A. J. Ayer: A Life. Ben Rogers. New York: Grove Press, 1999. $30.00.


This beautifully written, sympathetic and sensitive biography tells the life of Britain’s best-known philosopher of the generation after Bertrand Russell. In the decades after the Second World War, Professor Sir Alfred Jules Ayer, Freddie to everyone, was famous. He was familiar on television and radio, the paradigm of the vaguely left-wing London liberal and public intellectual. He mounted campaigns, and championed causes, and was sufficiently influential that, years later, when he died in 1989, Margaret Thatcher’s Minister for (many said, against) Higher Education, Robert Jackson, felt required to write to the press vilifying him. Perhaps less predictably, so did the tame Tory house-philosopher Roger Scruton.

The outline of his life is easy enough to tell. Freddie was born in 1910, into a moderately well-off, cosmopolitan family. His father was of Swiss Calvinist descent, and his mother, Reine Citroën, came from a family of Dutch Jews. They were genteel “trade”, although with real money in the background. Freddie grew up an only child, and there is the usual doubt about whether he was fundamentally happy, in a gilt Edwardian way, or fundamentally unhappy in a lonely, private-school and First-World-War way. Whatever the truth, there is no doubt at all that he was precociously and annoyingly clever. He gained a scholarship to Eton, and after the usual forced diet of Latin, Greek, and barbarity, there followed Oxford, where Freddie graced the grandest of Colleges, Christ Church (“The House”), and philosophy. After graduation, on his tutor Gilbert Ryle’s advice, he went to Vienna to investigate the blossoming school of logical positivism, centered around Moritz Schlick, Rudolph Carnap, and Otto Neurath. He and Willard van Orman Quine, currently the greatest living American philosopher, were the only outsiders invited in. At the age of 24 he encapsulated what he had discovered in Vienna in Language, Truth, and Logic, the book that is still the foundation of his philosophical reputation. There followed, with apparent inevitability, the academic jobs, the professorships in London and then Oxford, and the string of volumes defending and modifying the youthful best-seller. In between, Freddie (one thinks, “as a matter of course”, although it probably was not) had a “good war”. He joined the Welsh Guards, a fashionable and exclusive regiment, but mostly seems to have hob-nobbed with old friends from Eton and the House: intelligence men and diplomats in New York, West Africa, Algiers, the south of France, and finally Paris. He stayed with Rothschilds and von Hoffmansthals, and irritated more orthodox soldiers. A good dancer (Richard Wollheim mistook him on first acquaintance for Frederick Ashton, the choreographer), Freddie never seemed to stumble.

I met him only a few times, although I certainly owe more to him than do most other philosophers. I first met him in 1970, when he was the representative from the Oxford sub-faculty of philosophy on the committee that gave me, a foreigner from Cambridge, my Fellowship at Pembroke College, across the road from The House. The College system at Oxbridge is scarcely transparent, but “sub-faculty” also needs explaining: there is no full faculty of philosophy in Oxford because everyone knows that philosophy is a mere outhouse of Literae Humaniores, “Lit. Hum.”, the cobwebbed citadel of Classics, where the real men live. At my interview, Freddie was the only professional philosopher. In the same year, he was an examiner for my doctorate, and perhaps because it would have been too shaming to have appointed as Fellow of an Oxford College someone who could not drum up a doctoral dissertation, that also went well. It took me a while to learn how lucky I had been. Among Oxford philosophers, he was probably unique in admiring my Cambridge approach to problems. Away in the Fens, we actually took seriously things like the foundations of knowledge, the nature of probability and scientific laws, and the logical structure of scientific theory. This was, and is, very bad form in the Thames valley, and ever afterwards I found Oxford philosophers whose protegés had not got the job regarding me with the pained expression of those who know that the butler has stolen the silver, but haven’t quite got the proof.

