A.J.Ayer: A Life. By Ben Rogers. Chatto & Windus. 402pp. £20 in UK
The frivolous philosopher is a rare phenomenon. We know of Socratic mirth, Erasmus's Praise of Folly (no rib-tickler, despite the title), Nietzsche's gaya scienza, Austin's wan Austen jokes, but it took a Freddie Ayer to present us with the spectacle of a logical positivist joining the debate on Juke Box Jury. Ben Rogers quotes the critic Cyril Connolly to apt effect: Connolly "used to say that there were two Freddie Ayers, the Oxford philosopher, and a London twin who loved to drink and dance". Others were less indulgent. Ayer's friend Isaiah Berlin said of him: "He was the best writer of philosophical prose since Hume, better even than Russell, but he never had an original idea in his life." Some friend. Frivolity was in Ayer's blood. His background might be the setting for an operetta. His father, Jules, from a Swiss Calvinist family and settled in London, worked for many years as private secretary to the fabulously wealthy banker Alfred Rothschild, while his mother was a Citroen, whose own father, Dorus, a Dutch Jew, headed the English branch of the motor-car firm. Jules Ayer (he pronounced the family name in the French fashion) was a dandy, and something of a gambler; leaving the Rothschild job, he set up as a timber merchant, and after a period of success went quickly bankrupt. Although he worked hard, and rehabilitated himself as a businessman, the old glory was gone.
No doubt Freddie (his names were Alfred Jules, for which he never forgave his parents), an only child, suffered insecurity as a result of these fluctuations in the family fortunes. Many friends and relations, according to his biographer, believed his upbringing was "bleak and difficult". He was short of stature and far too clever for his own good, and despite his natural gaiety, as a child he was, as he said himself, "unadventurous except in thought". There were consolations, however, not the least his visits to his grandmother's house in Norwood, where he could play with his Tante Berthe's pet monkey - when she died, she left money to the London Zoo so that the monkeys there could have bananas on bank holidays. Freddie went to Eton, and did well there, despite the brutalism of the place, and developed a keen interest in sport which he was to retain into adulthood - as a lifelong supporter of Tottenham Hotspur, he was the founding member of a whole English team of intellectual soccer fans who had their somewhat tiresome heyday in the 1960s and '70s. From Eton he went on to Oxford, his main base for the rest of his professional life, as philosopher and teacher. Oxford was an unwise choice, perhaps, for he might have done better at Cambridge, where there was a far stronger philosophy department, stimulated as it was by the proximity of the college's great physics laboratories, where much revolutionary scientific thinking of the first half of the century originated.
At Oxford Ayer discovered the 18th-century Scots philosopher David Hume - "to my mind the greatest of all British philosophers," as he wrote in 1979. For Ayer, Hume's work was philosophy at its most hard-headed and clear-thinking, based as it is in a profound suspicion of metaphysics and a refusal to try to make language say more than it is capable of saying. For modern heirs to Hume, Ayer looked to the Vienna Circle, whom he worked with as a young man, and whose principles he introduced to England; to Bertrand Russell, of course; and to Wittgenstein, or at least the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It was out of a synthesis of the work of the Viennese positivists, Russell, and the early Wittgenstein that English logical positivism was born. The Tractatus was an immense influence on the young Ayer, although it seems clear that he misread it, or at least misread what Wittgenstein had intended it to be. Ayer, as he said himself, "got from Wittgenstein . . . the appreciation of what is and what is not a genuine philosophical problem," a lesson which was of central importance for this most sceptical of modern English thinkers. What Wittgenstein had set out to achieve was nothing less than a solution to all the outstanding questions of philosophy, which he felt himself capable of doing by virtue of the fact, as he saw it, that these questions were essentially linguistic in nature. In his preface to the Tractatus, Wittgenstein summed up "the whole sense of the book" as: "what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence," a thought he repeated in the last line of the work in the famous dictum: "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber muss man schweigen." However, as the poetical cadence of the line indicates, Wittgenstein was less interested in philosophy's problems than in the matters that remain when they are solved, as he believed he had solved them, and in the closing pages of the Tractatus he ascends into a metaphysical, not to say mystical, realm where Ayer refused to accompany him.
