Ayer on Metaphysicians and Poets


A.J. Ayer, in his Logical Positivist manifesto (Language, Truth & Logic, 1952 [1946], p44-5), won’t lift a finger for the metaphysician. When some of his colleagues suggest that there may be at least some aesthetic benefit to metaphysics—Ayer resists. I should note that the reason Ayer takes the work of the metaphysician to be meaningless is that she makes claims that fail to meet his strict criteria of verifiability. If a statement cannot possibly be empirically verified, it is not simply false, but meaningless. This was a dark time indeed for the metaphysician, but the  principles formulated and conclusions drawn by the Positivists were soon realized to be much to strong—eventually going by the wayside. I found the following quote amusing as I read through Ayer’s book:

“Among those who recognize that if philosophy is to be accounted a genuine branch of knowledge it must be defined in such a way as to distinguish it from metaphysics, it is fashionable to speak of the metaphysician as a kind of misplaced poet. As his statements have no literal meaning, they are not subject to any criteria for truth of falsehood: but they may still serve to express, or arouse, emotion and thus be subject to ethical or aesthetic standards. And it is suggested that they may have considerable value, as means of moral inspiration, or even works of art. In this way, an attempt is made to compensate the metaphysician for his extrusion from philosophy.

I am afraid that this compensation is hardly in accordance with his deserts. The view that the metaphysician is to be reckoned among the poets appears to rest on the assumption that both talk nonsense. But this assumption is false. In the vast majority of cases the sentences which are produced by poets do have literal meaning. The difference between the man who uses language scientifically and the man who uses it emotively is not that the one produces sentences which are incapable of arousing emotion, and the other sentences which have no sense, but that the one is primarily concerned with the expression of true propositions, the other with a creation of a work of art…[A] work of art is not necessarily the worse for the fact that all the propositions comprising it are literally false. But to say that many literary works are largely composed of falsehoods, is not to say that they are composed of pseudo-propositions. It is, in fact, very rare for a literary artist to produce sentences which have not literal meaning. And where this does occur, the sentences are carefully chosen for their rhythm and balance…

There are some, indeed, who would see in the fact that the metaphysician’s utterances are senseless a reason against the view that they have aesthetic value.

The metaphysician, on the other hand, does not intend to write nonsense. He lapses into it through being deceived by grammar, or through committing errors of reasoning, such as that which leads to the view that the sensible world is unreal… There are some, indeed, who would see in the fact that the metaphysician’s utterances are senseless a reason against the view that they have aesthetic value. And, without going so far as this, we may safely say that it does not constitute a reason for it.”


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