A few years later, I found myself with him in a train going to the Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and Mind Association: the annual jamboree of British philosophers. He talked with perfect recall of my dissertation, which by then I had fairly successfully tried to forget. But what I remember most vividly is the way in which, talking still, he stalked out of Norwich station, straight to the head of a line of festering travelers, and whisked me unscathed into the first available taxi. The line was simply invisible to him—but perhaps you need to be British to realize the enormity that this implies. I curled up and wished I were dead. I expect he found me very boring.

The best anecdote comes from 1987, only a year before Freddie’s death:


At yet another party he had befriended Sanchez [Fernando Sanchez, a fashionable  designer, allegedly famous for womens’ underclothes]. Ayer was  now standing near the entrance to the great white living-room of Sanchez’s West 57th Street apartment, chatting to a group of young models and designers, when a woman rushed in saying that a friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. Ayer went to investigate and found Mike Tyson forcing himself on a young south London model called Naomi Campbell, then just beginning her career. Ayer warned Tyson to desist. Tyson: “Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world”. Ayer stood his ground. “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 began to talk. Naomi Campbell slipped out.


It is hard to know where to begin: the rash courage, the quick wit, the charm, or the glamorous company. Although as to this last, let us not forget that while the intelligentsia of today will goggle enviously at a philosopher mixing in such circles (great white living rooms! models!), there were once times when a Leibniz or a Kant would not have been beatified by an invitation from someone whose skill lay in placing the holes in womens’ underpants. In any event, as Colin McGinn said, commenting on the story in The Times Literary Supplement, the only touch that is lacking is Freddie going on himself to seduce the delectable Ms Campbell, with no force required. It is not recorded what the detumescent Tyson and Freddie went on to talk about, nor for that matter what he was previously discussing with the group of young models and designers (logical positivism and the significance of the thong? suggested McGinn, archly).

            Perhaps, on this note, we should get the woman question out of the way. In 1952 (in spite of it being eleven years before sexual intercouse began, according to Philip Larkin) Freddie had been together with an artist and theatrical designer, Jocelyn Rickards, for a couple of years. He began a series of affairs.


“Girls came and went, or came and stayed” Jocelyn recalled. “Progressively I became part of a trio, a quartet, a quintet, and sextet (plus Renée) [Freddie’s first wife]… All the ladies knew about me, I knew about all of them, but none of them knew about each other”.


“He was terrible,” said one woman friend, “he used to boast about how many girlfriends he had, ‘One for breakfast, one for lunch, one for dinner.’”

            Personally, I find the appetite less in bad-taste than the boasting—even Don Giovanni needed Leporello to do that for him— but Freddie was never one to hide his light under a bushel. From our present vantage point, when it takes permission from a couple of lawyers, the Board of Trustees, and the entire faculty of Womens’ Studies for university inmates to nod at each other, those times seem very primitive. Wit and intelligence were still aphrodisiac, and few women had discovered that the energetic indulgence of indignation and resentment provides their supreme sexual pleasure. In any event, Freddie retained the affection of his friends: there seem to have been no Donna Annas and Elviras flapping out of the wings to spoil his pleasures.

Men, it is true, sometimes reacted badly. John Osborne, the playwright, who later lived with Jocelyn Rickards, described Ayer as “possibly the most selfish, superficial and obtuse man I had ever met”, a “cruel pear-shaped Don Giovanni”. Apart from the shape, this might remind one of D. H. Lawrence’s diatribes against Russell, although Osborne at least had the excuse that Freddie was at that time trying to steal Jocelyn back. Yet one woman, the redoubtable Dee Wells, married Freddie twice, and just as the second marriage was about to take place another old flame, whom Rogers leaves coyly anonymous, re-ignited an intense physical affair that nearly prevented it. This in spite of the fact that she was some fifty years younger than Freddie, who was then seventy-eight years old and within a few months of his death (Jocelyn herself regularly attended his deathbed). Many of Freddie’s partners, including his third wife Vanessa Lawson, were great beauties of their day, and many were otherwise remarkable. It is hard to analyze charm, but cut it as we may, Freddie could turn it on. He could also turn it off, appearing fidgety and irritable and depressed: whether expansive or withdrawn, his moods were always salient. But he knew how to talk to women, and behind the vanity and the constant movement many seem to have detected a vulnerability and insecurity that demanded their ministrations. Perhaps they also rose to the challenge of fighting off the withdrawal. Then, pear-shaped or no, his quicksilver mind, the melting, dark, bedroom eyes, and the sensual satyr’s face, seem to have done the rest.

