A.J. Ayer and the Verification Farcical

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A.J. Ayer and the Verification Farcical


This essay will consist in an exposition and criticism of the Verification Principle, as expounded by A.J. Ayer in his book Language, Truth and Logic. Ayer, wrote this book in 1936, but also wrote a new introduction to the second edition ten years later. The latter amounted to a revision of his earlier theses on the principle.It is to both accounts that this essay shall be referring.

Firstly, I shall expound the verification principle. I shall then show that its condition of significant types is inexhaustible, and that this makes the principle inapplicable. In doing so, I shall have exposed serious inconsistencies in Ayer’s theory of meaning, which is a necessary part of his modified verification principle.

I shall also expound Ayer’s theory of knowledge, as related in his book. I will show this theory to contain logical errors, making his modified version of the principle flawed from a second angle.

The relationship of this essay with the two prior essays of this series can be understood from Ayer’s Preface to the First Edition of his book:

The views which are put forward in this treatise derive from the doctrines of Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein.

For background interest, Language, Truth and Logic was written after Ayer had attended some of the meetings of the Vienna Circle, in the 1930’s.

Friedrich Waismann and Moritz Schlick headed these logical positivists of Vienna. Their principle doctrine can be said to have been founded in the meetings they had with Wittgenstein and their interpretation of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Ayer’s book expounds and, in his view, improves on the principle doctrine of the Vienna Circle ‘the verification principle’. Waismann and Schlick adopted this principle after it was first given to them by Wittgenstein himself.

Waismann recorded the conversation, where Wittgenstein stated:

If I say, for example, ‘Up there on the cupboard there is a book’, how do I set about verifying it? Is it sufficient if I glance at it, or if I look at it from different sides, or if I take it into my hands, touch it, open it, turn its leaves, and so forth? There are two conceptions here. One of them says that however I set about it, I shall never be able to verify the proposition completely. A proposition always keeps a back door open, as it were. Whatever we do, we are never sure that we are not mistaken.

The other conception, the one I want to hold, says, ‘No, if I can never verify the sense of a proposition completely, then I cannot have meant anything by the proposition either. Then the proposition signifies nothing whatsoever.’

In order to determine the sense of a proposition, I should have to know a very specific procedure for when to count the proposition as verified.

He, later in life, told the Moral Science Club in Cambridge:

I used at one time to say that, in order to get clear how a sentence is used, it was a good idea to ask oneself the question: ‘How would one try to verify such an assertion?’ But that’s just one way among others of getting clear about the use of a word or sentence. For example, another question which it is often very useful to ask oneself is: ‘How is this word learned?’ ‘How would one set about teaching a child to use this word?’ But some people have turned this suggestion about asking for the verification into a dogma- as if it’d been advancing a theory about meaning.

So, Wittgenstein was merely proposing that the verification of an assertion was one way amongst others to “get clear” how a sentence is used, or how that assertion is used. For, as he tells us in his later philosophy, identifying their uses is how meaning is attributed to expressions.

However, in this essay I shall expose the problems with the verification principle expounded by A.J. Ayer. I shall show why these problems lead the principle to be invalid as a philosophy, and useless as a practical tool in the situations of life it was boasted to have been suited to.


To start the fray, I shall pick on a disturbing piece of wisdom that one runs into at the very beginning of chapter one, “The Elimination of Metaphysics.” Here, Ayer wishes to justify the application of the verification principle by showing its use as a tool in the elimination process that would eventually reveal the true purpose and method of philosophical inquiry.

Ayer’s ‘linchpin’ assumption is:

he metaphysician is talking nonsense when he claims to have knowledge of a reality transcendental of the phenomenal world.

If by ‘phenomenal world’ he means the world of the senses, then he denies his own mind. The mind itself is known, is real in the sense of its contents (thoughts) being real. Yet, it is not a part of the phenomenal, sensed, world.

Therefore, are we talking nonsense when we claim to have knowledge of our emotions, desires, and our self-awareness? And if such knowledge is nonsense, then all the better for us to express it, for nonsense is clearly understandable by these terms.

Surely, then, there is a mental reality, in the above sense, quite distinct from being phenomenal, in the Kantian sense.

All this seems to go without saying, and after applying Ayer’s idea of nonsense to our non-phenomenal mental contents, must we conclude that Ayer has ‘lost his mind’, so to speak?

Of course not! Ayer is merely wetting our appetite; showing us the temper of what is to come later in his book.

I comment on this early, introductory stage because, together with my retort, the spirit of the essay is subtly summarized. Ayer, here, is betraying his bias as an empirical philosopher from the outset, by attributing sense only to phenomenal expressions.

In his book he is merely trying to eliminate nonsense propositions by applying a hand-made law to them, which is not comprehensive enough to include some things which that law refers to but do have sense. This makes it inapplicable and practically useless.

When Ayer asks such a claimant of knowledge transcending the phenomenal from what premises he draws his knowledge, he thereby begins the elimination. He must then, also ask of himself which premises he has for the knowledge that he is happy, sad, confused or, in fact, asking a question mentally (not just vocally).


The verification principle I wish to discuss here is that of the Vienna Circle, as it is expounded by A.J. Ayer in his book Language, Truth and Logic.

This exposition includes a modification by Ayer, and additional points made ten years later on.

Explicitly, the verification principle, as regarded in this essay, is a theory that tries to establish a criterion for meaningfulness.

