Monday, 19 March 2018

Rehabilitating Joad

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
“Poor Joad,” said the journalist John Guest, summing up the life of the late British philosopher on the BBC. The hapless C.E.M. Joad, who gained immense popularity on radio and TV, fell finally into disrepute and obscurity.
The Times of London, in its obituary, seemed to seal his final fate: “He had no interesting contribution to make as a philosopher.” Today, the dictionaries of philosophy would seem to confirm it. It is a rare dictionary in which we find his name.

Personally, I think that Joad was badly overlooked – perhaps because his very popularity detracted from his reputation as a serious thinker. Popularity was indeed, in a sense, what he wanted – not merely for popularity’s sake, but because his interest was to reach the “common man”.

Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad had two great and timely insights, writing at a time where philosophy was parting ways with ethics through the creeping effects of Hume's fact-value distinction, and above all, through logical positivism. The recession of religion provided fertile ground for the same.

Firstly, he recognised that the problem of the time was the loss of ethics. Above all, he saw that philosophy had lost ethics, and would be impotent until it reclaimed it. In The Plight of Civilisation *, written in 1941, Joad set out the problem like this:
“To an age governed by the stomach-and-pocket view of life and accustomed to demand of every activity proffered for its approval that it shall deliver the goods, understanding seems no doubt an inadequate object of pursuit. Yet something is, it is obvious, grievously wrong with our civilisation, and it is high time we set about the business of trying to understand what it is. Science has won for us powers fit for the gods, yet we bring to their use the mentality of schoolboys or savages.”
In his verdict, society was “grievously wrong”.  In spite of “powers fit for the gods”, men and women had lost their moral compass. Many people agreed with him then, and many surely still would today. Because, in every major area where it matters, it seems that we are in serious crisis: personal, political, social, and environmental.

With this in mind, Joad developed a unique approach to ethics – but it seems to have all but disappeared today. I needed to search far on the Internet to find what I had once read in books. Eventually, I found some of his texts in the Delhi University Library, but they were fragmented through erratic optical character recognition.

A widespread view of moral epistemology is that morality cannot be rationally grounded. Not only is it impossible to proceed from an “is” to an “ought” as Hume originally said. If we ask after the reasons why we do things – and the reasons which lie behind those reasons – ultimately we find that there is nothing there at all.

Not so, said Joad. Rather than finding nothing, we find everything. Joad innovatively turned the argument on its head. I read this first in his Guide To The Philosophy Of Morals And Politics of 1938 – however it runs through various of his works. Supposing, he said, that I take quinine for a fever:
“Quinine helps, in other words, to reduce fever; but why reduce fever? Because fever is a disease. But why not be diseased? Because health is better than disease. Why is health better than disease? At this point we may refuse to answer; we just see, we may say, that health is better than disease, and that is all there is to say about it. But in saying ‘we just see’ health to be better than disease, we are absolving ourselves from the necessity of saying why we see it to be so.”
It is at this point, he writes, that “we cease to give reasons and fall back upon the assertion ‘we just see’.” That is, when we ask after our motives, we may keep on pushing back the question, yet inevitably we reach a point where we throw up our hands and laugh. But now, he says, we are passing a judgment of “absolute, ultimate, and unique value.”

Yet we do not discover a void. Rather we discover the true axioms of ethics. On condition, that is, that we sift ultimate from penultimate axioms – over which Joad himself took great care.

This view seems to me to be unique. It seems to me to meld reason and value, scepticism and realism. It differs from ethical intuitionism, empiricism, rationalism, pragmatism, and various other views – and for its perspicacity would seem to make Joad deserving of a place on the philosophical map. I believe that he identified and addressed the most profound philosophical issues of his and our day, and did so originally and creditably.

* Correction: this quote is taken from Philosophy For Our Times. The author mistakenly cited the section heading, and not the title of the book.

For further reading:
Return to Philosophy (1935)
Guide to the Philosophy of Morals and Politics (1938)


Martin Cohen said...

I'm not sure that there really is an infinite regress of explanations. Isn't the issue about going back to a point where either there is a contradiction in your own views, or the questioner agrees that they also share your reasoning?

