A. J. Ayer’s small, compact and yet highly accessible work on philosophy first appeared as a series of Gifford Lectures, delivered at the University of St Andrews in 1972–3, and is perhaps most immediately comparable to Bertrand Russell’s earlier work, The Problem of Philosophy. Ayer’s aim in the course of these lectures is to provide an introduction to his own philosophical positions rather than serve as any kind of more general introductory philosophical text but the lectures present his arguments clearly and forcefully, with his trademark, somewhat aristocratic style.
The topics covered are broadly in line with Ayer’s own pragmatic philosophical interests and thus the text falls generally within the tradition of analytic philosophy. The lectures serve as an illuminating overview of the field and include sections on topics such as the nature of philosophy, characters of scientific explanation, elements of logic and the claims of theology. The influence of Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle (a lifetime interest on Ayer’s part) is noticeable, particularly in the sections of the work dealing with the philosophy of language. Also included is Ayer’s work on verification and falsification, which proved to be a contentious and contemporary issue in philosophy when Ayer gave the lectures.
Beginning with his sceptical dismissal of metaphysics, particularly the British neo-Hegelian thinkers, Ayer proceeds to put forward a systematic view of pragmatic philosophy. Moving forward Ayer’s lectures cover his philosophical position towards the material world and the various arguments towards its existence. Ayer also covers Cartesian philosophy, analysing the divide between body and mind, in a lecture that shows a great philosophical debt to the work of David Hume. Before the concluding section on theology, Ayer moves through to logic and the expression of truth, covering analytic and empirical standards as well as primary and secondary systems of explanation. Given the skepticism towards metaphysics, the final lecture on theology is somewhat disappointingly brief and many will (rightly) feel it does not treat the subject with the depth required.
However, the book serves as an excellent example and historical record of the issues of the day that were prevalent in analytic or Anglo-American philosophy and a good introduction to Ayers pragmatic theories around philosophy.