Relationship between Language, Truth and LogicJune 26, 2021
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to let you know that someone is talking nonsense?
You would never have to be deceived again. You could separate everything you heard or read into phrases that were meaningful or meaningless and not worth your time. A. J. Ayer thought he had found a way. This method was the “Verification Policy”.
After spending a few months in Austria in the early 1930s with the group of brilliant scientists and philosophers known as the Vienna Circle, Ayer returned to Oxford, where he worked as an instructor. At the age of twenty-four he wrote a book declaring that much of the history of philosophy was full of nonsense and almost entirely meaningless. The title of this book, which was published in 1936, was “Language, Truthfulness and Logic”. This book was part of the logical positivism movement that glorified science as man’s greatest achievement.
The concept of “metaphysics” is a word used to describe the search for any reality that lies beyond our senses, as believed by Kant, Schopenhauer and Hegel. For Ayer, “metaphysics” is a dirty word. It’s something he’s against. Ayer was only concerned with what could be known through logic and the senses. But metaphysics has often gone far beyond both, describing realities that cannot be investigated scientifically or conceptually. For Ayer, this meant that it was useless and should be abandoned.
As you can imagine, “Language, Accuracy and Logic” angered many. Many of the older philosophers at Oxford hated the book, making it difficult for Ayer to get a job. But making people angry and angry was something philosophers have been doing for thousands of years, following the tradition that started with Socrates. It was nevertheless a brave act to write a book that so openly attacked the work of some of the great philosophers of the past.
Ayer’s method of distinguishing meaningless sentences from meaningful ones was:
Take any sentence and ask these two questions: (1) Is the sentence correct by definition? and (2) Can the sentence be empirically verified?
If neither has an answer, the sentence is meaningless. This was his two-way test for significance. Only statements that were empirically verifiable and true by definition could serve philosophers. This needs some explaining. Examples of correct statements by definition are “all ostriches are birds” or “all brothers are men”. These are analytical expressions in Immanuel Kant’s terminology. You don’t need to do research to know that ostriches are birds, it’s part of the definition of an ostrich. Obviously, you couldn’t have a female brother, sure you wouldn’t see a single :name brother unless there was a gender reassignment involved. True statements by definition reveal what is implicit in the terms you use. On the other hand, empirically verifiable statements (synthetic statements in Kant’s language) can give us real information. For a statement to be empirically verifiable, there must be some kind of test or observation that shows whether that statement is true or false. For example, if someone says “All dolphins eat fish”, we can find some dolphins and give them fish and see if they eat. If we encountered a dolphin that never eats fish, then we would realize that the above statement is false. This is still a verifiable statement for Ayer because he uses the word “verifiable” to refer to both “verifiable” and “falsifiable.” All empirically verifiable statements are factual statements: they are about the world itself. There must be some observations to support or refute them. Science is the best way we can study them.
According to Ayer, a sentence is meaningless if it is neither true by definition nor empirically verifiable (or falsifiable). It is that simple. This little piece of Ayer’s philosophy is directly borrowed from David Hume’s work. Hume argued, half-seriously, that we should burn works of philosophy that did not pass this test, because they contained nothing but ‘sense and illusion’. Ayer reconsidered Hume’s ideas for the twentieth century. Therefore, if we take the sentence “Some philosophers have beards”, it is quite clear that this sentence is not true by definition, since it does not belong to the definition of philosopher that some philosophers should have beards. But it’s empirically verifiable because we can find evidence for it. All we have to do is look at a group of philosophers. If we find some philosophers with beards, which we are likely to find, then we can infer that this statement is true. Or, if we cannot find a single philosopher with a beard after looking at hundreds of philosophers, then we can conclude that the sentence “Some philosophers have beards” is probably wrong, although we cannot be sure of this without examining all philosophers. Either way, true or false, the sentence makes sense.
You can use this sentence as “my room is full of invisible angels that leave no trace”