A.J. Ayer in the Post-Truth Era

by Mark Wallace

The fact that we are now living in the era of “post-truth” does not signify that truth no longer matters. As far as progressive political debate is concerned, in fact, it signifies the opposite: that now truth is once again a key term of discussion, a term worthy of extended theoretical reflection. As Andrew Calcutt has described, truth went out the window not with the election of Trump but with the coming to prominence of post-modern thought through the 70s and 80s. Indeed, it is the political climate which produced Trump (etc.) which has forced academics and political theorists to rehabilitate truth, and to begin to imagine again a regime of truth, to which post-truth is opposed.

So, as with any new movement in thought, that revolving around the theorization of post-truth (and, by implication, truth) will need to find its ancestors. Here, perhaps, the logical positivism of A.J. Ayer’s Logic, Truth and Language (Dover, 1952 [1936]) can come in. A masterpiece of clarity, concision and strict factiness, this is a book which will force readers to adopt a narrow and workable definition of truth. It is a book which impressed me greatly on first reading, although I haven’t yet used it in my scholarly writing.

Ayer wished to eliminate all metaphysics from philosophy – or, if not eliminate it, to at least make it clear that metaphysics was not verifiable and was “nonsense” in his sense of that word. Propositions, Ayer argues, are either sense or nonsense; if the former, they are either true or false; if the latter, they are neither true nor false, and one really needs to think long and hard about why one is engaging in arguments using these propositions, and what is the goal of such argumentation.

Essentially, everything is empirical. If we can’t come up with material, sense-based evidence of a proposition, then we must be speaking either tautology or nonsense. Of course, propositions may be a mixture of verifiable empirical substance and nonsense, but in this case the essential intellectual task at hand is to separate these out.

Ayer’s philosophy seems rather anti-philosophical in its refusal to countenance metaphysics. He specifies that the task of philosophy is “wholly critical” (48), it is a work of “clarification and analysis” (49). The philosopher “devotes himself to the purely analytical tasks of defining knowledge, and classifying propositions, and displaying the nature of material things” (52). Ayer goes on to specify the philosopher’s role further:

[T]he philosopher, as an analyst, is not concerned with the physical properties of things. He is concerned only with the way in which we speak about them (57).

This is striking: it seems to equate with philosophy with what we think of discourse analysis, and discourse analysis is very much the province of broadly post-modern thinkers, e.g. Foucault. In this sense, Ayer’s logical positivism is very much compatible with post-modern thought.

But there is a key difference. Ayer recognizes the simple truth and falsity of wholly empirical propositions. He wouldn’t elide the difference between true and false statements by pointing out that “everything is discourse“. Rather, every proposition should be parsed for what empirical truth or falsity it contains, and only after this elementary step has been taken can we begin to take into account the emotional significance of a statement.

In reality, things get very complicated in the political arena, and each sides produces different data sets (empirical proofs) to back up their assertions. But while Ayer’s scheme is too abstractly simple to be a comprehensive guide to truth, it at least allows us to recognize simple truths when we see them, and that is something that is needed, and it also provides a model of frank and striaghforward prose. Perhaps, then, in the search to rediscover truth, Logic, Truth and Language is a book we should familiarize ourselves with.