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The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2.11.8

Rethinking Sidney Hook

Danny Postel

Sidney Hook, an Intellectual Street Fighter, Reconsidered

It would take a mighty large bookcase to contain all of the works on pragmatism published over the last two decades. The brainchild of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) and William James (1842-1910) and most fully articulated by John Dewey (1859-1952), pragmatism was America's first homegrown philosophical movement. Its influence has been cast throughout American intellectual life and beyond, winning adherents in Britain, Germany, and elsewhere.

But, until recently, pragmatism seemed to belong more to intellectual history than to living thought. It's hard to date the inauguration of the revival, but a single shelf of essential readings would have to include the essays collected in Richard Rorty's Consequences of Pragmatism (University of Minnesota Press, 1982) and Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001). Curiously, the second-most-influential pragmatist thinker of the 20th century, after John Dewey, has been almost completely overlooked amid the revival. Indeed, until very recently, Sidney Hook (1902-89) seemed to have been relegated to the dustbin of pragmatist history. There was not a single book-length study of his work until 1997. But recent signs -- including a two-day conference on his legacy last month -- point to a resurgence of interest in the philosopher.

The conference, "Sidney Hook Reconsidered: A Centennial Celebration," held at the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York, made national headlines in June when four of its scheduled participants announced their withdrawal to protest the participation of Cornel West, a professor of religion at Princeton University. John Patrick Diggins, a professor of history at the CUNY graduate center, withdrew from the conference but changed his mind and rejoined the program.

The other three -- Irving Kristol, a co-editor of The Public Interest, Gertrude Himmelfarb, a retired professor of history at the graduate center, and Hilton Kramer, the editor of The New Criterion -- had pulled out upon learning of Mr. Diggins's original decision and, despite his U-turn, made none of their own. (Mr. West and Mr. Diggins spoke on the same panel, without incident. Mr. Diggins described Mr. West's talk as "stimulating" and characterized the preconference controversy as a "terrible misunderstanding.")

That figures as politically different as Mr. West, a self-described democratic socialist, and Mr. Kristol, a professed neoconservative, are admirers of Hook speaks to the challenge of fitting the philosopher into a history of American thought.

There were, some say, many Sidney Hooks: The same figure who was widely regarded as the greatest Marxist philosopher in the United States and who fomented international socialist revolution in the 1920s and '30s voted for Richard Nixon in 1972 and accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan in 1985.

But unlike many former radicals who denounce their previous positions, Hook believed his philosophy was consistent. "I am not aware," he wrote in his autobiography, Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century (Harper & Row, 1987), "of having undergone any serious conversions from the days of my youth, or having abandoned my basic ideals." (This despite the fact that for decades after it went out of print, Hook actively suppressed the republication of his 1933 book Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation, embarrassed as he was by the enthusiastic support for Leninism contained in its pages.)

Whether the different dimensions of Hook's thought hang together or come apart, which ones remain relevant today, and where Hook belongs in the intellectual history of the 20th century were some of the questions explored at the recent conference.

The Synthesis

Hook's signature contribution to philosophy was his attempt to synthesize the ideas of Marx and Dewey, who was his professor at Columbia University in the 1920s. He saw affinities between the two thinkers, for example, in their common emphasis on experience and action. In Hook's view, Marx's famous injunction that philosophers have merely interpreted the world, while the real point is to change it, prefigured and complemented Dewey's notion of ideas as instruments, as tools to help us get along in the world. Both philosophers were committed to an essentially scientific, experimental outlook, Hook observed, and to a developmental view of human existence.

Marx's developmentalism was historical and economic: The transformation of the productive process over time has led to greater freedom. Dewey's was organismic: The basic biological pattern of life is growth, and human growth requires the proper conditions to be successful. Both visions were deeply social, Hook noted. For Marx and Dewey, development depends vitally on communal forms of life. But what to do about the differences? For Marx, the highest stage of human development is communism, and the only way to get there from here is revolution. Dewey, in contrast, was a piecemeal reformist who eschewed violent insurrection.

Hook decided that Dewey's organismic and experimentalist understanding of development was precisely the correction that Marxism's rigid determinism needed. At the same time, he tried to convince Dewey that in order to realize the kind of truly democratic communal order that pragmatism envisioned, nothing less than revolutionary action would be necessary.

Hook never quite succeeded in winning Dewey over to a Marxian point of view, but he made inroads, nudging his mentor a few inches leftward. What Hook did, however, was to fashion a "street fighter's version of Dewey's pragmatism," writes Alan Ryan, the author of John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism (Cornell University Press, 1991), in a foreword to a new collection, Sidney Hook on Pragmatism, Democracy, and Freedom: The Essential Essays (Prometheus Books, October), edited by Robert B. Talisse, an assistant professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and Robert Tempio, an independent scholar.

Street-Fighting Man

And a street fighter Hook was. Real fighting, he once remarked, "is when someone insults you and you kick them in the balls." Hook was "probably the greatest polemicist of [the 20th] century," wrote the late University of Chicago sociologist Edward Shills. For his part, Mr. Diggins, well known for, among other books, Up from Communism: Conservative Odysseys in American Intellectual History (Harper & Row, 1975), has crowned Hook "the Jake La Motta of American philosophy." Hook was controversial from early on. He embraced Marxism in the 1920s -- a decade before most of his American comrades -- and was the first professor to teach a course on Marxism in the United States. His books Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx and From Hegel to Marx (1936) became instant classics of Marxist thought. Yet he was no less trailblazing in his opposition to Soviet Communism. Though an early supporter of the Bolsheviks, in the mid-1930s Hook was speaking out against the Soviets, as reports of widespread repression began to appear. In the 1930s, he was routinely denounced by American Communists and fought many a battle on this less than popular front.