Although, some may argue that this does not commit the theorist to a theory of meaning, per se, I submit that any theory which involves assertions about the nature of meaning, has tautologically proposed a theory of meaning. Thus, my definition of ‘theory of x‘ includes ‘the discussion of the nature of x.’

The aforementioned, verification principle contains assertions that discuss the nature of meaning, yet is originally intended as the answer to Wittgenstein’s question, “How would one try to verify an assertion?”

For Wittgenstein, the verification of a proposition was required for a clear understanding of that proposition’s meaning.

For Ayer and the Vienna Circle, it was:

The criterion which we use to test the genuineness of apparent statements of fact.

In effect, the verification principle of the Vienna Circle would reveal whether a proposition was meaningful or meaningless. It was a new Humean Fork.

A proposition was meaningful if the conditions of determining its truth or falsehood could be established. A proposition was meaningless if such conditions could not be established.

We inquire in every case what observations would lead us to answer the question, one way or another?

Ayer modified the principle by adding a clause. A proposition could still be meaningful if it could be shown verifiable in principle, in cases where the actual verification was impossible, such as “there are mountains on the farther side of the moon”.

This meant putting forward the conditions by which the truth or falsity could be determined.

The other kind of proposition accepted as meaningful was the tautological proposition.

With Hume’s Fork in his hand, Ayer declared that if it is not a verifiable proposition and not a tautology, then it is mere pseudo-proposition, factually and literally insignificant, and therefore meaningless.


The first terminological problem we run into with such a principle is the nature of the ‘proposition’. What is a proposition? Is Ayer telling us that the only meaningful expressions are putative? Answer: Yes. He is saying just that.

What about questions, commands, suggestions, desires, gestures, expressions containing sarcasm, and intonation? Surely that these types of sentences and expressions are meaningful goes without saying. No one would admit that any of these types of sentences were nonsense in virtue of their form.

As we shall see, later on, they are not significant in virtue of their form, as it is with all apparent expressions. It is not the syntax of a sentence that gives it significance. It is the content. The content should be qualitative: verifiable empirically or tautological.

Ten years after it was written, Ayer comes to the defense of his ‘propositions’, in the second edition of Language, Truth and Logic, with a rather weak argument given in the appendix.

After making the mistake of admitting propositions to be expressed by some sentences, he summarizes the principle thus:

The principle of verification is supposed to furnish a criterion by which it can be determined whether or not a sentence is literally meaningful. (My Italics)

And to get himself into even more trouble, he continues,

A simple way to formulate it would be to say that a sentence had a literal meaning if and only if the proposition it expressed was either analytic or empirically verifiable. (My Italics)

Instead of trying to show that some statements make no propositions, thereby avoiding the problem of making “Hey, Jude!” into a truth-valued proposition, he persists with the idea that all sentences propose something.

His argument for this, as found in the updated appendix, goes as follows.

Ayer states later on that he has tried to avoid the problem of any sentence having to be meaningful in virtue of its proposition having a truth value, by speaking of putative propositions, in which a sentence purports something, and can be true or false.

A few lines later, he admits that not all sentences are putative (His theory of meaning jumps back and forth, from ‘some’ to ‘all’, and is clearly unreliable).

The problem is now, how do we know when a sentence is purporting something? Is it not true that all sentences admit a truth indirectly? If I say, “Go to your room!” to a boy, am I not implying that there is a ‘room’ to ‘go to’? Is there not, therefore, a hidden proposition in many sentences that are thought not to be putative?

If this is the case then we shall need another criterion to determine which sentences these are. And such a criterion may have too much room for interpretation; am I speaking of a metaphorical ‘room’?

Perhaps this is why Ayer is not satisfied with the term ‘putative’. He states in the second edition, that:

the use of words like ‘putative’ and ‘purports’ seems to bring in psychological considerations into which I do not wish to enter.

Ayer, in his second edition, is clearly not confident about his own argument, but only alludes to its abandonment by offering these weak arguments as valid replacements and then rejecting them himself, as is shown above.

His next argument is even more absurd: to apply the verification principle directly onto all sentences, whether putative or not.

As we have seen this leads us to accept the oddball fact that questions, commands, and suggestions are literally meaningless if they are neither true nor false. In addition, whether they contain a hidden putative proposition must be decided by another criterion that has not yet been developed. Even so, if such a criterion was developed and applied, too much room for interpretation would result due to the psychological contingent of words such as ‘putative’ and ‘purport’. For ‘purport’ relies to heavily on a condition of the mind — a mental state. A feeling of assertiveness is a different species from asserting something. One relies on a state-of-mind, an attitude or belief; the other states the case, as it is given and not as it is desired to be.


One of the reasons why the verification principle fails to be applicable is its erroneous theory of meaning. The principle considers there to be only two types of significant expression that are neither meaningless nor nonsense:

  1. Literally significant expressions are those that express either a tautology or a proposition, which is capable, at least in principle, of being verified.
  2. Factually significant expressions are such, if, and only if, we can know how to verify the proposition which it purports to express. Moreover, what observations would lead us under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false.

Neither of these types of significant expressions allows for moral, religious or even mental significance. I am saying here that there are some expressions, which are significant, that do not belong to either of Ayer’s categories. The error of Ayer’s theory of meaning is that it is not exhaustive. In other words, the options we are given are less than what are available.

There are more than two types of significant expression, and significance does no.............

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