A. J. Ayer

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Ayer, Alfred J(ules) [Sir] (29 October 1910 - 27 June 1989)

Ayer, a British philosopher who was a first vice-president of the British Humanist Association and from 1965 to 1970 its president, edited The Humanist Outlook (1968). In 1980, he signed the Secular Humanist Declaration, and he was an honorary member of the Bertrand Russell Society. Friends called him "Freddie."

Biography by Dr. Paul Edwards

Ayer, born 1910, [was the] Grote Professor of philosophy of Mind and Logic in the University of London. Ayer is the leading exponent of logical positivism in Great Britain and his Language, Truth and Logic (1936) is regarded as a kind of textbook of this school. Few philosophical works in any age have been more widely discussed. His other works are The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge (1940), Philosophical Essays (1954), and The Problem of Knowledge (1956). Ayer is the editor of the Pelican series of philosophy books and co-editor (with Raymond Winch) of British Empirical Philosophers (1952). He is also editor of Logical Positivism (1957), the second volume in "The Library of Philosophical movements." Ayer is a Fellow of the British Academy.

Ayer on Humanism

In 1951 Warren Allen Smith wrote him about various meanings of humanism, including the label "naturalistic humanism" that Corliss Lamont and others were using at the time. Ayer responded,

  • I do not know how you wish to draw the distinction between atheistic humanism and naturalistic humanism. Is it that the atheistic humanists dramatize the fact that there is no God, whereas the naturalistic humanists assume it without being emotionally impressed by it? Or would you include theists and agnostics among your naturalistic humanists so long as their main interest was in the fortunes and activities of human beings independently of any matters of religious belief or disbelief? If that is the criterion of naturalistic humanism then I should classify myself as a naturalistic humanist, although I am in fact also an atheist. . . .

About Ayer

In 1988, while Ayer was in the United States, his heart stopped. His thoughts on a rationalist’s experience of “death” are written up as an article, “That Undiscovered Country” (New Humanist, May, 1989), in which he states,

  • My recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be. They have not weakened my conviction that there is no god. I trust that my remaining an atheist will allay the anxieties of my fellow supporters of the British Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press Association and the South Place Ethical Society.

Ayer was concise in his writing, attacking racism in sport and the harassment of homosexuals.

“There was something pathological about his pursuit of women,” The Economist (19 June 1999) noted:

  • He started soon after his first marriage, encouraged by the attentions of a dance-hall hostess in Vienna, and did not let up until he died approaching 80. When ill and old and about to remarry his second wife, Dee, he was still capable of planning to go off with a woman less than half his age. Women to him were like sweets to a greedy little boy. In general, he was not so much autistic as child-like, artlessly pleased with himself, insistent on being the centre of attention. He never really grew up.

His adopted son was killed in the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in Decemer 2004. Ayer died virtually bankrupt, having invested unwisely in Lloyds of London stock.

A Fellow of the British Academy, Ayer was knighted in 1970. His works include Foundation of Empirical Knowledge (1940), Philosophical Essays (1954), and Concept of a Person (1963). At the 1996 conference of the Humanist Society of Scotland, Ayer said that humanists think

  • that this world is all we have and can provide all we need;
  • that we should try to live full and happy lives ourselves and, as part of this, help others to do the same;
  • that all situations and people deserve to be judged on their merits, by standards of reason and humanity; and
  • that individual and social cooperation are equally important.

Observers were quick to notice that Ayer made no mention of religion. (An essay by Paul Edwards, in which Ayer is called the leading exponent of logical positivism in Great Britain, is found in the Encyclopedia of Unbelief.

(Paul Edwards’s Immortality includes supporting material which confirms Ayer’s disbelief in any kind of survival after death.)

{CL; EU, Paul Edwards; HM2; Humanist in Canada, Summer 1997; SHD; TRI; TYD; WAS, 15 March 1951}