Whether we reach for notions like obsession and superficiality or words like “gusto” and “zest” may then seem to be a matter of taste. But Ben Rogers delicately steers us into realizing that somewhere things were not quite right. Indeed, he confesses to having discussed with Dee Wells the possibility that Freddie might have been mildly autistic. The higher-functioning autist can be capable of great feats of concentration and memory, may be apt to gabble and twitch, and loves routine and order. But human feelings are basically foreign, and can only be aped or donned with difficulty. The autist’s world is a place of “discrete sense-impressions, of patterned surfaces and disembodied stimuli.” All of this fits Freddie, and his philosophy, quite well. But, as Rogers goes on to note, it is only part of the picture. Freddie did have emotional attachments (especially to children), loved literature, and was not short of imagination and even wisdom: “he never dreamed that morality might be reduced to a system, or social conflict eliminated”. In short, there appeared not to be anything inhuman, but rather something enigmatic, perhaps lonely, undiscovered, and not fully understood, about him, perhaps like a professorial version of James Dean.



There were two major influences on Freddie’s philosophy: the eighteenth-century empiricism of David Hume, and twentieth-century logical positivism . The first set the scene, and the second gave the kind of tools needed for coping with it. In Hume’s philosophy, as in that of many others, the mind first contains “perceptions”, the data provided by conscious awareness. On the basis of those perceptions we must struggle both toward an understanding of the world external to the mind, and toward an understanding of the self and its place in that world. It would be nice if this understanding could be achieved by reasoning starting from the data of the senses. But Hume is famously pessimistic about that. We think of our world as one of enduring things that interact with each other and with ourselves. But we have no perception of these causal links, and no way of reasoning to their nature. We think of objects as enduring over time and independent of us, but our perceptions are fleeting and dependent upon us. We think of ourselves also as enduring through time, but introspection only shows us the same changing kaleidoscope of perceptions, never their owner. In each case, Hume supposes that natural processes step in and take the place of reasoning. By custom and habit and association and trivial operations of the imagination we stumble towards a “picture” of the world and of ourselves in it. But it is not a picture that survives rational scrutiny. It only survives because of our carelessness and inattention. 

            Above all, then, Hume is skeptical about the role of reasoning: our picture of the world is either wholly irrational, or at best a-rational, being the upshot of processes that have no foundation in reason. Curiously, the positivists managed to regard themselves as the heirs of Hume, while jettisoning this utterly central plank of his position. In the version that Freddie imbibed, they shared Hume’s starting point. But they believed that modern logic provided forms of reasoning that escaped Hume’s skepticism. The principal weapon is the idea of a “logical construction”. Logical construction is a device for showing how statements about one kind of thing are tantamount to statements about apparently different kinds of thing. “The average man”, is a logical construction, in the sense that statements about the average man are really equivalent to more cumbersome statements about classes of flesh-and-blood men. Logical positivism claims that, in the same way, the meaning or content of statements about external objects, or the entities of scientific theory, reduces to the meaning of statements about actual and possible experiences. The meaning of a statement is its method of verification—a slogan that gained prestige from having been implicit in Einstein’s critique of the classical conception of simultaneity. Objects in the world become no more than permanent possibilities of experience. The phrase is Mill’s but the logical program belonged to Russell and the early Wittgenstein, although the most impressive attempt to work through the idea was Rudolph Carnap’s dense 1928 classic, The Logical Construction of the World.

