Book review

A. J. Ayer: A Life

by Ben Rogers

A. J. Ayer by Ben Rogers

A.J.Ayer, known as Freddie, was one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. I first met his best-known work “Language, Truth and Logic” as a young man, and I remember being deeply impressed at the time, both by the work itself and by the brief bio of the author on the flyleaf. (Incidentally, as far as I can tell the title of the work is not written with an “Oxford comma” before the ‘and’, even though he was at Oxford when he wrote it.)

Then a few months ago, I read another remarkable anecdote about Ayer, and on impulse bought this book. Having read it, I found that Ayer lead a life full to the brim – and not just with philosophy. From the 1950s onwards, he was a regular fixture of British intellectual life, with radio and television appearances, books, lectures and a broad and active social circle. He wasn’t just hanging out with intellectuals, either – he loved soccer, and having chosen Tottenham as his team in his youth, he was a regular at their home games for much of his life, becoming known to other fans as “the prof”.

He also married four times (to three different women), and had many affairs, and at least one child from those affairs. He clearly had a very charming way with women, and lived in open relationships with at least two of his wives, who themselves took lovers. During his marriage to Vanssa Lawson (former wife of Nigel Lawson, and mother to three children including Nigella, the well-known chef), he apparently remained entirely faithful.

Ayer’s life was certainly not quiet and conventional. However, it did start in a way that was very common at the time for his class in society, that is to say, he went to boarding school at seven, and didn’t have a good time. At thirteen he won a scholarship to Eton, where he was highly intelligent, and significantly bullied. Whether this was for his precocity, his Jewish heritage, or his militant atheism isn’t clear, but it clearly left a lifelong mark on him. From there he went to Christchurch College, Oxford, where again his atheism didn’t favour him with several of the tutors. One of them saw how he thought, and set him to read tWittgenstein’s “Tractatus”. This wasn’t widely known in the UK at the time, and after he had travelled to Vienna and met with others in the “Vienna Circle”, he became a convert to logical positivism as a core philosophy.

It was his publication of “Language, Truth and Logic” at the age of 24 that made his name. Later he came to repudiate much of what he’d written in it, but the book has had an enduring influence and has continued to sell in volume, up to the present day.

The book follows Ayer through WWII, where he joined the Welsh Guards before being recruited into the intelligence services. This work took him to the US, where he met Lauren Bacall and wrote for several newspapers, before returning to Europe and working alongside the French resistance, in London and then in Paris (his father was French-speaking, and he was bilingual). After the war he returns to academia, building the philosophy department in University College, London. The book shows how highly regarded he was by his students: there are numerous stories from them of how he took their ideas entirely seriously, and would often help find them jobs after they had graduated.

We see many facets of Freddie through the years. He loved to dance, he was charming, well-travelled, and although he was vain, it was said of him that “his vanity was part of his considerable charm”. We see his marriages, his love affairs, his active social life, with friendships far and wide – from authors like Graham Greene, George Orwell, and Iris Murdoch, to politicians like Roy Jenkins and Michael Foot (he was an active Labour supportor for much of his life).

He was also brave: both socially, standing up for unpopular beliefs and for his friends, and also physically. The anecdote which brought me to this book shows both his vanity and his bravery: at a party held in New York by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, by now aged 77, was chatting happily with a group of young women, when one rushed in to say her friend was being assaulted. Ayer went with her to a bedroom, and confronted Mike Tyson, who was harassing a very young Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: “Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world,” to which Ayer replied: “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men”. Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out to safety.

I very much enjoyed this book. Although I perhaps didn’t learn as much about Ayer’s philosophy as I thought I was going to, I learned a lot about the man, and his passion for life. He once said to a friend, as they walked by the river through Christchurch’s gardens, watching the young students enjoying themselves: “There is philosophy, and then there is all this!”.