Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Why A. J. Ayer was a Great Philosopher

It can be summed up just by watching his comments here in the video below in an interview with Bryan Magee.

Remember that Bryan Magee’s opening question (“But now it must have some real defects: what do you now in retrospect think that the main shortcomings of the movement were?”) refers to Ayer’s philosophy of logical positivism.

Why was Ayer a great philosopher? Because in contrast to so many other philosophers whose work has obviously been debunked and refuted, but who continue to defend their discredited ideas like the hacks they are, A. J. Ayer cheerfully admitted that the core of logical positivism was wrong (“nearly all of it was false,” he laughs), and it was badly flawed as a coherent philosophy. He moved on with his philosophy and work, without some endless, dogmatic defence of logical positivism.

That may seem like a trivial point, but it is not. How many Postmodernist or Poststructuralist charlatans would gracefully admit their theories are wrong (and they are), and move on to some other research program?


  1. But Poststructuralism was created by Structuralists who realised that there were major flaws in Structuralism and moved onto various other research programs... So um...

    1. It is indeed correct that the early French Poststructuralists were reacting against what they thought were bad errors in Structuralism.

      However, that did not stop them from developing a philosophy that has incredible problems as bad as, if not worse than, logical positivism. To take their worst theory: denial of objective truth.

      If someone seriously argues that there is no such thing as objective truth, then it follows directly that nothing they say (including their statement about truth) can be true. Thus the whole Poststructuralist/Postmodernist enterprise comes crushing down: it can say nothing -- by its own admission -- objectively true.

    2. You're just repeating things you've said before. Things that probably aren't accurate. Stop being such a broken record on this.

  2. Also they completely skew the actual achievements of positivism in this clip. they both seem to assume that positivism cleared the ground of old questions. But most people would now say that it had not. Wittgenstein realised this quite early on (he was easily the brightest of the bunch).

    So Ayers never admitted that. He never admitted that the aspects that the positivists had said they had gotten rid of came roaring back in when the flaws in their theories became apparent. That is why Post-Keynesians talk about ontology rather a lot. Ayers et al would claim that as nonsense right up to the end of their lives.

    1. The logical positivists' greatest achievement was to take up the work of Frege and Russell and deal the death blow to Kantian synthetic a priori knowledge. That was undoubtedly how they "cleared the ground of old questions" -- and can't be underestimated.

      Also, when logical positivism fell in the 1950s, Kantianism did not return: first it shifted to ordinary language philosophy (think Ryle, J. L. Austin and P. F. Strawson) that had just as much contempt for older philosophy, and then to a moderate empiricism influenced by Saul Kripke and others (with a more radical branch associated with Quine).

      Also, Ayer didn't think ontology was nonsense: he just thought a lot of older ontological questions were like that (e.g., dualism, the Cartesian soul, etc.). I seriously doubt he would have dismissed Post Keynesian ontological questions: he was himself a life long social democrat and interested in economic questions.

    2. Post-Keynesians are generally critical realists. On close inspection critical realism looks a lot like Kantianism.

    3. I strongly disagree. Critical realism does not use Kantian synthetic a priori knowledge. In what respect, the, does it "look like" critical realism?

      I would say that it is Popper's Critical Rationalism that seems closest to critical realism.

      Other Post Keynesians think this too: e.g., that critical realism is close to the core elements of a Popperian methodology (King 2002: 253–254; Jespersen 2009: 57–62), and that in his later work Popper appears to have moved closer to Critical Realism (Lawson 1999: 8–9).

      Jespersen, J. 2009. Macroeconomic Methodology: A Post-Keynesian Perspective. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, Cheltenham.

      Lawson, T. 1999. “Developments in Economics as Realist Social Theory,” in S. Fleetwood (ed.), Critical Realism in Economics: Development and Debate. Routledge, London and New York. 3–20.

      Jespersen, J. 2009. Macroeconomic Methodology: A Post-Keynesian Perspective, Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, Cheltenham.