In The problem of Knowledge Chap V, Ayer states:

...if someone asks me whether I am in pain and I answer that I am, my reply, as I understand it, is not an answer to his question. For I am reporting the occurrence of a certain feeling; whereas, so far as he was concerned, his question could only have been about my physical condition.

As I understand it, if I ask someone if they are in pain I ultimately mean do they have a certain feeling. The person in question might not show any outward signs of injury or pain, but they still might feel it. So why does Ayer suggest that the question is not about a mental state?

  • See Stanford Encyclo Phil's entry on Other Minds. Feb 19 at 15:48
  • 1
    Ayer is a staunch logical positivist who's best known for popularizing the verification principle through his polemical exposition Language, Truth, and Logic and not surprisingly he also held emotivism regarding ethics. Thus for Ayer the only thing meaningful to talk about is that which has verifiable empirical import, and feeling certainly cannot have such import per his criterion, thus he said above seemingly non-common sense... Feb 19 at 21:35
  • @DoubleKnot That is early Ayer. Late Ayer renounced logical positivism and even publicized it’s failure. Feb 20 at 6:55
  • @JustSomeOldMan thx for your feedback with critique! It's not uncommon for some philosophers to completely change their earlier views in their later life (of course this obviously cast reasonable doubt for their entire intellectual claims), but apparently those earlier views have great impact to shape their later ones, and for the OP's quoted "nonsensical" section it was clearly stemmed from or related to Ayer's earlier logical positivism or some other philosopher's similar views he had in mind to target at... Feb 20 at 22:53

1 Answer 1


The passage you quote is from A.J. Ayer's The Problem of Knowledge, chapter 5, "Myself and Others", section (vi). In the edition I have, it is on page 214.

Ayer is not stating his own view; he is describing a position he attributes to "some philosophers" and giving an objection to it. In context, Ayer is discussing the problem of how we have knowledge of other people's mental states. On the position he describes, there is a sharp distinction between the physical and the mental, under which, when I refer to an experience of my own, such as pain, I am referring to a particular feeling or sense perception that is private to me, while if I refer to an experience of someone else, I am referring to some outward behaviour.

To understand this position that Ayer is criticising, it is important to note that it does not involve my believing that the other person has an inward feeling and that their outward behaviour is a manifestation of it. Rather, it is a form of physicalism combined with phenomenalism. Under this position, I cannot experience what the other person experiences, so for me, facts about my mental states are an entirely different thing from facts about other peoples' mental states. Furthermore, if we are willing to say that what a word means is to be identified with the conditions under which it is verifiable, then it would follow that words like 'pain' mean something different when applied to my own pain as when applied to others'.

Ayer points out that this is objectionable on at least two counts. Firstly, it implies that when I speak to you of my pain, we are literally talking at cross-purposes, since I mean something different by that term from what you mean by it, which is highly implausible. This is the force of the passage you quote. Secondly, Ayer says that any attempt to adopt this as a general account of mental states would be inconsistent, since it would follow that everybody's use of mental terminology would be different from everybody else's.

Ayer proceeds to defend a position rather more like what you suggest in your last paragraph. I might reasonably accept that the outward behaviour of another person is evidence that they have an inward feeling of pain, and that their having this pain is the best explanation of their behaviour. This falls short of my being able to know for certain that they are in pain, but the demand for certainty is unreasonable.

Incidentally, the position above that Ayer is criticising is one he defended himself in his earlier book, Language, Truth and Logic. There, he holds that for statements about mental states to be meaningful at all, they must be verifiable, and so must be reducible to statements about observables. By 1956, when The Problem of Knowledge was published, Ayer had abandoned many of his earlier views, and by the mid-1970s, almost all of them. In an interview with Bryan Magee for the TV Series "Men of Ideas" he said of Language, Truth and Logic that "nearly all of it was false".

It is perhaps worth mentioning that although it may sound as if Ayer is repeating some elements of Wittgenstein's anti-private language argument, he didn't actually agree with Wittgenstein. He defends the possibility of a private language in a paper, "Can There be a Private Language?" in his collection, The Concept of a Person and Other Essays.

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