What was Otto Neurath's main philosophical contribution?

First, Neurath thought that the only connection between language and reality was metaphorical, and he believed that, at best, language and world "coincide" only because reality is all previously verified sentences. This required a "coherence theory of truth" for each individual sentence: a sentence is true if it coheres with already verified sentences. Only the entire language system can be verified. Neurath famously wrote:

We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.

Second, Neurath did not think that phenomenalism could provide a valid foundation for scientific language because sense data are subjective. His alternative was to propose that mathematical physics be used for objective descriptions, a doctrine known as physicalism. Furthermore, language itself could be described in the language of mathematical physics because it is material, constituted by sounds and graphic symbols.

Who was A.J. Ayer?

Sir Alfred Jules ("Freddie") Ayer (1910-1989) was the British logical positivist who became famous for his Language, Truth and Logic (1936), which was followed by The Problem of Knowledge (1956). Ayer's main contribution was to relate logical positivism to traditional philosophy, which in no uncertain terms resulted in a devastating attack on metaphysics, ethics, and religion. The attack was on the meaning of terms used in these fields and resulted in the claim that they were meaningless.

Ayer was the Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at the University College London from 1946 until 1959, and after that the Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. From 1951 to 1952 he was president of the prestigious Aristotelian Society. In 1973 he became a Knight in the Legion of Honor.

Ayer's publications include Philosophical Essays (1954), The Concept of a Person and Other Essays (1956), The Origins of Pragmatism (1958), Metaphysics and Common Sense (1969), Russell and Moore: The Analytical Heritage (1971), Probability and Evidence (1972), Bertrand Russell (1972), The Central Questions of Philosophy (1973), Hume (1980), Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (1982), Freedom and Morality and Other Essays (1984), Ludwig Wittgenstein (1986), Part of My Life (1977), and More of My Life (1984), as well as numerous articles on related topics.

What are some other interesting facts about A.J. Ayer's life and career?

Ayer was a prominent subject of academic gossip for his "womanizing" (he was married four times) and for his engagement in fashionable popular culture. There was an overall glamour to his life. Ayer's mother's family founded the French Citroen car company, and his father worked for the wealthy Rothchild family of bankers. He attended Eton, won a scholarship to Oxford, and served in the SOE (Special Operations Executive) during World War II. Before the war, while on a visit to New York, Ayer made a record with actress Lauren Bacall. He supported the Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and was known to its fans as "The Prof."

How did A.J. Ayer defeat Mike Tyson?

This is an oft-told story that those who knew Ayer said sounded exactly like him. When, at the age of 77, Ayer was a visiting professor at Bard College in 1987, he went to a party hosted by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez. Ayer noticed that the professional heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson was annoying model Naomi Campbell. Ayer told Tyson to back off, and Tyson responded, "Do you know who the f*** I am? I'm the heavyweight champion of the world!" Ayer shot back, "And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men." Ayer and Tyson did have a conversation, and Naomi Campbell, who was not yet famous, took advantage of this diversion to elude them both.

Ayer was also a secular humanist. He was honorary associate of the Rationalist Press Association after 1947, and a successor to evolutionary biologist and humanist Julian Huxley when he became president of the British Humanist Association. In 1965, Ayer was named the first president of the Agnostics' Adoption Society. He edited the anthology The Humanist Outlook in 1965.

At the peak of his career, Ayer served as a sort of in-house atheist for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He debated the Jesuit philosopher Frederick Copleston (1907-1994) on the subject of religion. Copleston was the author of the nine-volume History of Philosophy (1946-1975), so the two were matched in erudition.

Ayer (apparently briefly) revised his life-long atheism after a near-death experience in 1989—brought on by choking on a piece of smoked salmon. Toward the end of his life, though, he said, "What I should have said is that my experiences have weakened, not my belief that there is no life after death, but my inflexible attitude towards that belief."

What was A.J. Ayer's version of logical positivism?

In Language, Truth and Logic (1936), published when he was just 26, Ayer forcefully and with great panache presented the main tenets of logical positivism as a doctrine broadly relevant to philosophy. He asserted the empiricist doctrine that all of our knowledge of the world comes from sensory experience. The truth or falsity of statements was dependent on whether they could be verified in terms of that experience. Only statements that could be true or false were meaningful. It followed from these bold claims that metaphysical, religious, and ethical statements, if they were not true by definition, could assert nothing meaningful about reality. Statements about the self, the external world, and the minds of others had to be confirmed by sensory experience, if they were to be meaningful. Concerning the existence of God, for example,

Ayer maintained that the question itself was not meaningful because no possible experience could determine its truth or falsity. Ayer's ethical theory was emotivist, that is, ethical judgments were held to be expressions of emotions.

How was A.J. Ayer a phenomenalist?

According to Ayer, meaningful factual statements can be reduced to claims about sense data. While he seemed at times to temper this view, over his career he stuck to sense data as the foundation of empirical knowledge. In a famous exchange with the ordinary language philosopher J.L. Austin (1911-1960), Ayer defended his theory of sense data. Ayer's position was that sense data are not directly intuited until they have led to a perception of the ordinary world, with all of its normally perceptible objects, such as tables and chairs. Austin, who was a colleague of Ayer's at Cambridge, held that Ayer's theory of sense data could not be a form of foundationism because it presupposed common sense reality. That is, Austin's claim against Ayer was that, contrary to how Ayer seemed to present his case, perceptual knowledge was not built up of sense data. Ayer defended his view by claiming that in the process of verification sense data were necessary to confirm perceptions.

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