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  • Name: A.J. AYER AND THE ELIMINATION OF METAPHYSICS
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ABSTRACT

A.J Ayer a logical positivist and indeed at all his fellow logical positivists were moved by the achievements and clarities in science and as it were, they moved to bring these achievements and clarities in science into philosophy. They believed that there are ambiguities and confusion in philosophical languages and that such ambiguities and confusions would be a thing of the past in philosophy when they are all jettisoned. It was their view also that those ambiguities in philosophy gave rise to metaphysics. Metaphysics for these positivists was to be expunged because it contained no knowledge as it purports to give. They (positivists) termed its knowledge pseudo-knowledge. In this work therefore, I wish to show that no matter the amount of attack directed to metaphysics by Ayer and his co-positivists, metaphysics will never be eliminated because man must go beyond the physical to explain realities like: life, God, man, world and man’s place in it, justice etc. for the sake of this work, I shall employ analytical method in order to do justice to this work.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Title page – – – – – – – – – i
Approval page – – – – – – – – – ii
Certification – – – – – – – – – iii
Dedication – – – – – – – – – iv
Acknowledgments – – – – – – – – v
Table of content – – – – – – – – vii
Abstract – – – – – – – – – – ix

CHAPTER ONE
1. 0 General Introduction – – – – – – 1
1.1 Background of the Study – – – – – 8
1.2 Statement of the Problem – – – – – 9
1.3 The Purpose of the Study – – – – – 11
1.4 Scope of the Study – – – – – – – 11
1.5 Significance of the Study – – – – – 13
1.6 Methodology – – – – – – – – 13
1.7 Definition of Terms – – – – – – – 14
References – – – – – – – – – 16

CHAPTER TWO
Literature Review – – – – – – – – 17

CHAPTER THREE
3.0 Logical positivism, towards a wholistic understanding -41
3.1 The Analytic movement – – – – – – 41
3.2 Logical Atomism – – – – – – – 44
3.3 Logical Positivism – – – – – – – 47
3.3.1 Characteristics of Logical positivism – – – 49
9
3.3.2 Basic Tenets of Logical Positivism – – – – 50
3.4 Linguistic Analysis – – – – – – – 51
References – – – – – – – – – 53

CHAPTER FOUR
4.0 A.J Ayer’s quest to Eliminate of Metaphysics – – 55
4.1 The Verification Principle Explained – – – 57
4.1.1 The Principle of Verification and the
Verification Criterion – – – – – – 58
4.1.2 The Strong and Weak Forms of Verification – 61
4.1.3 Practical Verifiability and Verifiability in Principle- 62
4.14 Direct and Indirect form of Verifiability – – 63
4.2 Principle of Verifiability and its Refutation of
Metaphysics – – – – – – – 64
4.3 Journal Towards Conformability – – – – 68
4.4 Implications of the Elimination of Metaphysics – 69
References – – – – – – – – – 74

CHAPTER FIVE
5.0 Evaluation and Conclusion – – – – – 76
5.1 Has A.J. Ayer’s Principle of Verification
Succeeded in Eliminating Metaphysics – – – 76
5.2 The Principle of Verification Criticized – – – 76
5.3 The Critique of Critics – – – – – – 83
5.4 The Indispensability of Metaphysics – – – 85
5.5 Conclusion – – – – – – – – 88
References – – – – – – – – – 90
Bibliography – – – – – – – – – 92

CHAPTER ONE

GENERAL INTRODUCTION
Philosophy which began vigorously from the Ancient periods with
its attendant rigorosity and criticality in reasoning have
apparently gone beyond the era of animism and
anthropomorphism that marked the works of Homer and Hesiod
no thanks to the seeming criticality with which the early lonian
philosophers philosophized. Various philosophies were put up,
some rejecting the existing culture status quo ante, others
supporting the prevalent culture condition by way of proffering
solutions. This brings out the truism in the fact that there is no
subject or field of study which began without any basis or what
Heidegger would call the prestructure of understanding extending
also to the maxim of Gardemer that no one speaks from nowhere.
Bringing out organically therefore the importance of Heideggerian
prestructure of understanding to the development of philosophy,
F. Copleston avows “one does not need to know very much about
the history of philosophy in order to realize that philosophy does
not develop in complete isolation from other elements of human
culture.”1 In the light of the above, the emergence of the logical
positivists with their principle of verification is precipitated by
some antecedents.
11
The principle of verification became for A.J. Ayer, a member of
the Vienna circle, and indeed all the logical positivists a
vademecum for their philosophical activities.

