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Critical Review - A.J. Ayer's 'Language, Truth, and Logic'

Alfred Jules Ayer's 'Language, Truth, and Logic' offers an approachable
introduction to the philosophical position of positivism (or logical positivism,
as it is sometimes referred to) and serves two purposes. First, it seeks to
introduce the thesis of verificationism and rigorously define it. Second, it
offers an analysis of certain metaphysical questions. Better put, its second
goal is to demonstrate that metaphysical discourse is, in general, nonsense. The
first point is expanded on by the author in terms of rigorous, logical
structuring. The verificationism thesis seeks to cash out meaning in a far
different way from the ways it had been understood in the past. It is perhaps
best contrasted with the idea of meaning as a set of truth conditions, largely
attributable to Frege. For Frege, the sense of a proposition is what determines
its truth value, and its referent is its truth value. So, for Frege, the
sentence 'snow is white' means that snow is white. This seems to present quite a
large problem, however. How is it that we are able to determine the truth
conditions of a sentence without already knowing the language? The gibberish
poem 'The Jabberwocky' by Lewis Carroll provides an exemplary manifestation of
this problem. The point of verificationism is, as it were, to correct this
problem. Instead, we are meant to take meaning to be the verification conditions
of a sentence. A sentence is meaningful just in case we have verification
conditions of it, and those verification conditions will give us the truth or
falsity of a sentence. If a sentence has no verification conditions, it is
nonsense. Ayer attempts to further explore verification conditions and revising
the thesis in his preface to the second edition.  However, while the
verificationism thesis provides a powerful method by which we can determine the
meaning of a certain class of statements, the condition itself seems
self-refuting in that it can neither be taken as an analytic claim, nor a
synthetic one, and thus reduces itself to nonsense. 

The power of the principle of verification can be seen in how effectively it
enables us to dismiss certain kinds of sentences. In general, it might seem that
we are all able to dismiss questions such as 'how big is the color blue' because
they don't seem to mean anything. Blue isn't an object which fills space, but
seems instead to be a kind of adjective in the English language whose proper use
would correspond to a physical wavelength of light being reflected by some
object in my visual field. Other sentences, on the other hand, seem quite
difficult to dismiss. For instance, 'the absolute is lazy' seems to be a
coherent sentence; whatever the absolute is, perhaps it is in fact lazy. If we
find ourselves agreeing with Ayer and other positivists, how are we to argue
that this sentence is in fact of the same kind as that of 'how big is the color
blue'? The answer would be to figure out what it's verification conditions are,
and when we see that there are none, the sentence must be meaningless. For Ayer,
the simplest kind of verifiability would be a weak verifiability in principle.
What this means is that one could imagine a scenario in which certain
observations would be made that would serve to verify the claim, and the truth
of that sentence is judged to be more probable than its falsity. For Ayer, while
this is distinct from knowability, it is certainly the case that this serves to
demonstrate if a claim is true or false. As it were, it seems that we cannot
imagine a scenario in which 'the absolute is lazy' has evidence in support of
it, perhaps entirely related to the possible incoherency of 'the absolute' as a
concept itself. While it is questionable that this concept cannot be understood
- millions of people seem convinced it exists - it is a strong argument against
the truth of such a claim, at least one which can be verified. The concern which
we are left with at this point is related to the verifiability concept itself.
Is the verificationism thesis an analytic fact, or a synthetic one? The
positivists at this time were very much concerned with this distinction, and so
our job may well be to determine if, under such a view, the thesis itself even
makes sense.  The consensus seems quite clear: it doesn't appear to be the case. 

The verification principle points out to us that all meaningful statements are
either analytic or weakly verifiable in principle. If the verification principle
is weakly verifiable in principle, then it taken along with a collection of
other sentences will entail some sort of observation that are not entailed by
the collection of other sentences alone. Then such an observation is, in
principle, possible to imagine. However, if anyone were to ask someone what such
an observation would be, it seems far more possible to imagine the look of
confusion on their face; what observation could possibly serve to verify a
principle that seems wholly divorced from empirical study, or evidence
collection? It itself seems to sit outside of reality, distinct from the
observations which it claims all verifiable sentences succumb to. So suppose
that the principle is itself analytic - it is true just in virtue of the symbols
present in the principle itself. Then on what grounds do we judge the logical
veracity of such a principle? There seems to be no obvious contradiction which
arises if the principle is false. Indeed, metaphysicians have operated for
hundreds of years under such an assumption, even if they weren't aware of it.
Indeed, if the verification principle were analytically true, it would seem to
have some sort of empirical consequences. As it were, the claim itself, if it
were analytic, would be a tautology, and yet it seems to afford no serious
contradiction if it were false, except for the fact that it itself fails it's
own criterion for verification. 

In conclusion, the principle itself seems self-refuting, and as a result brings
about its own demise as a possible avenue for meaning. The positivist movement
captured a handful of who may be considered to be some of the smartest people of
the time period, all working diligently in their Viennese circle to eliminate
metaphysics from the vernacular of society and offer a more empirically
grounded, scientific understanding of what philosophical discourse should be. As
it were, verificationism in particular and logical positivism in general brought
about its own demise by attempting to construct a position on what it itself was
attempting to undermine. The problems of developing a logical analysis of truth
have seemingly always found themselves bottoming out in some kind of
metaphysical commitment, some sort of vague, unverifiable principle by which
they are allowed to point to all other metaphysical claims as 'untrue,
nonsensical farces' or misleading, dangerous misuses of language. However, while
positivism is widely regarded as a kind of philosophical failure, it nonetheless
provides us with a window through which we can view the future of philosophical
discourse. Our job as philosophers is more refined and detailed because of the
work of the positivists. It has become clear after their failure that there are
questions that are hard to dismiss, and grounding truth is perhaps more
difficult than we first thought.


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