A sympathetic treatment of one of the 20th century’s best-known British philosophers.
When the chips are down it might be as tempting to criticize a philosopher who failed in his bold attempts to simply end philosophy as it previously had been to praise him when the stridence of his claims first caused tremors in the academic community. But Rogers’s (Pascal, 1999, not reviewed) impeccably researched examination of the Oxford philosopher A.J. Ayer remains true to its course, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of this celebrity intellect without slipping into the now-fashionable rut of outright dismissal. Giving due weight to Ayer’s life outside of philosophy (his experience as a Jew at Eton, his military service in WWII, his dedicated, lifelong involvement in British politics, and his seemingly innumerable love affairs), the author’s humane portrait skillfully conveys the contagious energy of Ayer’s joie de vivre without condemning him for ultimately lacking the intellectual weight of a Bertrand Russell or Ludwig Wittgenstein. Now that logical positivism and linguistic philosophy have fallen out of vogue, such thorough coverage of Ayer’s work reminds us that much of this quick-witted philosopher’s vast influence on 20th-century philosophy was as a regular teacher—the best, many students insisted, that they ever had. A virtuoso debater whose passion for argument was matched perhaps only by his emotional distance from friends and lovers, Ayer often seems a study in contrasts. “There is philosophy, which is about conceptual analysis—about the meaning of what we say,” Rogers quotes Ayer as saying, “and there is all of this—all of life.” If we sometimes get the impression that Ayer tried simply to eliminate the problems of philosophy, to portray them as needless misunderstandings, rather than attempting to actually solve them, Rogers teaches us at least to appreciate that Ayer’s primary interest in razing the philosophical superstructure was in order to better get on with devoting himself to “all of this—all of life.”
A delightful discourse on an extraordinarily full life: Rogers succeeds in capturing the spirit of a philosophical maverick who many loved to hate.