A.J Ayer a logical positivist and indeed at all his fellow logical positivists were moved by the achievements and clarities in science and as it were, they moved to bring these achievements and clarities in science into philosophy. They believed that there are ambiguities and confusion in philosophical languages and that such ambiguities and confusions would be a thing of the past in philosophy when they are all jettisoned. It was their view also that those ambiguities in philosophy gave rise to metaphysics. Metaphysics for these positivists was to be expunged because it contained no knowledge as it purports to give. They (positivists) termed its knowledge pseudo-knowledge. In this work therefore, I wish to show that no matter the amount of attack directed to metaphysics by Ayer and his co-positivists, metaphysics will never be eliminated because man must go beyond the physical to explain realities like: life, God, man, world and man’s place in it, justice etc. for the sake of this work, I shall employ analytical method in order to do justice to this work.

Philosophy which began vigorously from the Ancient periods with its attendant rigorosity and criticality in reasoning have apparently gone beyond the era of animism and anthropomorphism that marked the works of Homer and Hesiod no thanks to the seeming criticality with which the early lonian philosophers philosophized. Various philosophies were put up, some rejecting the existing culture status quo ante, others supporting the prevalent culture condition by way of proffering solutions. This brings out the truism in the fact that there is no subject or field of study which began without any basis or what Heidegger would call the prestructure of understanding extending also to the maxim of Gardemer that no one speaks from nowhere. Bringing out organically therefore the importance of Heideggerian prestructure of understanding to the development of philosophy, F. Copleston avows “one does not need to know very much about the history of philosophy in order to realize that philosophy does not develop in complete isolation from other elements of human culture.”1 In the light of the above, the emergence of the logical positivists with their principle of verification is precipitated by some antecedents.

The principle of verification became for A.J. Ayer, a member of the Vienna circle, and indeed all the logical positivists a vademecum for their philosophical activities.

It must be noted that the first glimmers of the principle of verification were first observed in the ancient philosophers who tried to situated being or reality with what could be seen. Thales choice of water as the cause of reality is a telling sign of this long marathon. Furthermore, the echo became louder and clearer in the late medieval times when William of Ockham came up with the idea of nominalism which postulated that “science as objective knowledge of necessary connections can be validated without postulating mysterious universal entities out there.”2 This brought about a complete over hauling of the dominant views as it opposed other views such as conceptualism, realism, moderate realism etc. Capturing the scenario more aptly, Copleston opined “…the nominalist spirit if one may so speak, was inclined to analysis rather than to synthesis, and to criticism rather than to speculation.”3 The full import of the nominalists’ spirit was that “…through their critical analysis of the metaphysical ideas… the nominalists left faith hanging in the air without (so far as philosophy is concerned) any rational basis.”4

This view when pursed to its logical conclusion set the ground for the elimination of metaphysics. It must be noted and just in line with what Copleston said that “the development of mathematical and scientific studies by such 14th century figures as Nicholas of Oresme, Albert of Saxony and Marsilius of Inghen is generally associated with the Ockhamist movement.”5 Bacon’s idea of induction and the distempers of learning gave a sure background to this in the late Renaissance.

In the modern period, Descartes’ quest for certainly and clarity of knowledge was informed by the Renaissance trail blazing effort, although Descartes toed the rationalist line, he was nevertheless triggered off by the sole desire to make philosophy certain and clear with his “methodic doubt”. Empiricism, it must be noted rose at this period with John Locke and David Hume as the notable progenitors. As a matter of fact, Empiricism could be taken to be the most pronounced and indeed the foremost background to logical positivism.

