[Now that Logical Positivism has faded, and its chief English-speaking exponent, A. J. Ayer, has publicly conceded its hopeless deficiencies, could a scientific (or metaphysical) naturalist concede that Arnold Lunn’s rather harsh critique of that school of philosophy is fully justified?]
Professor A. J. Ayer, a leading exponent of logical positivism, whose book Language, Truth and Logic acquired at Oxford, according to The New Statesman (26 June 1948), almost “the effect of a philosophic bible,” asserted that there are only two types of statement that have meaning, analytical propositions such as 2 × 3 = 6, and propositions which can be verified by science and sense-experience.
It follows, to quote the founder of logical positivism, Wittgenstein, that “there can be no ethical proposition,” a view which would seem to be endorsed by Wittgenstein’s most influential disciple in England, Professor A. J. Ayer. “If I now generalize,” he writes, “and say ‘stealing is wrong,’ I produce a sentence which has no factual meaning—that is, expresses no proposition which can be either true or false.”
By parity of reasoning we could show that the sentence, “Fornication is wrong,” is a “sentence which has no factual meaning,” and that the sentence, “It is wrong for a professor of philosophy to seduce one of his own pupils,” expresses no proposition “which can be either true or false.” “The only way to get rid of temptations,” said Oscar Wilde, “is to yield to them.” Maybe, but the very word “yielding” is a relic of an old-fashioned vocabulary which has ceased to be relevant now that we have realized that all talk of temptation is meaningless.
Now one of the odd things about so many of these professors who teach what is, in effect, moral nihilism, is that they react indignantly to any suggestion that they or their pupils practise what they preach.
I remember a friendly discussion with a group of logical positivists who were teaching philosophy at an Australian university. They themselves, I was assured by one who knew them, were men of character who lived by a code which on their own theory they should have condemned as meaningless. I raised the question of the mass murder of Jews by Hitler, an embarrassing challenge to the logical positivists, who maintain that all moral judgements are meaningless. Most logical positivists have been vaguely leftist, not of course because they have any particular sympathy with the poor but because Conservatism in politics is associated in their minds with conservative morals. Because logical positivists are usually leftists they would not be embarrassed if challenged to reconcile their philosophy with such statements as “it is wrong for Communists to murder Catholic priests,” because in progressive circles there is a tendency to agree with the author of a book on the Civil War in Spain that “martyrdom is a professional risk for a Spanish priest,” and that “since civil war is a category of politics it is reasonable that a man should be liquidated for his opinions.” But the mere fact of being a Jew cannot be classified as a legitimate professional risk, and Professor A. J. Ayer, who, of course, feels strongly on anti-Semitism, was finally forced to revise his philosophy in order to allow for moral judgements condemning Hitler’s liquidation of the Jews. It was amusing to watch the embarrassment of his Australian disciples when challenged on this issue.
Towards the end of my discussion with the Australian philosophers I asked them what meaning a logical positivist could attribute to philosophy itself. In the past, philosophy had been concerned with the most significant problems which had exercised the minds of men, with the existence of God, the objective basis of morality, the meaning of the universe and the purpose of life, but all such speculations are relegated by the logical positivists to the status of propositions which are neither true nor false but merely meaningless. My friends agreed that philosophy was meaningless. “Why then,” I asked, “should universities continue to pay salaries to philosophers who themselves admit that philosophy is meaningless?” Nobody was quick enough to reply, “Your implied moral judgement ‘It is wrong to accept a salary and give nothing in return’ is as meaningless as the statement ‘stealing is wrong’.”
Fashions in sophistry change very rapidly, and it is no longer fashionable to describe oneself as a logical positivist. I have discussed logical positivism at some length because the fact that it survived as long as it did proves that we have not yet solved the problem of engaging modern sophistries and their victims, for there was never in all the long history of philosophic error a more egregious example of an untenable philosophy than logical positivism. According to Dr. Eric Unger, Professor Ayer’s originality consisted in the fact that no philosopher had been more “outspoken in his denial of the possibility of any moral knowledge,” but there is nothing particularly praiseworthy in the originality which consists in expounding views too foolish ever to have been anticipated by all the sophists of the past. What finally killed logical positivism was the fact that every logical positivist was forced to admit some moral judgements were far from meaningless.
Arnold Lunn (from And Yet So New, 1958)
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