Alfred Jules Ayer

On this date in 1910, philosopher Alfred Jules Ayer was born in London into a wealthy family. His father was a Swiss Calvinist and his mother was Reine Citroën from the Dutch-Jewish family that founded the Citroën car company in France. Ayer attended Eton preparatory school and studied philosophy and Greek at Oxford University. From 1946 to 1959 he taught philosophy at University College London. He then became Wykeham Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford. Ayer was knighted in 1970.

Among his many works are The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge (1940), The Problem of Knowledge (1956), The Origins of Pragmatism (1968), Metaphysics and Common Sense (1969), Bertrand Russell (1972) and Hume (1980), about philosopher David Hume. In his still-popular book Language, Truth and Logic (1936), Ayer rejected the term “atheism” on the grounds that the existence of God as a hypothesis could never be proven. To argue that no god exists, to Ayer, was as meaningless as saying that one did exist.

Later in life he frequently identified himself as an atheist and became active in humanist causes. He was the first vice president of the British Humanist Association and served as its president from 1965-70. He was an honorary associate of the Rationalist Press Association from 1947 until his death. He was also an honorary member of the Bertrand Russell Society. In 1988, Ayer had a near-death experience in the United States after choking on salmon and losing consciousness. He wrote of his experience in the New Humanist (May 1989): “My recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be. They have not weakened my conviction that there is no god. I trust that my remaining an atheist will allay the anxieties of my fellow supporters of the British Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press Association and the South Place Ethical Society.”

Ayer was married four times to three women and had a son with his wife Alberta Wells. He also had a daughter out of wedlock with Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham Westbrook. He died at age 78 in London in 1989.

Freedom From Religion Foundation