The Christian philosophy of C.E.M. Joad and his concept of personality and the soul

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C.E.M. Joad

There is a small group of significant philosophers who had extraordinary turnarounds. The most famous of these is Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote about his magnum opus, ‘The author of the Tractatus was mistaken.’ So, too, A.J. Ayer who, in an interview with the BBC, said of his former philosophy, ‘At the the end of it all it was false’. Yet perhaps the most extraordinary turnaround was the enormously popular C.E.M. Joad.

Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad (1891-1953) was a university philosopher at Birkbeck College London, who wrote on a wide variety of philosophical subjects, both historical and contemporary. For most of his life he rejected religion—but in the 1940s and early 1950s he first abandoned atheism, then accepted a form of theism, and finally converted to Christianity.

Not until Recovery of Belief, in 1952, did he set out the Christian philosophy in which he had come to believe. This post explores just one aspect of that philosophy, namely his theory of personality and the soul—then briefly, what motivated him philosophically, to make such a radical about-turn. Here is Joad’s later view, in his own words:

‘Having considered and rejected a number of views as to the nature and interpretation of the cosmos, I shall state the one which seems to me to be open to the fewest objections. It is, briefly, what I take to be the traditional Christian view, namely, that the universe is to be conceived as two orders of reality, the natural order, consisting of people and things moving about in space and enduring in time, and a supernatural order neither in space nor in time, which consists of a Creative Person or Trinity of Persons from which the natural order derives its meaning, and in terms of which it receives its explanation.’

In his ‘interpretation of the cosmos’, then, Joad proceeds by seeking to vindicate ‘the traditional division of the human being [as] not twofold into mind and body, but threefold into mind, body and soul.’ The reference seems to be to the view identifiable in late-Scholastic theology, that a human being has an immortal part which can sin, be forgiven, and rise at the Last Judgement (the soul); a thinking part which can understand, affirm, deny, desire, imagine (the mind); and a body which is the agent of the mind and soul.

In fairness, Joad does not claim to demonstrate the validity of the threefold analysis; he claims no more than that ‘if it were true it would cover a number of facts which seem to be inexplicable on any other’. He offers it as what we might term an inference to the best explanation. He found no better way to explain the cosmos as he found it.

The soul, Joad tells us, is ‘the essential self and is timeless’. It is incarnated in bodies but can exist without them, since after our bodily death, it remains an individual entity and ‘sustains immortality’. At this point, the influence of Plato’s theory of the soul in the Phaedo is clear. Unplatonic, however, is the notion that the soul is ‘normally inaccessible to us’, and that we at least approximate to an awareness of it in ‘mystical experience’—experience with which ‘most of us, at any rate, are acquainted [in] certain moments of transport of tranquillity that we enjoy in our intercourse with nature’.

Yet Joad’s theory does not rely solely on mystical experience. There are those, he writes, to whom mystical experience is denied. Thus he posits the soul as our ‘point of contact and communication’ with the divine … God, to use the language of religion, influences man through his soul’.

Joad suggests that ‘The phenomena of spiritual healing and spiritual regeneration are … most plausibly to be explained on the assumption that God, in response to prayer, acts upon us through the soul to heal the body and strengthen the mind. The soul is also the ‘still small voice of God’ of which we are conscious when the hubbub of ordinary life and consciousness dies down”. This presupposes the existence of God, and of a God who acts in these ways.

Of the mind, Joad tells us that it ‘is brought into being in consequence of the contact of the soul with the natural, temporal order, which results from its incorporation in a physical body’. The mind cannot be identified with matter, as Locke’s ‘thinking substance’, for instance. Mind ‘cannot be adequately conceived in material terms … Is the notion of conscious matter really thinkable?’ Joad asks rhetorically and in protest against Julian Huxley.

Yet Joad concedes that ‘The mind is, it is clear, constantly interacting with the body and the brain.’ Again, it is not Joad’s purpose to demonstrate the validity of his analysis. In fact, he states that this is a paradoxical occurrence which ‘is, by us, incomprehensible’. This incomprehensibility, further, he sees as being characteristic of what he calls ‘all the manifestations of the supernatural in the natural order’; the supernatural here being the soul—with the mind and the natural being the brain and the body.

There is, however, a crucial concept which subsumes the categories of body, mind, and soul. This is ‘personality’, which Joad describes as being ‘logically prior’ to the soul, mind, and body as the three elements of our being. He introduces us to this concept by considering the relation of a sonata to its notes, and of nation or society to its members (with a more thorough discussion of mereology).

While Joad does not define logical priority, the basic idea is that the soul (to borrow a phrase from C.D. Broad) is ‘an existent substantive’ which temporarily ‘owns’ or is characterised by the mind, the brain, and the body. Hence any idea that the person is a composite, ‘resulting from the concurrence of a number of parts’ has things the wrong way round. The person, essentially identified with the soul as ‘the seat of personality’, is prior to the ‘parts’—the mind, brain, and body.

It came down to this. C.E.M Joad considered the creeds of a single, materialist, physical order of reality ‘palpably inadequate’, almost meaningless, in explaining the universe and our place within it. ‘Personality’ seemed the only explanation left.

Fifteen years after Joad’s death, the philosophical theologian Francis Schaeffer’s major work, The God Who is There, was published in the USA. Interestingly, Schaeffer there presents ‘personality’ as his core idea. He writes that we have either ‘personality or a devilish din’. Schaeffer had an enormous influence on American society and religion. Among other things. President Ronald Reagan, thirteen years later, ascribed his election victory to Francis Schaeffer.

Joad’s final, almost forgotten book may have been more important than we suppose—but not only for society and religion. The idea of ‘personality’ as being logically prior to all else might become a critical pre-condition for humanity’s survival in the 21st century.