            The logical program answers Hume’s problems by describing things in the world, and selves contemplating the world, in terms of sets of experiences. The implication is that statements that could not be translated into terms of experience are “metaphysical”, and lack factual meaning altogether. Language, Truth, and Logic was so sensational not because it made any serious technical or logical progress beyond Carnap, but because it gleefully applied this test to statements of theology and ethics, both of which Ayer briskly dismissed as lacking factual meaning. Ethical claims only express the attitudes and policies of the subject and are incapable of proof. The same is true of religious utterances, insofar as they have any meaning at all. It was the apparent downgrading of ethics that still stung Robert Jackson and Roger Scruton all those years later. But in truth it is not so very terrible: finding that ethics is a matter of which attitudes to hold does not make it either simple or unimportant. And the positivists’ approach to evaluative language is arguably the principal part of their edifice that still attracts significant philosophical support. Not coincidentally, perhaps, it is also the part of the edifice that most closely follows Hume. 

            The years have been kind to Language, Truth, and Logic, which is still a marvelous introduction to philosophy, but they were not kind to logical positivism. The starting point in experience, the conception of logic, and the constructions themselves all suffered from comprehensive attacks. Freddie parried some of these, particularly the savage onslaught of J. L. Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia. But he accepted others. He came to accept that the world contains more than sets of experiences. The meaning of a statement is sometimes more than its method of verification. For example, it is not really credible that a statement about the past should mean no more than a prediction of what a historian will find in a library, even if that is what verifies it. As Freddie himself later said of Carnap’s constructions: “It was indeed impossible that so very large a rabbit should genuinely emerge from so very small a hat.”



I read this biography not long after finishing the second volume of Ray Monk’s monumental life of Bertrand Russell. Monk has been rightly celebrated for his life of Wittgenstein. But his lack of sympathy for Russell obtrudes on the later work, turning Russell’s story into a long, unrelieved, tragedy of wasted gifts and stunted emotions. It would have been possible to take the same attitude to Freddie. After all, he had the same tangled family life as Russell, did his best work when young, and then much more so than Russell lived to see that work comprehensively attacked or sidelined by subsequent philosophers. Again, unlike Russell, who was first and foremost an English aristocrat, Freddie clearly suffered from serious insecurity, thinking of himself as an outsider, a Jew who had by luck and accident stumbled into the middle of English life.

It has been said that the lives of politicians are always lives of failure. The same tends to be true of philosophers, tied to their treadmill, footnoting Plato. Wittgenstein believed he had finished philosophy once and for all in his early work, but was wrong; Freddy believed the same after Language, Truth, and Logic, and he was wrong too. But the big failures can coexist with little successes: the new point, the new argument, the technique that needs developing and exploring, or even just the opponent routed. There may be no last philosophy, but then there is no last novel or last play either. So Ben Rogers rightly resists the temptation to play up the tragedy, giving us instead a beautifully balanced and rounded picture of a very complex man. He shows that if there was gaiety about Freddie, the dances and parties, and the wit and simple fun, there was also a surprisingly strong sense of duty. Freddie was in most ways a model Professor. He managed his department in London with great devotion and success, and inspired pupils both there and in Oxford. He maintained a large output of articles and books, assiduously attended conferences, and above all wrote some of the most beautiful, lucid, philosophical prose since Hume.

He was famous, in a way given to few, if any, intellectuals nowadays. The radio and television of his time still mounted intelligent programs, and people wanted to hear what men like Russell and Freddie thought about things. The world had not then dumbed-down, and people were capable of listening to more than a sound-bite, and reading more than a gossip-column. In Camden and Hampstead, tweedy liberals fought to reform the laws, stop wars, and further social justice (Freddie chaired the Homosexual Law Reform Society, remarking that “as a notorious heterosexual I could never be accused of feathering my own nest”). The world had confidence in the power of knowledge and reason, and people like Freddie were yet to be contemptuously dismissed as irrelevant, economically and politically powerless, “the chattering classes”. Perhaps we should look back with nostalgia. If there is tragedy in the air, it may be ours rather than Freddie’s.


3230 words.