As a Marxist, Hook saw the key division in the world as one between capitalism and socialism. But as he grew increasingly disillusioned with Communism, he came to see the essential conflict as one between democracy, embodied however imperfectly by the West, and totalitarianism, represented by both fascism and Stalinism. That would become the central theme that defined and dominated Hook's work and thinking for the rest of his life. This aspect of his work made Hook a hero to conservatives. The fact that Hook saw Soviet Communism not only as a threat to Western democracies but as a negation of Marxist thought -- and until his death regarded Marx as a "great figure in the calendar of human freedom" -- did not keep conservatives from embracing the philosopher as one of their own. Several sessions at the conference felt more like a leftover skirmish from the cold war than an intellectual meditation on what is living and what is dead in Hook's thought.

Some of his own fellow anti-Communists thought Hook went too far in allying himself as closely as he did with the Republican right. In a review of Out of Step, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote that that Hook "let anti-Communism consume his life to the point that, like Aaron's rod, it swallowed up nearly everything else." Mr. Schlesinger reiterated this criticism at the conference, in one of the most-discussed presentations at the event. He accused Hook of exaggerating the influence of American Communists and contrasted Hook to other anti-Communist thinkers who "kept their intellectual and political balance," citing the late journalist Murray Kempton as an example.

Other critics saw not just a lack of balance but a decline in the intellectual caliber of Hook's work over the years. "Syllogisms dropped from his pen like the rains of heaven," Irving Howe wrote of Hook in A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982). But within Hook's "first-rate mind," he went on, "there had formed a deposit of sterility, like rust on a beautiful machine."

Paul Kurtz, a retired professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo and the editor of Free Inquiry magazine, regretted the emphasis at the conference on Hook the cold warrior. In his talk, he said that the inordinate focus on Hook's anti-Communism has obscured the philosopher's main contribution, which was as the leading "Socratic gadfly" of 20th-century America, who "kept alive the method of critical inquiry."

He also emphasized the discontinuities between Hook and his neoconservative admirers. Mr. Kurtz, who has edited two Hook festschrifts, Sidney Hook and the Contemporary World: Essays on the Pragmatic Intelligence (John Day, 1968) and Sidney Hook: Philosopher of Democracy and Humanism (Prometheus Books, 1983), explained that Hook had misgivings about accepting the medal of freedom from Mr. Reagan. "I wonder if the Republicans know," Hook remarked to Mr. Kurtz at the time, "that I'm a strong secular humanist." But his naturalistic, indeed atheistic, worldview wasn't the only thing that separated Hook from the Reaganites with whom he allied himself. He was also, on domestic policy, an "unreconstructed social democrat" and a sharp critic of free-market economics. Moreover, he was a philosophical pragmatist and, as such, rejected absolutes -- which distinguished him from not only religious but also some secular conservatives, such as Allan Bloom. Although a strong defender of the Western canon and the study of the classics as a matter of curricular policy, Hook criticized the longing for a return to Plato as simplistic and philosophically naive. From his pragmatist point of view, truth is not fixed and unchanging; it is fallible, situated in history, and open to revision.

Beyond the cold-war debates, other panels at the CUNY conference revealed the wide range of Hook's thought. In his talk, Mr. Schlesinger called Hook's The Hero in History (1943) a "first-rate contribution to the philosophy of history." Stephen M. Cahn, a professor of philosophy at the CUNY graduate center, described Hook as a "profound educational philosopher" (Hook's works on the subject include the 1969 book Academic Freedom and Academic Anarchy). Other talks explored Hook's writings on practical ethics, re-examining his defense of euthanasia; his contribution to the philosophy of law in his 1962 book The Paradoxes of Freedom; his commitment to scientific naturalism and secular humanism; and his various writings on the philosophy of democracy. In his much-anticipated talk, Mr. West examined Hook's sense of the tragic, which the philosopher explored in his 1960 essay "Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life."

The Next Generation

The relative youth of many contemporary Hook scholars suggests that the renewed interest in the philosopher will not soon fade away. Christopher Phelps, the author of the first book-length study of Hook's work, Young Sidney Hook: Marxist and Pragmatist (Cornell University Press, 1997), is a 37-year-old assistant professor of history at Ohio State University at Mansfield. Mr. Phelps has also fought successfully to get Hook's early books on Marxism reissued, and contributed introductions to both From Hegel to Marx (Columbia University Press, 1994) and Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx (Prometheus, October). The three main organizers of the CUNY conference -- Mr. Talisse, Mr. Tempio, and Matthew Cotter, a graduate student in history at the CUNY graduate center -- are even younger (32, 27, and 32, respectively). They got an overwhelming response, they say, when they began to invite people to participate in the conference.

Less than five years ago, in 1998, Mr. Kurtz and some of his colleagues tried to organize a conference to mark the 10th anniversary of Hook's death. They were unable to generate enough interest to pull it off. Some conference participants wondered if the recent revival of interest in pragmatism occasioned by Mr. Menand's wildly successful The Metaphysical Club might have helped this time -- although Hook is not discussed in it.

Mr. Talisse speculates that the more distance there is from the cold war, the better positioned scholars are to re-evaluate the work of one of the fiercest combatants on its intellectual frontlines.