It must be noted that the first glimmers of the principle of
verification were first observed in the ancient philosophers who
tried to situated being or reality with what could be seen. Thales
choice of water as the cause of reality is a telling sign of this long
marathon. Furthermore, the echo became louder and clearer in
the late medieval times when William of Ockham came up with
the idea of nominalism which postulated that “science as
objective knowledge of necessary connections can be validated
without postulating mysterious universal entities out there.”2
This brought about a complete over hauling of the dominant
views as it opposed other views such as conceptualism, realism,
moderate realism etc. Capturing the scenario more aptly,
Copleston opined “…the nominalist spirit if one may so speak,
was inclined to analysis rather than to synthesis, and to criticism
rather than to speculation.”3 The full import of the nominalists’
spirit was that “…through their critical analysis of the
metaphysical ideas… the nominalists left faith hanging in the air
without (so far as philosophy is concerned) any rational basis.”4
12
This view when pursed to its logical conclusion set the ground for
the elimination of metaphysics. It must be noted and just in line
with what Copleston said that “the development of mathematical
and scientific studies by such 14th century figures as Nicholas of
Oresme, Albert of Saxony and Marsilius of Inghen is generally
associated with the Ockhamist movement.”5 Bacon’s idea of
induction and the distempers of learning gave a sure background
to this in the late Renaissance.

In the modern period, Descartes’ quest for certainly and clarity of
knowledge was informed by the Renaissance trail blazing effort,
although Descartes toed the rationalist line, he was nevertheless
triggered off by the sole desire to make philosophy certain and
clear with his “methodic doubt”. Empiricism, it must be noted
rose at this period with John Locke and David Hume as the
notable progenitors. As a matter of fact, Empiricism could be
taken to be the most pronounced and indeed the foremost
background to logical positivism.

In the contemporary era, the rise of idealism became a blessing in
disguise; idealism opposed to logical positivism in all
ramifications inadvertently gave rise to the idea of logical
13
positivism. The effect of the attack carried out against idealism
(both British and German) by B. Russell and G.E. Moore which
swoop the up-coming philosophers had a lasting impression on
them as so logical positivism was evolved. Suffice it, to say that
though both Russell and Moore were joint in their attack against
idealism, nonetheless they were non-aligned in their mode of the
attack. R.R. Ammerman succinctly captured this position when
he aptly observed:
Moore and Russell were in complete agreement about what was wrong with idealism or how best to expose the error contained in it. On the contrary, their differing interest soon led them in diverging directions, although they remained united always in their rejection of Neo-Hegelianison.6

In this joint rejection, each carved a niche for himself of course
with parallel positions, Moore vacated with common sense
realism, Russell parted with logical atomism. They each anchored
their philosophies tenaciously on their divergent positions. The
introduction of Ludwig Wittgenstein was by no means a surprise
as he was the sharpest of B. Russell’s students. His Tractatus
Logico-Phiosophicus was somehow anticipated as he built his
philosophy upon that of Russell. These simmering philosophical
attitudes become as they were the fountain-head and the prelude
to the rise of logical positivism as pursued by the Vienna circle.

14
Be that as it may, the logical positivists have the principle of
verification as their major arrow head on which their project is
foundationed. This principle of verification implicitly means that
the meaning of a proposition is the method of its verification. In
this sense, it looks set to provide a criterion of meaningfulness.
By extrapolation, this verification principle suffocates those
propositions that does not fall under its ambient and tagged them
meaningless. In this way, metaphysical statements, ethical
statement and the likes were branded as nonsensical and
pseudo-statements.

By and large, when we beam our critical torchlight on the
strength of the philosophies of Ayer and the logical positivists, to
say that it contains an inherent contradictions and
inconsistencies will be to belabour the obvious, for it will be
apodictically true, that the verification principle is masquerading
in some incoherencies and inconsistencies. This suggests that
their (logical positivists’) views may not altogether be correct or
dogmatically conclusive. This essay takes it upon itself therefore
to be a critique of the verification principle in its quest to deny
and eliminate metaphysics. In the end, we shall deduce whether
the verification principle emerged victorious in its quest to
15
eliminate metaphysics or whether it is only crying wolf where
there in none.

A SHORT BIOGRAPHY OF SIR ALFRED JULES AYER
Sir Alfred Ayer was born in 1910. He was educated at Eton and
Christ Church as a King’s scholar and as a classical scholar
respectively. His interest in philosophy was developed by Gilbert
Ryle who encouraged him to spend some time in Vienna. It was
while at the University of Vienna that he attended the meetings of
the Vienna circle and subsequently got converted to logical
positivism. During the Second World War, he spent most of his
time in military intelligence. After the war, he became Grote
Professor of philosophy of mind and logic at the University
College London. He left London to become the Wykeham
Professor of logic at the University of Oxford, and also a fellow of
New College Oxford from 1959. During this period, Ayer became a
fellow to many colleges. He became a prominent and well-known
public figure in England at this point and began appearing in
radio and television programmes. He was knighted in 1970.
Ayer made his name as a philosopher with the publication of his
major work, language, logic and truth in 1936; this work also
established him as the leading English representative of logical
positivism, a doctrine put forward by a group of philosophers that
16
are known as the members of the Vienna Circle. The major
argument of the logical positivists which was defended greatly by
Ayer was that all literally meaningful propositions were either
analytic (true or false in virtue of the meaning of the proposition
alone) or verifiable by experience. Ayer was influence by the
philosophers of the Vienna Circle especially Moritz Schlick,
Rudolf Carnap, Gilbert Ryle whom he calls mentor and Isaac
Berlin.