Yet it was the example of rigour set by Wittgenstein that Ayer followed in his first and most famous work, Language, Truth and Logic, which he published when he was 24. The book - in Ben Rogers's formulation a "tight, bold and lucid integration of Moorean analysis, Russelian logic and Viennese positivism" - outraged the Oxford old guard, but was seen by many among the younger thinkers as a blast of cold, invigorating air to blow the cobwebs off English - and, indeed, much of European and American - philosophy. In it, Ayer sought to show that the limits of philosophy are narrower than philosophers care to admit. Isaiah Berlin, more kindly disposed this time, recalls walking around Christ Church Meadows in Oxford with Ayer early in the 1930s, when Ayer explained his position: " `There is philosophy, which is about conceptual analysis - about the meaning of what we say - and there is all of this' - an excited sweep of the hands - `all of life.' "
Such a view - "literary rather than scientific," as Ayer put it - was anathema not only to a great number of academic philosophers, but also to many non-philosophers who believed that there must be a "meaning" behind mere appearance, which it is the job of the philosopher to elucidate. In a later essay Ayer made a distinction between "pontiffs" and "journeymen" in philosophy; the former see it as their task to "compete with natural science" and discover the holy truths hidden by commonplace reality, whereas the latter conceive of philosophy purely as logical analysis, the study of conceptual problems. Philosophy in Ayer's sense, says Rogers, is "quite incapable of offering an authoritative answer to the question `How should I live?' " However, whether or not philosophy can answer it, the question cannot be dodged, as Ayer knew only too well in his own sometimes rackety life. While the Oxford Ayer thought and wrote and lectured, the London Ayer dallied. As one of his wives, Dee Wells - who married him twice - describes it, "Some men played golf. Freddie played women."
The number of his affairs is astonishing. He seems to have been unable to resist trying to seduce any personable woman who came within range of him, and despite his short stature, his indifferent looks and beady-eyed promiscuousness, he scored a dazzlingly high rate of success; his lovers included the much-soughtafter Jocelyn Rickards, the film star Lauren Bacall, and Scott Fitzgerald's last love, Sheila Graham, with whom Ayer had a child. His first wife, Renee, was a match for him - her son, Julian, whom Ayer brought up as his own, was in fact fathered by Ayer's philosopher friend Stuart Hampshire, one of many lovers Renee took while still married to Freddie.
Dee Wells was perhaps the love of his life, if this cold man was, in fact, capable of love - in conversation with Ben Rogers after Ayer's death, Dee wondered if her late husband might have been a case of "high functioning" autism, who had learned to mimic emotions he did not feel. He also seems to have had an urge to steal other men's women; late in life he seduced and later married Vanessa, the beautiful and troubled wife of the politician Nigel Lawson, while at the same time carrying on numerous other affairs, often with women many decades younger than himself. Yet despite his faults - and all his women testified that his faults were far outweighed by his virtues - one cannot help feeling fond of this strange, brilliant, playful man. He loved life and life's nonsense; he revelled in fame, and never missed an opportunity to appear on television panels, be a Booker Prize judge, or dance with a pretty girl. He had a highly developed sense of honour and probity and social responsibility, and of the human duty to have fun. He died in 1989; among the pieces of music he had requested for his funeral were Bye Bye, Blackbird, Oh, You Beautiful Doll, and a Fred Astaire number.
My favourite vignette from this incisive, highly intelligent and entertaining biography is of Ayer's response when, at a party in New York at the apartment of the lingerie designer Fernando Sanchez - Freddie did love a party - a woman rushed into the room saying a friend of hers was being assaulted in a nearby bedroom:
Ayer went to investigate and found Mike Tyson forcing himself on a young south London model named Naomi Campbell, just then beginning her career. Ayer warned Tyson to desist. Tyson: `Do you know who the fuck I am? I'm the heavyweight champion of the world.' Ayer stood his ground: `And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.' Ayer and Tyson began to talk. Naomi Campbell slipped out.
Who says philosophy doesn't teach us how to live?
John Banville is a novelist and Chief Literary Critic and Associate Literary Editor of The Irish Times