Sunday, September 25, 2011

A.J. Ayer on "They're only Playing with Words"

7:25 – Bryan Magee:
It leads philosophers into a situation where, as soon as anyone makes an assertion of any kind about that world, what you then do is examine the assertion. And you get straight-away into the examination of statements, the analysis of propositions, an analysis of the relation of the terms of the propositions to each other, it’s logical form, so on and so forth. And philosophy soon, can soon seem to become, on that basis, about language. And, indeed, it would be true to say, wouldn’t it, that a lot of non-philosophers have acquired the view that philosophers are only concerned with language, and sometimes this is put, disparagingly, that “they’re only playing with words.” Can you give some explanation of why that sort of prejudice against philosophy, which is very widespread, is misplaced?

8:08 A.J. Ayer:
Well, a great deal of philosophy certainly is about language insofar as it distinguishes between, um, different, uh, types of utterance and analyzes certain types of expression. I think the main, I mean I would make no apology for this, but beyond that I think the answer I would give is that the distinction between being about language and being about the world isn’t all that sharp. Because the world is the world as we describe it. The world is the world as it figures in our system of concepts. And in exploring our system of concepts you are at the same time exploring the world.

Let’s take an example. Suppose now one is interested in the question of causality. Now, uh, we certainly believe that causality is something that happens in the world… bitten by an anopheles mosquito, I get malaria, and so on; one thing causes another. And one could put it by saying: What is causality? And, uh, this is perfectly respectable, important, traditional philosophical question. You can also put it by saying: How do you analyze causal statements? What do we mean by saying that one thing causes another? And, in fact, although you look as though you’re posing a purely linguistic question, you’re answering exactly the same questions philosophers have always posed, only putting it in a different form. And we think, or most contemporary philosophy, a rather clearer form.


_J_ said...

I like how Ayer reacts to that question. He's been asked to, basically, justify his primary assumption. He squirms for just a moment, but then simply states his conviction before mucking off into an example.

I like that. I like his body language, and the way that he stutters for the first time in the interview.

_J_ said...

The other remarkable moment is in part 4 of the interview, where he reflects on writing the book that became the Bible of Analytic Philosophy at 25 years old.