Ayer took special interest in encouraging the young philosophers
who more often than not refer to him as “Freddie”. After his rest
from strenuous philosophic activities, he continued to support
the annual British philosophical journals. Ayer married four
times and one remarriage.

Ayer saw himself as one of the descendants of the British
empiricism fathered by John Locke and David Hume and which
was continued by B. Russell and G.E. Moore. He wrote
extensively both articles and books in the areas of philosophy of
mind and science. Sir Alfred Ayer died in June 1989.

17
1.1 BACKGROUND OF THE STUDY
The logical positivist tied with the apron of clarity and tempered
solely by the achievements of science as they were mainly
scientifically minded philosophers or philosophically minded
scientists were ipso facto thorough going empiricists. For them,
any knowledge that transcends the limits of sense expression is
not possible. They also have it that the problems of philosophy
were nothing but linguistic problem due to ambiguities and lack
of clarity in the use of words, and when those ambiguities are
cleared then there would no longer be anything of such like
philosophical problems. Wittgenstein in support will say “what
can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk
about we must pass over in silence.”7 A.J. Ayer, stating his anger
against the metaphysicians, audaciously said:
The fruitlessness of attempting to transcend the limits of possible sense experience will be deduced, not from a psychological hypothesis concerning the actual constitution of the human mind, but from the rules which determines the literal significance of language. Our charge against the metaphysician is that… he produced sentences which fail to conform to the conditions under which alone a sentence can be literally significant.8

In order to differentiate meaningful propositions from the
meaningless ones, Ayer propounded a criterion to this effect
which he calls The Principle of Verification. With this principle,
he and other positivists set to clear from philosophy problem
18
arising from the lack of clarity of words or proposition. But then
the question is “To what extent can they succeed”?

1.2 STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM
The search for “what is” has been an age long dispute in
philosophy. The early Greek philosophers started to philosophize
with the question – “Ex qua materia constituti mundi” (Of what
material is the world made of?). As different eras passed by, the
question became more aptly situated in a branch of philosophy
known as “Epistemology” or “The Theory of Knowledge”. The
question then took a different dimension to be “what is truth or
knowledge? How do we know that we know?”

In response to this question, different schools of thought erupted
with their divergent positions as to the different modes of
knowing. We are very conversant with the cat and dog war
posture between the two worldviews that dominated the modern
era of philosophy – that is the empiricists and the rationalists.
They were trying to defend graciously their standpoint as to the
ideal mode of knowing. Kant steps into the stage this period in an
attempt to synthesize the views of the empiricists and the
rationalists. Kantian synthesis took the form of “Copernican
19
Revolution” This means for G. Ozumba that “he was able to show
that knowledge acquisition involved a co-operative activity
between the senses and the perceiving mind… the external world
of phenomena does not impose itself on the mind as the
empiricists believed but that it is the mind that imposes it’s a
priori categories on the world of phenomena.”9 Hegel at this point
appeared in Germany with his absolute idealism. Later the
German idealism was transferred to England where F.H Bradley,
Mc Taggart and Bosanquet became its erstwhile apostles. It was
however in a bid to debunk idealism (both British and German)
that G.E. Moore and B. Russell developed the ideas of common
sense and logical atomism respectively. Next on stage was Ludwig
Wittgenstein who was a student of Russell. Wittgenstein still
drinking from the philosophical tea bowl of Russell wrote his first
major work “Tractatus logico-philosophicus” in 1921. At the
production of this work, the logical positivist took it (Tractatus) as
their philosophical bible and posited that it contained the canons
of their principle.
It was under the influence of this Tractatus that A.J Ayer and
indeed other logical positivists brought out with vigor the
verification principle and delineated it to be both a theory of
meaning and criterion of meaningfulness. With this principle as
20
his bedrock, Ayer submits “until he [the metaphysician] makes
us understand how the proposition that he wishes to express
would be verified, he fails to communicate anything to
us.”11Against this backdrop therefore, whatever that does not
pass the acid test of this principle should be considered not just
nonsensical but also meaningless. Under this verification shade,
metaphysics was to be eliminated.

