A prophecy of War in Europe: Cyril Joad on writing, speaking and the fatal perils of muddled thinking

Jot 101 Joad thinking and writing cover 001Found in the Jot 101 archive, is a pocket-sized book of 320 closely printed pages, bound in Rexene with a dust jacket and published by Odhams, which is entitled How to Write, Think and Speak Correctly. Undated, it appears to date from the late nineteen thirties, possibly 1939, and is edited by C. E. M. Joad, otherwise known as Cyril Joad.


Joad, who was professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College at the time, was arguably at the height of his fame, though he had yet to become that ‘ controversial ‘ member of the BBC ‘Brains Trust’ programme whose most famous riposte to any philosophical point was ‘ It depends what you mean by…’ Joad’s first book appeared in 1907, but by 1939 he was averaging two books a year on subjects ranging from ethics, rationalism, socialism, pacifism and psychology, with departures into more exotic areas such as ESP and the Paranormal.


Joad was what we today might call a ‘popular ‘philosopher—a category into which we could place such writers of our own time as A. C. Grayling and Alain de Botton. If pushed he would have described himself as a Rationalist, but his range of interests would seem to suggest that he saw himself as a bit of a political and philosophical maverick. His Wikipedia entry is so crammed with detail regarding his various volte-faces and intellectual re-inventions of himself that it is hard sometimes to pin him down. Here was a Rationalist who wrote on the Paranormal, a one-time pacifist who supported the war effort against Hitler, an agnostic who eventually embraced Christianity, a one-time Socialist and admirer of G. Bernard  Shaw who supported Mosley’s New Party for a short while, a writer on ethics who blithely admitted a desire to defraud the railway companies. Eventually, as we all know, he came a cropper by being discovered holding a third class ticket in a first class carriage. This come-uppance, which was reported gleefully in all the papers, resulted in his expulsion from the BBC and Birkbeck. And though publishers continued to publish Joad’s  books until his death five years later, his public career was effectively over.


The main problem with How to Write, Think and Speak Correctly is that it was ‘ edited ‘ by Joad. In his  day this would have meant that other specialists in the various fields listed in the book had their contributions rewritten by the editor to conform with the house style and general ethos of the publication. Which is why the names of the other contributors don’t appear. A little later on, encyclopedias and similar productions allowed their separate contributors to be formally acknowledged. This tradition has persisted, especially in the academic world.



For all we know, Joad wrote the whole book and designated himself the ‘ editor ‘ simply because he didn’t wish to be regarded as someone who could write with authority on such a wide variety of ( admittedly ) associated topics. We don’t know, but perhaps we should assume that the sentiments reflected Joad’s own opinions.


Joad admits that the arbiters of correct use of English are no longer academic grammarians that sit in judgement on those who violate fixed rules, but those who use a flexible language every day to express themselves effectively. However, he warns us that ‘ in speaking, and especially in writing, we habitually use ‘ incorrect ‘ forms—forms not sanctioned by the conventions current  among the educated people of today—we tend to distract the attention of our hearers and readers  from the thought behind what we say to the form in which we say it; and this takes away considerably from the effect intended; it badly impairs the efficiency of our expression.’


The first half of the book lays out the effect use of correct forms of expression while gently castigating the common but incorrect grammar that mars our writing and speaking. Much of this had already been covered by such modern authorities as Gowers and Partridge, but Joad is keen to explain why certain mistakes in expression should be avoided. However, when it comes to ‘thinking‘, the philosopher in  Joad comes to the fore.


He is particularly interesting in the emotional power of certain words and also what he calls ‘ habits of thought ‘. To him both can produce ‘ muddled thinking ‘, which  is the cause of ‘half the evils of this world’. In fact he went so far as to proclaim ( he was writing in 1939) that when


‘ we come to the larger field of man and his affairs in the field of social and political life, from crime to war, from politics to religion, this lack of clear thinking becomes a tragedy so vast as, at this period of man’s story, to threaten the whole future of the human race. Should our muddled thinking lead us into another war, we may well destroy ourselves….Muddled thinking is leading mankind towards a war that may well destroy it ; yet war is today so perilous simply because of the power of man’s intellect. Were man half as muddled in his thinking about his science, his inventions, his engineering, as he is in his thinking about his relations with his fellows, war would still be fought with wooden clubs and flint-tipped arrows. It is simply because of man’s immense ability to think clearly about scientific problems that his lack of clear thinking about social problems is so dangerous.’


Joad then discusses the barriers to clear thinking, one of which are the emotions attached to words. With an obvious reference to the oratory of Hitler, Joad maintains that an unscrupulous orator is concerned ‘ not to persuade people  of the truth of his ideas, but only to win their emotional allegiance to the course of action he is advocating… His choice of words is, in consequence, designed not primarily to communicate ideas, but to arouse emotions…’



As to the barriers to clear thinking created by ‘habits of thought ‘, Joad is equally critical. ‘ When we encounter habits of thought in our neighbours of which we disapprove, we call them ‘ prejudices ‘, ‘ superstitions ‘, and so on. Our own habits of thought are, on the other hand, what we call ‘profound convictions’, ‘ ennobling beliefs’ or ‘reasoned arguments’ .


Joad goes on to argue that although we accept such habits of thought declared by scientists throughout the ages as based on truth, we don’t necessarily question other habits of thought that are not based on science, such as the duty of obeying our parents and the existence of God. ‘We must not close our minds to the possibility that at some future date our ideas about them may have to be revised’.


A final thought from Joad seems relevant today when we consider the power of propaganda and fake news, whether from the West or from Russia:


‘Such habits of thought would be far less prevalent in the world, were it not for the fact that human beings are immensely suggestible. This suggestibility derives from partly from intellectual laziness, that is a reluctance to think for ourselves and a preference for letting other people tell us what we should think…Thus it is possible for hoary old platitudes to command acceptance if they are only expressed in  a form that captures attention and at the same time expresses a sentiment which appeals to the emotions of the audience…’  



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