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Here’s to the high-minded

Stefan Collini, 7 April 1994

After the Victorians: Private Conscience and Public Duty in Modern Britain 
edited by Susan Pedersen and Peter Mandler.
Routledge, 265 pp., £40, February 1994, 0 415 07056 2
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... if one concentrated on, say, Bertrand Russell, G.M. Trevelyan, R.H. Tawney, A.D. Lindsay, A.J. Ayer. The danger in a predominantly policy-centred approach is that it will perpetuate the familiar philistinism of political historians, for whom intellectuals only ‘matter’ when they directly affect political outcomes. Most of the contributors to After the ...

Grisly Creed

Patrick Collinson: John Wyclif, 22 February 2007

John Wyclif: Myth and Reality 
by G.R. Evans.
Lion, 320 pp., £20, October 2005, 0 7459 5154 6
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... and Ockham, and would be welcome in the company of more recent Oxford philosophers such as A.J. Ayer. McFarlane’s book comes alive when Wyclif enters the world of late 14th-century politics. It was a confused world, trying to cope with the second childhood of Edward III and, with the Black Prince given a terminal prognosis, bracing itself for the first ...

Short Books on Great Men

John Dunn, 22 May 1980

by Humphrey Carpenter.
Oxford, 102 pp., June 1980, 0 19 283016 3
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by Anthony Kenny.
Oxford, 86 pp., June 1980, 0 19 287500 0
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by Alban Krailsheimer.
Oxford, 84 pp., June 1980, 0 19 287512 4
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by A.J. Ayer.
Oxford, 102 pp., June 1980, 0 19 287528 0
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by Peter Singer.
Oxford, 82 pp., June 1980, 0 19 287510 8
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... can be an acceptable substitute for showing exactly how it can be derived. With Professor Ayer’s Hume we are back in calmer waters. Written with predictably impressive skill and verve and graced by a generous selection of Hume’s own marvellously elegant ironies, it will no doubt give pleasure as well as instruction to many. When set beside Dr ...

Just Like Cookham

Neal Ascherson: Stanley Spencer in China, 19 May 2011

Passport to Peking: A Very British Mission to Mao’s China 
by Patrick Wright.
Oxford, 591 pp., £20, October 2010, 978 0 19 954193 5
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... immune to lying propaganda; his vivid journal of the trip is one of Wright’s best sources. A.J. Ayer, preacher of logical positivism, was small, sensual and irrepressibly witty. John Chinnery, a ‘China expert’, was very young and still in the Communist Party, although his Party discipline was constantly threatened by his merry sense of the absurd (he ...

Plato’s Friend

Ian Hacking, 17 December 1992

Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals 
by Iris Murdoch.
Chatto, 520 pp., £20, October 1992, 0 7011 3998 6
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... in Oxford were friends of Aristotle, and they hardly get a look in. The exception is the late A.J. Ayer, whose cameo appearance is just right. ‘I first read Ayer’s book’ – Language, Truth and Logic – ‘in 1940 when I began to study philosophy and was, together with many others, amazed and impressed by the ...

Blite and Whack

Paul Seabright, 19 January 1984

A Pocket Popper 
edited by David Miller.
Fontana, 479 pp., £4.95, August 1983, 0 00 636414 4
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The Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery. Vol. I: Realism and the Aim of Science 
by Karl Popper, edited by W.W. Bartely.
Hutchinson, 420 pp., £20, March 1983, 0 09 151450 9
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The Philosophy of Popper 
by T.E. Burke.
Manchester, 222 pp., £16, July 1983, 0 7190 0904 9
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In Pursuit of Truth: Essays in Honour of Karl Popper’s 80th Birthday 
edited by Paul Levinson.
Harvester, 337 pp., £25, May 1983, 0 7108 0424 5
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Science and Moral Priority 
by Roger Sperry.
Blackwell, 135 pp., £12.50, February 1983, 9780631131991
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Art, Science and Human Progress 
edited by R.B. McConnell.
Murray, 196 pp., £12.50, June 1983, 0 7195 4018 6
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... that based on the infinity of so-far unfalsified theories? Here the verdict must be mixed. A.J. Ayer once objected: ‘Why should a hypothesis which has failed the test be discarded unless this shows it to be unreliable: that is, except on the assumption that having failed once it is likely to fail again?’ This would smuggle in the principle of induction ...

When students ruled the earth

D.A.N. Jones, 17 March 1988

1968: A Student Generation in Revolt 
by Ronald Fraser.
Chatto, 370 pp., £14.95, January 1988, 0 7011 2913 1
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Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties 
by Tariq Ali.
Collins, 280 pp., £12.95, November 1987, 9780002177795
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Sixty-Eight: The Year of the Barricades 
by David Caute.
Hamish Hamilton, 464 pp., £14.95, January 1988, 0 241 12174 4
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Nineteen Sixty-Eight: A Personal Report 
by Hans Koning.
Unwin Hyman, 196 pp., £10.95, April 1988, 9780044401858
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... to Tariq Ali. Before my dismissal, I appeared on television to defend the paper against A.J. Ayer, John Gross and Colin Welch – with a chairman who accused me of being a disciple of Sorel, a writer of whom I had barely heard. (David Caute sardonically notes that ‘the allusion to Sorel was standard nonsense among professors of history and politics ...

