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A Critique of Metaphysics in Alfred Jules Ayer

(A dissertation presented in Partial fulfilment of the requirements for a Bchelor's Degree in Philosophy) (B. Phil.).


The notion of Logical construction was fundamental for many years to what has become known as a "reductionist" method in philosphy. That is a method which sought to reduce the number of independent entities involved in the description of the world by defining through a very subtle method of definition, the relatively unfamiliar in favour of the familiar. Reductionism so conceived was an ontological programme concerned with given an inventory of the irreducible elements of the world; its earliest form was that of logical atomism.

But with logical positivism, "reductionism" was virtually re-defined as an epistemological programme, aimed at formulating a descriptive radically empiricist conception of science seeking to eliminate as metaphysical non-sense from scientific theories. Any assumption of the unobservable. Ayer, under the influence of logical positivism gave depth of logical sophistication to a programme aimed at rendering invulnerable the authority of sense-experience.

Ayer's critique of Language here of first importance and it was a critique which rapidly emancipated itself from the spell of the too rigorously atomist reductionism, while continuing to acknowledge that some forms of description came nearer to actuality than others.

Metaphysics as a search into the ultimate cause of things was immanent in classical Greek philosophy. In recent times, Metaphysics has uncounted more than scepticism.

It has met with repudiations: and the repudiations has been based on the grounds that it was doubtful or doubtable, but on the ground that it is meaningless. This is more radical than scepticism.

Ayer primarily devoted his attention to the eviction of metaphysics from the mansion of philosophy. He proposed to achieve this by demonstrating the metaphysics is meaning-less. Now, the question is, how can you show that a discourse is meaningless? In Professor Ayer's opinion, one needs a criterion of meaning, of meaningfulness. The possession of this answers the question, that if a discourse satisfies the criterion, it is meaningful: if not, it is non-sensical. Another question arises that is the criterion of meaning? How do you get at it? For Ayer, the criterion of meaning would be a reformed or redeemed verifiability principle. This is a step where the logical positivists fell and so turn-apart. The verifiability principle is a derivation of the logical positivism from Wittgensteins Tractatus. This is a doctrine in semantics - verifiability theory states that if a sentence by which a speaker purports to state a fact is not empirically verifiable, then nothing is asserted by it at all. It is neither true nor false, in the way "he eats equations for breakfast or "time walks faster than space" would ordinarily be said to be neither true nor false but just meaningless.

Although Ayer emphasized the need for positive evidence in making factual claims and the senseless character of statements in respect of which such evidence was implicitly discounted as irrelevant to their significance, His insistence on the Conventional character of the so called necessarily truth told in a different direction. Thus, the conventionalism of language of Ayer asserts fundamental cleavage between analytic and synthetic truths and treats all analytic truths - within which class the truth of logic and mathematics are included as true by linguistic convention.

To decipher properly, the condensed ideas in Ayers critique of metaphysics, this work has been divided into four chapters. In chapter one, we shall give an account of metaphysics before Ayer. And in chapter two, we shall examine the role of Language in metaphysics with special reference to semantic influences in Ayer. In chapter three, we shall see the anatomy of Ayer's critique of metaphysics. Then the work tells off with a critical evaluation and conclusion in chapter four.