Was Ayer’s philosophy of no use?

The followiing is from AN Wilson, the eminent novelist and essayist; the full text is in this week’s New Statesman.  If we want to think about how philosophy may be limited by being white, then we might also find some relief from such serious reflections in  some other questions about philosophy and its neglect of full human experience.  This one should, like Wilson’s reflection, follow on a good dinner with lots of wine:

I remember one evening, a quarter of a century ago at New College, Oxford, sitting next to A J Ayer at dinner. I was the most junior of college lecturers; he was the Wykeham Professor of Logic and a renowned philosopher. He told me that no medieval philosopher was worth reading and he was proud to be able to say that he had not read one word of Thomas Aquinas.

Ayer was a genial man but his arrogance could take your breath away….

As the evening wore on, wine flowed and it would not be possible to outline his argument (if it existed) in any detail. But I do remember what he said at the end of the dinner: “Even logical positivists think love is important!”

No doubt he had trotted out a recitation of his non-creed – namely that most aesthetic, moral and spiritual judgements were “meaningless”. But if even logical positivists thought that love was important, was it not strange that they had not set their nimble minds to saying why they thought it was important and what they thought it was?

Cycling home under the starry Oxford night sky, I felt that there were more interesting philosophical questions and answers in Dante’s Comedy than in Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic. Love dominates our lives. Its rampages dislocate the heart. Sometimes, it seems linked to sexual desire; sometimes, it seems different. Religion, especially the Christian religion, uses the word to describe the life and activity of God. But when we are kept awake by the thought of the beautiful face of the girl (N.B.) we currently adore, is this love at war with the love of God or is it, as Dante apparently thought, somehow connected? What use was a philosophy that refused to ask such questions, let alone provide an answer?

It is interesting, and not at all surprising, that a feted British man of letters still thinks of himself as sleeping with girls.  Still, AN Wilson is an outsider to academic  philosophy, and in fact rather a decided one at that, I believe.  So to that extent, his position is occupiable by many feminists.

6 thoughts on “Was Ayer’s philosophy of no use?

  1. I’d float a stronger hypothesis: Ayer was so influential because his philosophy was useless.

    There’s a tenuous consensus these days among historians of philosophy of science that, after WW2, our specialization became de-politicized in response to pressures from McCarthyites and to build a `professional’ discipline. (Interwar philosophy of science, on both sides of the Atlantic, was often explicitly socially-relevant and sometimes affiliated with various versions of socialism.) In short, useful philosophy of science was liable to get one into trouble; so to stay out of trouble, we became useless.

    To the extent that this is a very good explanation of the success of de-politicized, useless philosophy of science in the second half of the twentieth century, it seems to me to be a plausible explanation of the success of de-politicized, useless philosophy in other specializations and on the other side of the Atlantic.

  2. Pet peeve of mine. Philosophers of the Other Persuasion slam analytic philosophers for not being politically engaged–or assume we’re politically conservative. One of my colleagues has blasted me as a member of “the Forces of Reaction”–and I’m an avowed Socialist.

    Can’t we have some fun? Can’t we spend some of our time and energy doing genuinely useless philosophy, like metaphysics–not to mention poetry, music and art, bike-riding, booze, sex and drugs? Do we have to be good all the time?

    Philosophy per se is useless but it sharpens us for the critical assessment of worldly issues and political debate. I do that good stuff sometimes–but I don’t call it philosophy. And I think I do it a lot better because I do useless philosophy.

  3. and sometimes affiliated with various versions of socialism.

    More than that, some were not just sympathetic to Stalin, but thought that philosophy should explicitly take orders from the Communist Party. (This is well documented in Reisch’s book.) _That_ sort of “politically engaged” philosophy wasn’t so needed. Others, of course, didn’t go that way, including many of the logical positivists.

  4. Dan, but Language, truth and Logic was published in 1936, and counted as a culmination. After WWII Ryle and Austin, perhaps aided by Wittgenstein, went for him.

  5. jj — Certainly there was useless philosophy done before WW2. But there was also lots of intentionally useful philosophy, and this was rapidly abandoned, at least in the US, in the ’40s and ’50s. I’m floating an explanation for the postwar influence of the useless philosophers, however their careers got started. In other words, why did Ryle and Austin go for Ayer rather than one of the heirs of Neurath and Dewey?

  6. I think it’s just really difficult to decide whether philosophy is “useful” or “useless”, and this is brought out by some of the examples here. Austin, in particular, is one hell of a case study. Plenty of folks have criticized ordinary language philosophy for its conservatism or reluctance to criticize language, but then again, other folks have put it to good use. Langton’s work on pornography is the obvious example, but the Derrida/Searle brouhaha is illuminating. Both took themselves to be Austin’s heir, in some sense of the word, but Searle is very much the traditional analytic philosopher who isn’t closely engaged politically and Derrida is…well, Derrida.

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