Philosophy in the Twentieth Century Analysis

A. J. Ayer

Philosophy in the Twentieth Century

This highly selective account of philosophy in the twentieth century is devoted to the representation of two schools: that of the American pragmatists, ranging from William James and C. I. Lewis to Nelson Goodman and W. V. Quine, and that of the analytic movement, covering philosophers as diverse as Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap, Moritz Schlick, Otto Neurath, Karl Popper, Alfred Tarski, C. D. Broad, Gilbert Ryle, J. L. Austin, Noam Chomsky, Donald Davidson, Hilary Putnam, D. M. Armstrong, Peter Strawson, and Michael Dummett. Discussion of issues relating to these schools—especially of issues which pertain to language, truth, logic, meaning, perception, epistemology, mathematics, science, and so forth—is the substance of Ayer’s book. Moral, political, and aesthetic philosophy receive short shrift; Marxism, Freudianism, hermeneutics, Structuralism, and post-Structuralism receive no consideration. Ayer speaks briefly of the revolt from G. W. F. Hegel and not at all of the revolt of Friedrich Nietzsche. There are, however, two major concessions. One is a chapter accorded to the speculative philosophy of R. G. Collingwood, a “woolly” metaphysician, to be sure. The other is a chapter accorded to Phenomenology and Existentialism; these movements are represented by Franz Brentano, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre. This chapter is supposed to diminish what might appear to be a bias in favor of pragmatist and analytic philosophy, but twelve pages of superficial analysis and barely concealed contempt, especially vis-á-vis Heidegger, would seem to confirm rather than diminish Ayer’s bias. Ayer starts with Heidegger’s “opportune adherence to the Nazi party” and proceeds to expose the philosopher’s “surprising ignorance” and “unscrupulous distortion.”

From the outset, it is made clear that the author is confining himself to the works of a relatively small number of philosophers, the preponderance of whom derive from the two schools he supports. Ayer’s is a partisan history of philosophy, and it is to his credit that he makes his position unequivocal. His approach is conceptual, not expository. Rather than expound the broad themes of his chosen philosophers, he selects and focuses on specific arguments, so that the book itself is a contribution to the discussion as well as a history of it. This critical and analytical strategy is appropriate, for Ayer himself is an essential figure in the analytic movement and is entitled to his prerogative.

Nevertheless, one may offer some objections. First, the book is misleadingly titled. A history of philosophy in the twentieth century that does not mention such thinkers as Hans-Georg Gadamer, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jurgen Habermas, Paul Ricoeur, and Herbert Marcuse, to name but a few, ought not to carry the title of Philosophy in the Twentieth Century. Not only would Analytic Philosophy in the Twentieth Century suffice as an alternative, but it would also render unnecessary the inclusion of chapters on both Collingwood and Phenomenology and Existentialism, thus allowing Ayer to disregard philosophers he cannot present sympathetically. Second, and this is a more telling objection, even within the bounds of pragmatist and analytic philosophy, Ayer refuses to deal with those philosophers who take an anti-foundationist attitude toward epistemology. John Dewey, Wilfred Sellars, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and Richard Rorty are not even mentioned. Those who are mentioned—for example, Wittgenstein, Austin, and Quine—are incompletely represented. This matter will be discussed presently. Third, it is not obvious to whom this book is addressed. The general reader, who can profit enormously from such works as Fredrick Copleston’s nine-volume A History of Philosophy (1946-1977), may well be confused by Ayer’s specialized terminology and limited focus, not to mention the overall organization of the book, which is almost inscrutable. This is an unfortunate situation, for it seems that Ayer is aiming at more than only a professional audience. Nevertheless, Ayer is a lucid and elegant writer, which militates against the confusion engendered by his affection for technical terminology, and the persevering reader will come away with a clear idea of the contributions that the analytic movement has made to philosophy in this century.

A self-proclaimed “old-fashioned empiricist,” Ayer accepts the dualism of scheme and content, interpretation and data, theory and observation, sentence and fact. There are many ways of expressing this dualism, but the essential point remains the same. Immediate sensory experience—brute and raw—is self-authenticating and provides a foundation for knowledge. As Wilfred Sellars puts it in his book Science, Perception, and Reality (1963), this is theidea that there is, indeed must be, a structure of particular matter of fact such that (a) each fact can not only be non-inferentially known to be the case, but presupposes no other knowledge either of particular matter of fact, or of general truths and (b) such that the non-inferential knowledge of facts belonging to this structure constitutes the ultimate court of appeals for all factual claims—particular and general—about the world. . . . The idea that observation, strictly and properly so-called, is constituted by certain...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Commentary. LXXV, January, 1983, p. 43.

Contemporary Review. CCXLII, January, 1983, p. 49.

Economist. CCLXXXV, October 30, 1982, p. 90.

Listener. CVIII, September 30, 1982, p. 24.

New Statesman. CIV, November 5, 1982, p. 24.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, November 28, 1982, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, September 24, 1982, p. 66.