Anda di halaman 1dari 3

Mike Mackus

October 16th, 2008

Ayers and Verificationism

A.J. Ayers, in the now classic Language, Truth and Logic, aimed to take down what he,

along with the members of the Vienna Circle and other logical positivists, believed to be

meaningless branches of philosophy. These include the field of metaphysics, theology and the

philosophy of religion, aesthetics and ethics. Ayer cut away what he thought of as dead

intellectual tissue by pursuing a distinction in language that we can trace back to Hume: the

difference between relations of ideas and matters of fact. In this sense, logical positivists and the

principle of verificationism is an extension of empiricism: verificationism allows for meaning

only to come through the way of our sense experiences. When manifested in a sentence, a

proposition that expresses a relation of ideas is labeled analytic. An example would be of the

sort, ‘The philosopher who wrote Language, Truth and Logic is a philosopher.’ Such a sentence

is true in virtue of the meanings of its parts. We can think of endless examples of analytic

sentences simply by following the definition set forth in logic for tautologies. Hence, anything of

the form ‘x = x’ or ‘p v ~p’ is a synthetic sentence: ‘A tree is a tree’ or ‘I am either sleeping or I

am not sleeping.’ Ayer proposes that we have a priori knowledge of analytic statements; that is,

such sentences do not require any experience in order to have knowledge of their truth. If

someone utters the sentence ‘The sun is either out or it is not out,’ one does not need to have any

knowledge of the world at that moment to know that the statement is true.

However, when dealing with a sentence that purports a proposition of a matter of fact one

must verify the claim (or claims) with empirical observations of the world in order to know its

truth or falsity. Ayer distinguishes these types of sentences as synthetic. One such example would

be ‘Most married men are happy’- as opposed to a possible analytic counterpart ‘Most married
men are married.’ Where the latter claim is true simply in virtue of the meaning of its terms, the

former sentence requires empirical proof to have knowledge of its truth-value. In making this

distinction between analytic and synthetic sentences Ayer has laid a clear framework for the

principle of verificationism. The principle states that the meaning of any sentence is that

sentence’s verification conditions, where the verification conditions are the possible empirical

observations (whether in practice or in principle) that show a sentence to express a truth (or

falsity) about the world. Returning to the example ‘Most married men are happy,’ one would

know such a claim to be true or false by surveying every married man and judging from the

results. Then the verification conditions for this sentence could be the experience of asking every

married man whether or not he is happy with his marriage and observing the results. Or, take the

example of an utterance such as ‘The carpet in the living room of the house at 150 Vineyard Rd.,

Edison, NJ is blue.’ The verification conditions of this statement would be the sense experience

of blue when observing the given carpet. It is crucial, however, that one does not think of

verification conditions as truth-values; rather, verification conditions are experiences and

observations. It is then that we take these experiences and observations and determine truth-

values. In noting this distinction between the verification conditions and the actual truth or falsity

of a sentence we see that Ayer equates meaning directly with experience, the consequence of

which leads to his critique of the “meaningless” branches of philosophy.

The verification principle has wide ranging implications, but Ayer deals mainly with the

ones that he had intended to imply with such a theory of meaning. First, we can see that

verificationism renders metaphysical statements meaningless. Given that verification conditions

are experiences and observations, a sentence depicting a transcendent reality cannot be verified.

Furthermore, ethical statements, in Ayer’s eyes, are only personal opinions since there is no
empirical way to determine a truth-value. When one says ‘Stealing is wrong,’ he is merely stating

‘I think stealing is wrong,’ a claim, Ayer would say, is void of any assertion at all. Verificationism

also implies that there is no meaningful way to talk about God and religion. Not only does Ayer

maintain that the statement ‘God exists’ is meaningless but, in the same respect, the claim ‘God

does not exist’ is also void of meaning. Under verificationism the theist, atheist, and agnostic are

all placed in the same category and their debates become futile. And while Verificationism

helped Ayer to achieve his goals it is still only a theory of meaning for sentences. We are left in

the dark about how words come to gain semantic meaning.