From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXIV


Robert Hill

Philosophy for All: C.E.M. Joad, The Philosopher and the General Public

With the recent return of the Brains Trust 55 years after its first broadcast, it seem appropriate to reconsider briefly the work of one of its chief contributors, Dr. C.E.M.Joad (1891-1953) as well as the wider question as to the role of The Philosopher and philosophy in the life of the general public.

Cyril Joad was known both to generations of university students as Head of the Department of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, London and to the public at large through his prolific series of philosophical, political and scientific writings and public lectures. He was also a distinguished Honorary Vice-President of the Society and gave speeches in honour of Lord Bertrand Russell and Professor Gilbert Murray at the Society's public dinners. 

Joad will undoubtedly be thought of as the witty and intellectual man behind the Brains Trust which began in January 1941 'to attempt a little education-for those poor bored chaps scattered in lonely searchlight and Ack-Ack units up and down the country, whose time hung so heavily on their hands.' ( Joad, Opinions). Yet he was also a man of deep sensibility concerning both man and nature whose larger than life character was able to produce a vast body of philosophical and political work that was accessible to the general public. He was a man who held his beliefs passionately, whether it concerned the death of the countryside, the invasion of the motorcar, or the need for society to hold broad educational goals. It is this latter aspect that is of so much interest to members of our Society and is probably why he was interested in the Society itself. As The Philosopher (June 1953) reported, on his death: 

As a practical philosopher whose aims were not dissimilar from our own, he brought understanding of philosophy to a public many of whom would never otherwise perhaps have apprehended the meaning, scope and vital significance of that often misunderstood word. 

In the editorial to the 80th Anniversary Issue of the The Philosopher I wrote that I hoped our Society had 'reclaimed a little bit of territory for philosophy as an activity and less of a discipline.' By expressing such a view I wanted to remind us of the original aims of our Society. As the opening sentences of our officially stated Aims and Main Objects states 'The Society was founded to promote the study of practical philosophy amongst the general public. The essence in every branch of life is thought' or, as the Rev. Albert D. Belden stated in The Philosopher (November 1954) 

The main feature of our Society, and the reason for its being, has always been the encouragement of the ordinary, average person, in the pursuit of philosophy. We believe that every person needs philosophy. Philosophy is best defined by the strict etymology of the word, as "Love of Wisdom." 

Our Statement of Aims reads: The purposes of the Society shall be the encouragement and promotion of philosophical studies and the furtherance of philosophical investigation and research in connection with the sciences, literature, the fine arts and theology. 

Our Society the has always been distinguished from other philosophical societies in attempting to interest the general public in philosophy. As one of out past-Presidents the Reverend F.H. Cleobury has stated (The Philosopher, Spring, 1962) 'This exposes us, of course, to a danger from which the academic societies are exempt: the encouragement of dilettantism.' Yet, as he goes on, 'Philosophy is, above all other intellectual disciplines, the one which ought to be of interest to ordinary people...the philosophical attitude of mind is far more important than the amassing of philosophical facts.' 

If one returns to Joad for a moment, he was, despite his professorial position held up as an example of dilettantism. Drury's comment during a conversation with Wittgenstein in 1930 brings this out clearly: Wittgenstein: A bad philosopher is like a slum landlord. It is my job to put him out of business. Drury: Joad for example? Wittgenstein: Everyone picks on Joad, nowadays; but I donÍt see that he is worse than many others. 

Did any of this stop Joad writing books to educate the public, to arouse interest in philosophical ideas, to express his own views on the modern world, to have the courage of his convictions? Of course it didn't, nor should it have done. Joad was never criticised for being a bad philosopher, but rather one who wrote clearly and spoke about too many non- 'philosophical' issues. The circumspection and delineation of disciplines is a task for accountants not philosophers, the notion that philosophical thought is subject specific is on the whole an academic fiction. Thus if one looks back over our journal, The Philosopher, one will find a fascinating array of topics covering art, education, literature, theology and so forth. The defining quality of these articles is that they were written for The Philosopher and thus they are clear, concise and do not make the mistake of equating technicality with profundity. Occasionally there have appeared articles where a minimal technical knowledge has been required, but this has been the exception rather than the rule. Philosophy is not meant to be easy, but then arguments do not necessarily have to be complicated to be difficult and language not unduly complex to be expressive. 

Joad put the matter as follows in his 1948 book Decadence

I do not wish to suggest that philosophical thinking is, or ever can be easy, but it need not be made unnecessarily obscure. For obscurity may be of two kinds. There is the expression of obscurity and there is obscurity of expression. The first is pardonable; there is no reason - at least I know of none - why he universe should be readily intelligible to the mind of a twentieth-century Nordic adult; the second, which is the result of bad craftsmanship, is not. A man who seeks to express his thoughts on philosophy should study so . . . that his meaning may be plain. Now, it seems to me that philosophers often make their subject more difficult than it need be. This is usually the effect of bad literary workmanship; not possessing by nature, they have not troubled to acquire by practice the art of writing clearly. Sometimes, however, they seem designedly to darken their meaning, seeking by a deliberate obfuscation of sense, or by the invention and use of an unnecessarily technical vocabulary, to deter outsiders from the mysteries to which they, the initiates, alone have the clue and so to increase the prestige of the initiates. 

Joad identified three objections to what he called the 'Philosophical Vulgarisateur' which he defined as 'the man who spreads with clarity, vividness, force and accuracy, the knowledge obtained by and the wisdom derived from others.' The first is a general objection to philosophers writing about non-philosophical topics 'If they must be men of the world they need not, it is intimated, betray the fact by writing about the world. If they do, they cannot, it is implied, also write well about philosophy. If, nevertheless, like Russell, they do write about philosophy and write so well that their work cannot be ignored, then their non-philosophical writings are ignored, or treated as unfortunate lapses.' 

Secondly it is claimed that philosophers should not write about current moral and political problems. The subject matter of philosophy is technical, the analysis of the logical structure of language. 'When it strays out of this sphere, it talks nonsense and misleading nonsense at that.' 

The third objection is to philosophers writing in non-technical language 'so that the plain man can understand it, much as churchmen in the Middle Ages objected to the Bible being translated so that the layman could understand it.' 

In opposition to these views, Joad suggests three virtues of philosophical thinking, originality, truth and clarity. Whilst Joad acknowledges that the first can exist without the second and vice versa, he is clear that clarity is essential. It is also this quest for clarity that has chiefly delineated our Society from others. Thus I think that as we move towards the millennium, both the Society and The Philosopher have a challenge both in remembering and holding onto our original aims and presenting them in such a way that the modern world will want to listen. One way of achieving such goals is to refresh ourselves with those thinkers and writers of the past, who, like Joad, managed to talk about philosophy in such a way that they didnÍt betray their belief in 'philosophy for all'. 

See also our retrospective on Joad in Volume 103 No. 1


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