1.3 THE PURPOSE OF THE STUDY
It is the aim of the writer to determine whether or not A.J Ayer
succeeded in eliminating metaphysics with his verification
principle. As a matter of clarity, the principle which serves as a
weapon in the hands of Ayer will first be exposed and subjected
under the sledge hammer of reason in order to establish its
validity. When the principle holds sway, then it might accomplish
its tasks, and when the reverse is the case then the principle will
not at all be tenable and its task will not also be feasible.

1.4 SCOPE OF THE STUDY
Alfred Jules Ayer, a logical positivist, in his great really work
Language, logic and Truth had only one mission which is to
eliminate metaphysics on the ground that its utterances are due
21
in large part to the commission of logical errors. In order to
circumscribe and arrest the situation, Ayer and his fellow
positivists came up with the criterion of meaning called “the
principle of verification’’. In order to do justice to the thesis, the
whole corpus of logical positivism and what they stand for will be
carefully exposed. In this light, the principle of verification will be
carefully and overtly highlighted with a view to dissecting how far
it has fared in its denial and subsequent elimination of
metaphysics.

In a bid to carefully do justice to this work, the chapters have
been divided into five. The first chapter takes care of the general
introduction. The second chapter deals with the literature review.
Chapter three deals with analyzing of concepts to make way for a
profound comprehension of the whole idea of verification
principle, while the penultimate chapter tackles Ayer’s attempt
to eliminate metaphysics and the varied nuances and dimensions
of the verification principle. The last chapter hugely criticizes
Ayer’s arguments with that of the logical positivists against
metaphysics. Evaluation and conclusion would sequentially
follow suit.

22
1.5 SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STUDY
It will be very correct to say that an outright elimination of
metaphysics based on the verification principle is not possible.
First among the reasons is that man is inextricably and
inexorably metaphysical and once we accept the fact that man is
made up of both material and immaterial elements, then we
would be able to understand the natural and irresistible urge
towards metaphysics. Kant despite his devastating critique of
metaphysics had to admit that man has within him, the natural
urge towards metaphysics. The logical positivists did not explore
these options. Nevertless, they brought to bare another
dimension with their analysis of philosophical language. At least
for the records, it made philosophers to be more self-critical in
their use of language than they have hitherto been. Going by the
above therefore, it will be very apt to say then that the significant
of this work is to show that metaphysics cannot be eliminated
based on the logical positivist’s criterion.

1.6 METHODOLOGY
The question of methodology in a work of this magnitude cannot
be over emphasized, and as the topic suggests, the methodology
to be employed will be largely expository, analytical, critical and
23
evaluative. The historical point of view of the topic is however not
overlooked. Efforts will be made at a clear explanation of certain
terms employed.

1.7 DEFINITION OF TERMS
Etymologically, the word metaphysics comes for the Greek word
Ta Meta Ta physika which means “next after physics”. The word
metaphysics as it is being used today was first and foremost
coined by Andronicus of Rhodes. As he was chronicling the books
of Aristotle, he (Andronicus) came upon the book that was after
the one named physics. As he was perusing through its contents,
he noticed that its subject matter transcends those in physics; he
therefore decided to name it metaphysics, which of course
literally means “after-physics’’. According to B. Ewelu, there are
two possible reason why this title was given to this treatise:
Either because it comes after the treatise on physics (Meta Ta physika – that which comes after physics) or because the issues discussed in this treatise are about things that transcends the physical world, such that metaphysics would mean beyond physics or beyond the physical world.12

Be that as it may, the task of saying what metaphysics is and
what it is not by way of definition has being on uphill task and
any attempt towards this has always hit the rock or proved
abortive. The reason for the above situation is not for fetched as
24
true to any branch of philosophy, any attempt towards its
definition has always divided philosophers into warring camps
and as such philosophies have always been docked in and
miraged in the elusive attempt to define such field. Metaphysics
being a branch of philosophy enjoys such a position as well.
Moreover, this does not mean that we cannot sieve out at least a
welcomed and working definition of the term. Metaphysics as a
matter of fact is the science that concerns itself with the first
principles and realities in general. It is essential both in the arts
and in science. Metaphysics is therefore according to Ozumba:
All pervasive in man’s quest for a better understanding of the universe. It is because of this that metaphysics is seen to be very close to epistemology which is a theory of knowledge that examines the extent to which we can know.14

Metaphysics in this respect has a method which does not lie in
sense experience. It uses abstract thinking as its method. Its
method then is a prior (Ratio-cinative), which involves reasoning
on pure insights.

The practice of metaphysics started from antiquity and reached
its climax in the German idealism of Kant, Hegel, Fitche and
Schelling. In Britain, Bradley and Mc Taggart and also the logical
atomism of Russell and Wittgenstein were metaphysical.

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