In the contemporary era, the rise of idealism became a blessing in disguise; idealism opposed to logical positivism in all ramifications inadvertently gave rise to the idea of logical positivism. The effect of the attack carried out against idealism (both British and German) by B. Russell and G.E. Moore which swoop the up-coming philosophers had a lasting impression on them as so logical positivism was evolved. Suffice it, to say that though both Russell and Moore were joint in their attack against idealism, nonetheless they were non-aligned in their mode of the attack. R.R. Ammerman succinctly captured this position when he aptly observed:

Moore and Russell were in complete agreement about what was wrong with idealism or how best to expose the error contained in it. On the contrary, their differing interest soon led them in diverging directions, although they remained united always in their rejection of Neo-Hegelianison.6

In this joint rejection, each carved a niche for himself of course with parallel positions, Moore vacated with common sense realism, Russell parted with logical atomism. They each anchored their philosophies tenaciously on their divergent positions. The introduction of Ludwig Wittgenstein was by no means a surprise as he was the sharpest of B. Russell’s students. His Tractatus Logico-Phiosophicus was somehow anticipated as he built his philosophy upon that of Russell. These simmering philosophical attitudes become as they were the fountain-head and the prelude to the rise of logical positivism as pursued by the Vienna circle.

Be that as it may, the logical positivists have the principle of verification as their major arrow head on which their project is foundationed. This principle of verification implicitly means that the meaning of a proposition is the method of its verification. In this sense, it looks set to provide a criterion of meaningfulness. By extrapolation, this verification principle suffocates those propositions that does not fall under its ambient and tagged them meaningless. In this way, metaphysical statements, ethical statement and the likes were branded as nonsensical and pseudo-statements.

By and large, when we beam our critical torchlight on the strength of the philosophies of Ayer and the logical positivists, to say that it contains an inherent contradictions and inconsistencies will be to belabour the obvious, for it will be apodictically true, that the verification principle is masquerading in some incoherencies and inconsistencies. This suggests that their (logical positivists’) views may not altogether be correct or dogmatically conclusive. This essay takes it upon itself therefore to be a critique of the verification principle in its quest to deny and eliminate metaphysics. In the end, we shall deduce whether the verification principle emerged victorious in its quest to eliminate metaphysics or whether it is only crying wolf where there in none.

Sir Alfred Ayer was born in 1910. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church as a King’s scholar and as a classical scholar respectively. His interest in philosophy was developed by Gilbert Ryle who encouraged him to spend some time in Vienna. It was while at the University of Vienna that he attended the meetings of the Vienna circle and subsequently got converted to logical positivism. During the Second World War, he spent most of his time in military intelligence. After the war, he became Grote Professor of philosophy of mind and logic at the University College London. He left London to become the Wykeham Professor of logic at the University of Oxford, and also a fellow of New College Oxford from 1959. During this period, Ayer became a fellow to many colleges. He became a prominent and well-known public figure in England at this point and began appearing in radio and television programmes. He was knighted in 1970.

Ayer made his name as a philosopher with the publication of his major work, language, logic and truth in 1936; this work also established him as the leading English representative of logical positivism, a doctrine put forward by a group of philosophers that are known as the members of the Vienna Circle. The major argument of the logical positivists which was defended greatly by Ayer was that all literally meaningful propositions were either analytic (true or false in virtue of the meaning of the proposition alone) or verifiable by experience. Ayer was influence by the philosophers of the Vienna Circle especially Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap, Gilbert Ryle whom he calls mentor and Isaac Berlin.

Ayer took special interest in encouraging the young philosophers who more often than not refer to him as “Freddie”. After his rest from strenuous philosophic activities, he continued to support the annual British philosophical journals. Ayer married four times and one remarriage.

Ayer saw himself as one of the descendants of the British empiricism fathered by John Locke and David Hume and which was continued by B. Russell and G.E. Moore. He wrote extensively both articles and books in the areas of philosophy of mind and science. Sir Alfred Ayer died in June 1989.

The logical positivist tied with the apron of clarity and tempered solely by the achievements of science as they were mainly scientifically minded philosophers or philosophically minded scientists were ipso facto thorough going empiricists. For them, any knowledge that transcends the limits of sense expression is not possible. They also have it that the problems of philosophy were nothing but linguistic problem due to ambiguities and lack of clarity in the use of words, and when those ambiguities are cleared then there would no longer be anything of such like philosophical problems. Wittgenstein in support will say “what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.”7 A.J. Ayer, stating his anger against the metaphysicians, audaciously said:

The fruitlessness of attempting to transcend the limits of possible sense experience will be deduced, not from a psychological hypothesis concerning the actual constitution of the human mind, but from the rules which determines the literal significance of language. Our charge against the metaphysician is that… he produced sentences which fail to conform to the conditions under which alone a sentence can be literally significant.8

In order to differentiate meaningful propositions from the meaningless ones, Ayer propounded a criterion to this effect which he calls The Principle of Verification. With this principle, he and other positivists set to clear from philosophy problem arising from the lack of clarity of words or proposition. But then the question is “To what extent can they succeed”?

