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Posts Tagged ‘A.J. Ayer

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language”*…

Clockwise from top: Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, Elizabeth Anscombe

How four women defended ethical thought from the legacy of positivism…

By Michaelmas Term 1939, mere weeks after the United Kingdom had declared war on Nazi Germany, Oxford University had begun a change that would wholly transform it by the academic year’s end. Men ages twenty and twenty-one, save conscientious objectors and those deemed physically unfit, were being called up, and many others just a bit older volunteered to serve. Women had been able to matriculate and take degrees at the university since 1920, but members of the then all-male Congregation had voted to restrict the number of women to fewer than a quarter of the overall student population. Things changed rapidly after the onset of war. The proportion of women shot up, and, in many classes, there were newly as many women as men.

Among the women who experienced these novel conditions were several who did courses in philosophy and went on to strikingly successful intellectual careers. Elizabeth Anscombe, noted philosopher and Catholic moral thinker who would go on occupy the chair in philosophy that Ludwig Wittgenstein had held at Cambridge, started a course in Greats—roughly, classics and philosophy—in 1937, as did Jean Austin (neé Coutts), who would marry philosopher J. L. Austin and later have a long teaching career at Oxford. Iris Murdoch, admired and beloved philosopher and novelist, began to read Greats in 1938 at the same time as Mary Midgley (neé Scrutton), who became a prominent public philosopher and animal ethicist. A year later Philippa Foot (neé Bosanquet), distinguished moral philosopher, started to read the then relatively new course PPE—philosophy, politics and economics—and three years after that Mary Warnock (neé Wilson), subsequently a high-profile educator and public intellectual, went up to read Greats.

Several of these women would go on to make groundbreaking contributions to ethics…

Oxford philosophy in the early to mid 1930s had been in upheaval. The strains of Hegel-inspired idealism that had remained influential in Britain through the first decade of the twentieth century had been definitively displaced, in the years before World War I, by realist doctrines which claimed that knowledge must be of what is independent of the knower, and which were elaborated within ethics into forms of intuitionism. By the ’30s, these schools of thought were themselves threatened by new waves of enthusiasm for the themes of logical positivism developed by a group of philosophers and scientists, led by Moritz Schlick, familiarly known as the Vienna Circle. Cambridge University’s Susan Stebbing, the first woman to be appointed to a full professorship in philosophy in the UK, had already interacted professionally with Schlick in England and had championed tenets of logical positivism in essays and public lectures when, in 1933, Oxford don Gilbert Ryle recommended that his promising tutee Freddie Ayer make a trip to Vienna. Ayer obliged, and upon his return he wrote a brief manifesto, Language, Truth and Logic (1936), in defense of some of the Vienna Circle’s views. The book became a sensation, attracting attention and debate far beyond the halls of academic philosophy. Its bombshell contention was that only two kinds statements are meaningful: those that are true solely in virtue of the meanings of their constituent terms (such as “all bachelors are unmarried”), and those that can be verified through physical observation. The gesture seemed to consign to nonsense, at one fell swoop, the statements of metaphysics, theology, and ethics.

This turn to “verification” struck some as a fitting response to strains of European metaphysics that many people, rightly or wrongly, associated with fascist irrationalism and the gathering threat of war. But not everyone at Oxford was sympathetic. Although Ayer’s ideas weren’t universally admired, they were widely discussed, including by a group of philosophers led by Isaiah Berlin, who met regularly at All Souls College—among them, J. L. Austin, Stuart Hampshire, Donald MacKinnon, Donald MacNabb, Anthony Woozley, and Ayer himself. Oxford philosophy’s encounter with logical positivism would have a lasting impact and would substantially set the terms for subsequent research in many areas of philosophy—including, it would turn out, ethics and political theory…

A fascinating intellectual history of British moral philosophy in the second half of the 20th century: “Metaphysics and Morals,” Alice Crary in @BostonReview.

* Ludwig Wittgenstein

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As we ponder precepts, we might recall that it was on this date in 1248 that the seat of the action described above, The University of Oxford, received its Royal Charter from King Henry III.   While it has no known date of foundation, there is evidence of teaching as far back as 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world’s second-oldest university in continuous operation (after the University of Bologna).

The university operates the world’s oldest university museum, as well as the largest university press in the world, and the largest academic library system in Britain.  Oxford has educated and/or employed many notables, including 72 Nobel laureates, 4 Fields Medalists, and 6 Turing Award winners, 27 prime ministers of the United Kingdom, and many heads of state and government around the world. 

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“Do not explain your philosophy. Embody it.”*…

Truth, knowledge, justice – to understand how our loftiest abstractions earn their keep, trace them to their practical origins…

Unlike ideas of air, food and water that allow us to think about the everyday resources we need to survive, the venerable notions of knowledge, truth or justice don’t obviously cater to practical needs. On the contrary, these exalted ideals draw our gaze away from practical pursuits. They are imbued with grandeur precisely because of their superb indifference to mundane human concerns. Having knowledge is practically useful, but why would we also need the concept of knowledge? The dog who knows where his food is seems fine without the concept of knowledge, so long as he’s not called upon to give a commencement address. And yet the concepts of knowledge, truth or justice appear to have been important enough to emerge across different cultures and endure over the ages. Why, then, did we ever come to think in these terms?

Friedrich Nietzsche grumbled that, when it came to identifying the origins of lofty ideas, philosophers had a tendency to be led astray by their own respect for them. In dealing with what they felt were the ‘highest concepts’, the ‘last wisps of smoke from the evaporating end of reality’, they had reverently placed them ‘at the beginning as the beginning’, convinced that the higher could never have grown out of the lower: Plato’s eternal Forms, the mind of God, Immanuel Kant’s noumenal world – they had all served as cradles to higher concepts, offering them a suitably distinguished pedigree.

But to insist that higher concepts were bound to have higher origins, Nietzsche thought, was to let one’s respect for those ideas get in the way of a truthful understanding of them. If, after the ‘Death of God’ and the advent of Darwinism, we were successfully to ‘translate humanity back into nature’, as Nietzsche’s felicitous rallying cry had it, we needed to trace seemingly transcendent ideas such as knowledge, truth or justice to their roots in human concerns. Their origins weren’t empyrean (to be sought in the highest spheres) but distinctly sublunary (found in lowly practical needs). Nietzsche encouraged us to ask: what necessities might have been the mothers of those inventions? And what, if anything, do they still do for us?…

Matthieu Queloz (@matthieu_queloz) takes up Nietzsche‘s challenge: “Ideas that work.”

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* Epictetus

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As we root out first principles, we might spare a thought for Sir Alfred Jules “Freddie” Ayer (usually cited as A.J. Ayer); he died on this date in 1989. A philosopher associated with the the British humanist movement, he is best remembered as the champion of of logical positivism, particularly in his books Language, Truth, and Logic (1936) and The Problem of Knowledge (1956). While he had a number of material disagreements with Nietzsche, Ayer shared his rejection of objective ethical values.

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