Conversations with Rorty

Paul Seabright, 16 June 1983

Consequences of Pragmatism: Essays 1972-1980 
by Richard Rorty.
Harvester, 237 pp., £22.50, February 1983, 0 7108 0403 2
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... thing which has an essence.’ James has frequently been misunderstood in this regard (though A.J. Ayer in The Origins of Pragmatism also pointed to his anti-essentialism), and Rorty goes on to urge an abandonment of our conception of philosophy’s task as being the discovery of essences at all. It is an attractive view, although if pushed to its limit it ...


Richard Wollheim, 22 June 1995

Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist and Society 
by Meyer Schapiro.
Braziller, 253 pp., £19.95, October 1994, 0 8076 1356 8
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... team, which consisted of Ernest Nagel, the philosopher of science at Columbia, and A.J. Ayer, represented positivism de pur sang. In addition to these painstaking analyses, the essay contains the suggestion that the most fruitful way of looking at any theory of unity is to regard it, not as making a claim about how works of art are or should be, but ...

True Words

A.D. Nuttall, 25 April 1991

The Names of Comedy 
by Anne Barton.
Oxford, 221 pp., £22.50, August 1990, 0 19 811793 0
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... as if the mere attribution of meaning to a name stamps one a cratylist. But hermogeneans like A.J. Ayer have no difficulty in seeing how names, arbitrarily started, may acquire in time a certain force or resonance. Moreover, a proper name may be formed from a pre-existing adjective (‘Subtle’), in which case it can create expectations which may or may not ...

Sociology in Cambridge

Geoffrey Hawthorn, 6 November 1986

... It had even affected the Marxists there. But it had been born again off Regent Steet, where A.J. Ayer wrote Language, Truth and Logic, and naturalised. (And meanwhile, it had fled its native city. Its most fantastical progeny, the Encyclopaedia of the Unified Sciences, issued, although stillborn, in Chicago.) The more avowedly self-made conceptions that ...


Ben Pimlott: Anthony Crosland, 3 September 1998

Crosland’s Future: Opportunity and Outcome 
by David Reisman.
Macmillan, 237 pp., £47.50, October 1997, 0 333 65963 5
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... never been able to see why high consumption and brotherly love should be incompatible.’ A.J. Ayer condemned him for having an idea of socialism that ‘resembles present-day America’, while another critic sneered that there was ‘a jukebox struggling to get out of him’. Yet so far from seeking sameness, his book can be read as a path-breaking ...

All Antennae

John Banville: Olympic-Standard Depravity, 18 February 1999

Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind 
by David Cesarani.
Heinemann, 646 pp., £25, November 1998, 0 434 11305 0
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... his life, and which he was convinced was evidence of a reality beyond the visible world. As A.J. Ayer said of him, ‘his mind has displayed a religious rather than a scientific bent,’ while Malcolm Muggeridge felt he was ‘all antennae and no head’. The follies of his old age contributed to the posthumous eclipsing of his reputation – it is hard now ...

Little Lame Balloonman

August Kleinzahler: E.E. Cummings, 9 October 2014

E.E. Cummings: The Complete Poems, 1904-62 
edited by George James Firmage.
Liveright, 1102 pp., £36, September 2013, 978 0 87140 710 8
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E.E. Cummings: A Life 
by Susan Cheever.
Pantheon, 209 pp., £16, February 2014, 978 0 307 37997 9
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... over Cummings, also from time to time sought comfort in the arms of strangers (including A.J. Ayer, which did not please the anti-Semitic Cummings). Cheever’s book is written in a style reminiscent of a Vanity Fair article and she is clueless about poetry, but the book moves along briskly. Its principal virtue is its brevity. There are already a number ...

The Young Man One Hopes For

Jonathan Rée: The Wittgensteins, 21 November 2019

Wittgenstein’s Family Letters: Corresponding with Ludwig 
edited by Brian McGuinness, translated by Peter Winslow.
Bloomsbury, 300 pp., £20, November 2018, 978 1 4742 9813 1
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... or less united in seeing Wittgenstein as a burnt-out wreck and a disgrace to the profession: A.J. Ayer, for example, described him as a maniacal egotist who took refuge within a ‘cénacle of the faithful’, and Isaiah Berlin thought he had been reduced to peddling some trashy variety of ‘imaginative romanticism’. The gossip did not cease with ...

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