The search for “what is” has been an age long dispute in philosophy. The early Greek philosophers started to philosophize with the question – “Ex qua materia constituti mundi” (Of what material is the world made of?). As different eras passed by, the question became more aptly situated in a branch of philosophy known as “Epistemology” or “The Theory of Knowledge”. The question then took a different dimension to be “what is truth or knowledge? How do we know that we know?”

In response to this question, different schools of thought erupted with their divergent positions as to the different modes of knowing. We are very conversant with the cat and dog war posture between the two worldviews that dominated the modern era of philosophy – that is the empiricists and the rationalists. They were trying to defend graciously their standpoint as to the ideal mode of knowing. Kant steps into the stage this period in an attempt to synthesize the views of the empiricists and the rationalists. Kantian synthesis took the form of “Copernican

Revolution” This means for G. Ozumba that “he was able to show that knowledge acquisition involved a co-operative activity between the senses and the perceiving mind… the external world of phenomena does not impose itself on the mind as the empiricists believed but that it is the mind that imposes it’s a priori categories on the world of phenomena.”9 Hegel at this point appeared in Germany with his absolute idealism. Later the German idealism was transferred to England where F.H Bradley, Mc Taggart and Bosanquet became its erstwhile apostles. It was however in a bid to debunk idealism (both British and German) that G.E. Moore and B. Russell developed the ideas of common sense and logical atomism respectively. Next on stage was Ludwig Wittgenstein who was a student of Russell. Wittgenstein still drinking from the philosophical tea bowl of Russell wrote his first major work “Tractatus logico-philosophicus” in 1921. At the production of this work, the logical positivist took it (Tractatus) as their philosophical bible and posited that it contained the canons of their principle.

It was under the influence of this Tractatus that A.J Ayer and indeed other logical positivists brought out with vigor the verification principle and delineated it to be both a theory of meaning and criterion of meaningfulness. With this principle as his bedrock, Ayer submits “until he [the metaphysician] makes us understand how the proposition that he wishes to express would be verified, he fails to communicate anything to us.”11Against this backdrop therefore, whatever that does not pass the acid test of this principle should be considered not just nonsensical but also meaningless. Under this verification shade, metaphysics was to be eliminated.

It is the aim of the writer to determine whether or not A.J Ayer succeeded in eliminating metaphysics with his verification principle. As a matter of clarity, the principle which serves as a weapon in the hands of Ayer will first be exposed and subjected under the sledge hammer of reason in order to establish its validity. When the principle holds sway, then it might accomplish its tasks, and when the reverse is the case then the principle will not at all be tenable and its task will not also be feasible.

Alfred Jules Ayer, a logical positivist, in his great really work Language, logic and Truth had only one mission which is to eliminate metaphysics on the ground that its utterances are due in large part to the commission of logical errors. In order to circumscribe and arrest the situation, Ayer and his fellow positivists came up with the criterion of meaning called “the principle of verification’’. In order to do justice to the thesis, the whole corpus of logical positivism and what they stand for will be carefully exposed. In this light, the principle of verification will be carefully and overtly highlighted with a view to dissecting how far it has fared in its denial and subsequent elimination of metaphysics.

In a bid to carefully do justice to this work, the chapters have been divided into five. The first chapter takes care of the general introduction. The second chapter deals with the literature review. Chapter three deals with analyzing of concepts to make way for a profound comprehension of the whole idea of verification principle, while the penultimate chapter tackles Ayer’s attempt to eliminate metaphysics and the varied nuances and dimensions of the verification principle. The last chapter hugely criticizes Ayer’s arguments with that of the logical positivists against metaphysics. Evaluation and conclusion would sequentially follow suit.

