Tag Archives: Language and languages

Language, Truth, and Logic

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Language, Truth, and Logic [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by A J (Alfred Jules) Ayer. (See also 2nd edition.)

Ayer Language Truth and Logic

“But it must be understood from the outset that we are not concerned to vindicate any one set of philosophers at the expense of any other, but simply to settle certain questions which have played a part in the history of philosophy out of all proportion to their difficulty or their importance.” (134)

Language, Truth and Logic is a brief and charmingly audacious effort to retire metaphysics and its related issues. Ayer is a mid-20th-century exponent of the Anglo-American analytical tradition in philosophy (including the work of Bertrand Russell and others) which seeks to reduce the discipline to applications of logic. His arguments are sympathetic to the earlier empiricists and positivists, but show more sophistication in pointing out and sometimes surmounting their shortfalls. I am most in accord with his “emotive theory of values” as a method of dispensing with the philosophical concern over ethics. 

Ayers’ professed opposition to “schools” in philosophical discourse reminds me of the ultra-Protestant Plymouth Brethren “coming out of sect” in 19th-century England: they paradoxically insist on a narrowing of their field while claiming to transcend distinctions within it.

The 1946 introduction to the second edition consists of Ayers reconsidering and fine-tuning many of the details in the body of the text. Accordingly, I saved it to read until finishing the original eight chapters. In retrospect, however, because of the intricacies of the arguments, a reader would be better advised to read the 1946 remarks in sequence after each individual chapter.

Although mystics (and magicians, to a lesser degree) are unlikely to find this book easy or pleasant, it would be an invaluable supplement to their intellectual diets. After passing through this crucible, they might proceed to the more congenial offerings of a thinker like Gregory Bateson.

Babel-17 / Empire Star

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Babel-17 / Empire Star [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Samuel R Delany.

Delany Babel-17 / Empire Star

Delany’s Babel-17 is a very sophisticated space opera written in the mid-1960s. The protagonist is a linguistic savant and intergalactic celebrity poet, and the plot is focused on military espionage and a mysterious new language. The number of unlikely anachronisms (such as tape spools to hold data) are surprisingly few. There is not much explanation for the fundamentals of the “stasis shift” technology that makes interstellar travel possible, but its ancillary operations are fascinating in that they use “discorporate” people (i.e. technologically-sustained intelligences of the dead) to help parse and represent much vaster energy spectra than human senses can perceive. The story also presents a caste society, with some castes participating in extreme “cosmetisurgery” and marital “tripling.” Philosophically, Babel-17 epitomizes a linguistic turn in science fiction, according to which the powers and limitations of societies and individuals both are grounded in the characteristics of their language. 

The novella Empire Star is here bound tête-bêche with Babel-17 (as the author had originally hoped), and the former is in fact a metafiction putatively written by a lover of the protagonist of the latter. The smaller page-count of Empire Star does not make it less interesting or significant: in keeping with its name (and the cover design of the Vintage edition), it has a lapidary quality. “The multiplex reader has by now discovered that the story is much longer than she thinks, cyclic and self-illuminating.” (89) And in these respects, it anticipates, as much as do the psychedelic linguisticisms of Babel-17, the work that Delany was to accomplish in his spectacular Dhalgren a decade later.