Thomas Scarborough said...

It seems to me that Joad holds a moral universalism. Following his quote on quinine, he notes: 'Most people would be prepared to make this judgment.'

With regard to infinite regress, it seems to me that Joad is in a stronger position than the crowd. The 'crowd' says, there is infinite regress -- call it terminal regress -- therefore it is ultimately vacuous. Joad would seem to say, there was something to it all along, so why say that the final step nullifies all the steps that got one there? To quote Joad (1938):

'Are such [ultimate] statements, then, and are the judgments which underlie them untrue? It does not follow that they are.'

Keith said...

To preface, my observation is perhaps mundane. But when I read Joad’s quote about the effectiveness of quinine and the questions “But why not be diseased?” and then “Why is health better than disease?”, I grinned. My mind turned to how young children not infrequently lapse into doggedly questioning their parents, seeking — exhaustively but naturally craving, even — a satisfying explanation. I’m referring to that notorious series of ‘Why?’, ‘Why?’, ‘Why?’ questions that all parents learn, with a smile, to endure — at first offering sincere answers with attempted substance, but ultimately trying to close off the spigot of ‘whys’ with the lonely but definitive word ‘Because’. In their own unintentional, innocent way, aren’t young children, with their never-ending ‘whys’, engaging in what one might call ‘infinite regress’ in search of original explanation? And in their own way, aren’t parents, with their eventual, exasperated declaration of ‘because’, engaging in what one might call ‘universalism’, even if only circuitously so?

Martin Cohen said...

I agree with Keith that there is a childish side to the debate. When we ask a question, we use language and hence we have already accepted a whole host of rules and assumptions. To then use language to pretend that we accept nothing is contradictory. For example, someone might say an elephant weighs more than a mouse, to which the questioner says 'why', we say because it is composed of many more atoms, to which they say what about a cloud, etc etc... "Equivocation". But more is greater than less, might be the assumption. To which the 'why' response, although possible, is somehow disonest.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Thank you Thomas for letting me know Joad, of whom I had never heard before. Reading the suggested readings below, still this comment draws on what you gentleman have written here (and might be out of place).

Not completely understanding the why's regress that Keith mentions, and together with Martin’s acceptance of assumptions, isn’t the question if health is better than disease something more than just a yes or no or because? Without disease we cannot look for cure or the cause, then are we sure about the cause that we think to be the cause, and is disease not important for various reasons, to learn about biology, science? Psychologically, disease shows us various aspects about life that might change our view on life. From more points of view disease is important to us, and not only something to avoid. What I do not understand then, is the childish question in regard. Health would be worth nothing without disease or vice versa, we grow healthy because of disease but until this day, this does not mean we understand what health and disease actually are, we only decided to understand this within a set of presumptions, and should we stop there? If there is dishonesty to the why question, like you mention Martin, that is only when an assumption stops to be questioned, or not? Is that childish?

Thomas Scarborough said...

First some detail. Thanks to Richard Symonds of the Joad Society for querying my citation of 'The Plight of Civilisation'. The quote is in fact from 'Philosophy For Our Times', not 'The Plight of Civilisation'. I mistakenly cited the heading, and not the title of the book. One may see the original quote here:

Thank you, Keith, Martin, and Tessa for the comments. It would seem to me that the moral argument is much the same with regard to meaning: one cannot ask 'Why?' through to a termination which satisfies the mind. Finally it is 'absolute'. Not least, the ultimate answer of the Westminster Catechism, 'Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God,' would seem to represent 'absolute' termination.

Richard W. Symonds said...

"Yet we do not discover a void. Rather we discover the true axioms of ethics. On condition, that is, that we sift ultimate from penultimate axioms – over which Joad himself took great care"

Indeed. And what were those "ultimate axioms" for Joad?

Ultimately Platonic in form: Truth, Beauty, Goodness...and Happiness - but 'Christianized' by making those ultimate axioms qualities of a living God. From those foundations Joad then introduced his 'Restatement of Christian Philosophy' in his last book "Recovery of Belief"

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