Philosophy in the Twentieth Century

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2211

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...

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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 self-authenticating nonverbal episodes, the authority of which is transmitted to verbal and quasiverbal performances when these performances are made “in conformity with the semantical rules of the language,” is, of course, the heart of the Myth of the Given.

According to this idea of sensory givenness and incorrigible knowledge, truth involves a correspondence between these unmediated, nonconceptual, and non-linguistic data of experience and the mediated, conceptual, and linguistic scheme that represents them. Although Ayer has qualified and modified the radical stance he took in Language, Truth and Logic (1936), he still accepts a version of the verifiability theory of meaning, according to which a proposition is meaningful if and only if it is capable of being empirically verified and thereby has implications for actual or possible experience. Metaphysical theories and moral principles do not fare well under the rigors of this criterion. Exempted are necessary or analytic truths, which are true by virtue of the “rules of our language.” The propositions of logic and mathematics are true in any possible world simply because they are not empirical generalizations “which are inductively justified by the number and variety of the observations that conform to them.” They are true by virtue of meaning.

Ayer’s discussion of Bertrand Russell’s argument that the propositions of pure mathematics are necessarily rather than contingently true and of Russell’s concomitant attempt to reduce these propositions to a system of formal logic is excellent. He traces the development of the distinction between analytic (that which is necessarily true by virtue of linguistic convention and logical analysis) and synthetic (that which is contingently true by virtue of experience and observation) truth, a distinction that is at the heart of analytic philosophy. This chapter, “The Revolt from Hegel” (Russell and Moore) and the following two chapters—“Pragmatism” (James and Lewis) and “Wittgenstein, Popper and the Vienna Circle” (Wittgenstein, Schlick, Neurath, Carnap, Popper, and Tarski)—give the reader a clear understanding of what this century’s version of logical positivism entails. Correspondence theory (Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning), verificationism (the Vienna Circle’s slogan that the meaning of a proposition is its method of verification), pragmatism (James’s emphasis on “the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms”), falsifiability (Popper’s criterion of meaning), and other related matters are sympathetically considered, though with Ayer’s critical intelligence very much in operation. Ayer himself, in Language, Truth and Logic was a major proponent of the Vienna Circle’s ideas.

Unfortunately, Ayer does not consider in any detail the views of those philosophers who attack the myth of the given, the dualism of scheme and content, the correspondence theory of truth, and the language/fact distinction. In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1980), for example, Richard Rorty argues that “the notion of knowledge as accurate representation, made possible by special mental processes, and intelligible through a general theory of representation, needs to be abandoned.” Rorty adopts the “coherentist” view that objectivity is simply intersubjectivity and that no distinction between linguistic convention and logical analysis, on the one hand, and brute experience and scientific observation, on the other, can be made. He stresses what he calls “the theory-ladenness of observation, contending that “nothing counts as justification unless by reference to what we already accept. . . . There is no way to get outside our beliefs and our language so as to find some other test than coherence.” As Thomas Kuhn puts it in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), philosophers need to abandon the notion of a match “between the entities with which the theory populates nature and what is ’really there.’” There is “no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like ’really there’; the notion of the match between the ontology of a theory and its ’real’ counterpart in nature now seems . . . illusive in principle.” The point is not that Ayer should accept these views, only that he should consider them.

Even in terms of what he does consider, Ayer often ignores the radical implications of the philosophers’ ideas. In Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein abandons the picture theory of meaning that he articulated in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922, 1960), embracing instead the idea of language-games. He contends that “to imagine a language-game means to imagine a form of life” and goes on to say that “the term language-game is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life.” Words, he insists, are like tools, and they must be understood in terms of a context of situation, for linguistic and nonlinguistic human behavior intertwine. Language is communal in its nature. Words and the context of situation together define the language-game. The meaning of a word, then, is not the referent to which it points, the object for which it stands; “the meaning of a word is its use in language.” “A name functions as a name only in the context of a system of linguistic and non-linguistic activities.” This is why words cannot acquire meaning by ostensive definition alone and why reference makes sense in terms of a shared language-game. Ayer discusses the later Wittgenstein but does not examine the ramifications of construing language to be a tool rather than a mirror. If Wittgenstein is right, then his conclusion would seem to endorse a coherence theory rather than a correspondence theory. Moreover, many so-called direct reports of the sensory given may only bespeak what Rorty calls “our readiness to fall within a specifically philosophical language-game.”

Ayer’s representation of J. L. Austin also seems incomplete. In How to Do Things with Words (1962), Austin commences by enunciating a reasonably clear-cut distinction between constative utterances (those which describe or report some state of affairs such that one could say their correspondence with the facts is either true or false) and performative utterances (those which do not describe or report at all but involve the performance of an act, thereby focusing attention on the intentionality of the utterer and making relevant such terms as sincere or insincere, felicitous or infelicitous, but not true or false). The initial strategy of the book induces one to believe that the distinction will be further refined and clarified throughout the course of his argument. In fact, quite the opposite occurs. By the end of his book, Austin is using such pejorative terms as “the true-false fetish” and the “value-fact fetish” and has come to the conclusion that constative and performative are not categorically separable. Ayer is unsympathetic and makes no effort to give speech act theory the detailed consideration it merits. H. P. Grice and John Searle are not referred to at all.

Ayer’s treatment of Quine is accurate but limited. Quine is the originator of two well-known slogans—“the indeterminacy of translation” and “the inscrutability of reference.” Quine argues that it is precisely because there is no extralinguistic perspective to which a given speaker has access that translation of any language alien to one’s own is, in principle, indeterminate. Moreover, the range of reference that such a language intends is, in principle, inscrutable. It is inevitable, he maintains, that one should read one’s own ontological point of view into an alien language “not because our objectifying pattern is an invariable trait of human nature, but because we are bound to adapt any alien pattern to our own in the very process of understanding or translating the alien sentences.” No inquiry is possible without a conceptual scheme, and conceptualization is inseparable from language. “Reference is nonsense except relative to a co-ordinate system.” “Immediate experience simply will not, of itself, cohere as an autonomous domain.” Hence his famous notion of “ontological relativity.” Thus, Quine rejects the two dogmas of empiricism—the analytic/synthetic distinction and the notion that immediate experience is the foundation of knowledge.

Philosophy in the Twentieth Century is a challenging and stimulating book. It contains much of interest to which this review has been unable to do justice. Although this review has focused to a considerable extent on the book’s deficiencies, in an important sense the deficiencies are also its virtues. For approximately half a century, Ayer has argued his empiricist point of view with rigor, conscience, intelligence, and, above all, consistency. That in itself is a remarkable achievement and enough to put him securely in the honorific company of his predecessor Bertrand Russell.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 36

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.

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