the self and his constructivist account of our knowledge of physical reality were worked out in the first place as a development of James's views. See Ayer, A. J., The Origins of Pragmatism, Part Two.

11 See Metaphysics and Common Sense, pp. 210–18.

12 See his ‘Sources of Intolerance’ in On Toleration, ed. Mendus, Susan and Edwards, David, Oxford, 1987.

13 I doubt if any serious thinker, apart perhaps from Tolstoy, has been a fatalist in this sense. The best depiction of the fatalist frame of mind of which I know is given by Wilkie Collins in his novel Armadale.

14 The Origins of Pragmatism, p. 110.

15 Philosophical Essays, Chapter 12.

16 Ayer, A. J., Freedom and Morality, Oxford, 1984, pp. 1516; see also Metaphysics and Common Sense, pp. 238–39.

17 See Probability and Evidence, passim.

18 Metaphysics and Common Sense, chapter 15, esp. pp. 1516.

19 See note 12.

20 Philosophical Essays, chapter 10.

21 See note 16. In his book on Hume Ayer argues that in essence Hume's view of moral judgement was the emotivist one. It is perhaps worth noting that Bentham himself seems to have interpreted the principle of utility itself in an emotivist way in a late statement in Constitutional Code.

22 See note 6.

23 Metaphysics and Common Sense, chapter 15, especially at pp. 257–58.

24 Freedom and Morality, pp. 4950.

25 Metaphysics and Common Sense, p. 259

26 See note 12.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0953-8208
  • EISSN: 1741-6183
  • URL: /core/journals/utilitas
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed