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Logical positivism is often taught as one of the three new schools of philosophy, together with pragmatism and phenomenology, that went against traditional philosophy in a radical manner. While I am certainly not disputing that rejecting metaphysics and reducing all sensible statements to either logical tautologies or verifiable claims is no small feat, some parts of Ayer's Language, Truth, Logic have led me to reconsider this a little bit.

[...] a list of all the 'great philosophers' whose work is predominantly analytic - a list which would certainly include Plato and Aristotle and Kant [...] (p.23)

I fail to see how these philosophers' work, and most notably Plato's, is "predominantly analytic"; Plato's work had a huge metaphysical component in it, which cannot simply be ignored.

We have been maintaining that much of 'traditional philosophy' is genuinely philosophical by our standards. (p.23)

Again, I feel that this is simply not true. If you interpret their standards strictly, then much of philosophy is not genuinely philosophical. I am aware that he gives a couple of examples before about how Locke, Berkeley and of course Hume are not predominantly metaphysicians, but that does not at all demonstrate that much of the philosophical tradition meets their criteria.

My question is: why did Ayer mention this? Was he simply trying not to come across as being too radical (which would surprise me) by not rejecting too much? Or did he genuinely see value in much of traditional philosophy and/or did he interpret a lot of it in a 'non-metaphysical' sense?

  • My impression is that you are correct in your critique of Ayers position - it excludes a great deal of philosophy by turning it into history, and as you suggest it rather distorts the tradition too. – Mozibur Ullah Aug 4 '13 at 3:03
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I fail to see how these philosophers' work, and most notably Plato's, is "predominantly analytic"; Plato's work had a huge metaphysical component in it, which cannot simply be ignored.

The above quote, taken in the context in which it's introduced in the book, is meant to provide a counterpoint against which Ayer will then introduce his own definition of the analytic reduction of philosophy. Plato's early elenchos or the “Socratic method” is a logical method of analysis. In Phaedrus Plato refers to the method of "collection and division", involving the accumulation of disparate cases in a general category based on possession of common properties, and progressively differentiating them into new subtypes until their can be no other logical division. The basic point is that although Plato was a metaphysician, his method was logical analysis. Just like Aristotle and Kant, he believed that reason is the analytic device for (in his case recollecting) / discovering truth. The key word in your quote is predominately, he is saying these philosophers already encompassed the first real assumption of positivism - namely that truths are achieved via reason. They are not wholly analytic according to Ayers criterion in that - as you point out - they use reason to demonstrate things which positivism aims to circumscribe from philosophy; but they do at least share this basic assumption.

My question is: why did Ayer mention this? Was he simply trying not to come across as being too radical (which would surprise me) by not rejecting too much? Or did he genuinely see value in much of traditional philosophy and/or did he interpret a lot of it in a 'non-metaphysical' sense?

Ayer would, and did acknowledge a tremendous debt to the history of philosophy. A simple example is how foolish it would be for him to disregard the work of Aristotle because of his metaphysical notion of the "prime mover", when it was he who was first to formally introduce the categories of the general and the specific - laying the foundation of all logic. One thing about the history of philosophy is the ability to discriminate between an oeuvre and a concept. Although the latter is contained within the former, it is not cemented there. In philosophy concepts are regularly taken from an oeuvre and used to support or enrich ways of thinking which are not necessarily consonant with their original context. This is not confined to philosophy - the significance of Descartes' idea of sense for Chomsky's concept of universal grammar is another good example. Chomsky didn't need to be wholly Cartesian to appreciate the value of Descartes ideas.

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