It will be very correct to say that an outright elimination of metaphysics based on the verification principle is not possible. First among the reasons is that man is inextricably and inexorably metaphysical and once we accept the fact that man is made up of both material and immaterial elements, then we would be able to understand the natural and irresistible urge towards metaphysics. Kant despite his devastating critique of metaphysics had to admit that man has within him, the natural urge towards metaphysics. The logical positivists did not explore these options. Nevertless, they brought to bare another dimension with their analysis of philosophical language. At least for the records, it made philosophers to be more self-critical in their use of language than they have hitherto been. Going by the above therefore, it will be very apt to say then that the significant of this work is to show that metaphysics cannot be eliminated based on the logical positivist’s criterion.

The question of methodology in a work of this magnitude cannot be over emphasized, and as the topic suggests, the methodology to be employed will be largely expository, analytical, critical and evaluative. The historical point of view of the topic is however not overlooked. Efforts will be made at a clear explanation of certain terms employed.

Etymologically, the word metaphysics comes for the Greek word Ta Meta Ta physika which means “next after physics”. The word metaphysics as it is being used today was first and foremost coined by Andronicus of Rhodes. As he was chronicling the books of Aristotle, he (Andronicus) came upon the book that was after the one named physics. As he was perusing through its contents, he noticed that its subject matter transcends those in physics; he therefore decided to name it metaphysics, which of course literally means “after-physics’’. According to B. Ewelu, there are two possible reason why this title was given to this treatise:

Either because it comes after the treatise on physics (Meta Ta physika - that which comes after physics) or because the issues discussed in this treatise are about things that transcends the physical world, such that metaphysics would mean beyond physics or beyond the physical world.12

Be that as it may, the task of saying what metaphysics is and what it is not by way of definition has being on uphill task and any attempt towards this has always hit the rock or proved abortive. The reason for the above situation is not for fetched as true to any branch of philosophy, any attempt towards its definition has always divided philosophers into warring camps and as such philosophies have always been docked in and miraged in the elusive attempt to define such field. Metaphysics being a branch of philosophy enjoys such a position as well. Moreover, this does not mean that we cannot sieve out at least a welcomed and working definition of the term. Metaphysics as a matter of fact is the science that concerns itself with the first principles and realities in general. It is essential both in the arts and in science. Metaphysics is therefore according to Ozumba:

All pervasive in man’s quest for a better understanding of the universe. It is because of this that metaphysics is seen to be very close to epistemology which is a theory of knowledge that examines the extent to which we can know.14

Metaphysics in this respect has a method which does not lie in sense experience. It uses abstract thinking as its method. Its method then is a prior (Ratio-cinative), which involves reasoning on pure insights.

The practice of metaphysics started from antiquity and reached its climax in the German idealism of Kant, Hegel, Fitche and Schelling. In Britain, Bradley and Mc Taggart and also the logical atomism of Russell and Wittgenstein were metaphysical.

(1)       F. Copleston, A History of philosophy: logical Positivism and Existentialism Vol. X1 (New York: Continuum books, 2003) p.26.

(2)     C. Udebunu, The Scholastics, Unpublished Lecture Note, 2004, p.27.

(3)     F. Copleston, A History of Philosophy: Late Medieval and Renaissance philosophy. Vol. 3 (New York: Continuum books, 2003), p.11.

(4)     Ibid.

(5)     Ibid. p.15.

(6)      Lifes and Times of A.J. Ayer culled from his book – language Logic and Truth

(7)       R.R. Ammerman (ed). Classics of Analytic Philosophy (New York: Mc Graw-Hill Book, 1985), p.4.

(8)       L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-philosophicus, ed trans by D.F. Pears & B.F.Mc Guinness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), p.3.

(9)     A.J. Ayer, Language, Logic and Truth (London: Penguin

books, 1990), p.15.

(10)        G.O. Ozumba, The Philosophy of Logical Positivism and the Growth of science (Calabar: Bacos Publication, 2001),

(11)      A.J. Ayer, op. cit., p.17.

(12)         B. Ewelu, Metaphysics, Unpublished lecture Note, 2006 p.1

(13)       Ibid., p. 43.

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