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The Relevance of Sidney Hook Today
Reflections from the Centennial Conference

by Robert B. Talisse, Robert Tempio, Matthew J. Cotter

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 23, Number 1.

Some two hundred philosophers, historians, academics, intellectuals, journalists, students, and citizens gathered on October 25 and 26, 2002, at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in Manhattan to celebrate the centennial of Sidney Hook and to re-examine his work.

The conference was organized into six sessions, each focusing on a different aspect of Hook’s life and thought, ranging from Hook’s philosophical development and place in American intellectual history to his secular humanism, philosophy of education, and political theory. By all accounts, “Sidney Hook Reconsidered: A Centennial Celebration” was a resounding success: the sessions were well attended, the presentations were, on the whole, stimulating, and the discourse was civil yet penetrating. It was, in the estimation of one distinguished participant, “worth every second.”

As the principal organizers, we were especially gratified by the success of the event, for it seemed at many points in the past year that, despite our collective efforts, there would not be a Sidney Hook centennial conference. In addition to the well-publicized and unfortunate protest of Cornel West’s involvement by a few prominent neo-conservatives who had agreed to participate, our task was frustrated at various stages by funding difficulties, personality conflicts among participants, and last-minute program changes. Perhaps it is fitting that the very organization of a conference on Hook should be fraught with controversy and conflict. It is certainly apt that organizing a conference celebrating a great pragmatist philosopher should require endurance and cooperation. In the final analysis, we feel that the resulting conference made our efforts worthwhile.

The weekend featured many highlights. Philosopher David Sidorsky of Columbia University opened the conference with an stimulating survey of “five major steps” of Hook’s intellectual development. Nathan Glazer, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Tibor Machan, and Neil Jumonville offered intriguing and conflicting visions of the legacy of Sidney Hook, whereas Paul Kurtz and Barbara Forrest  each focused on Hook’s philosophical commitment to pragmatic naturalism and its implications for the current political scene. Steven Cahn and Ed Shapiro reminded us of Hook’s unflagging commitment to education both as an educator and as a philosopher of education who defended the indispensability of a liberal education in a free society. Cornel West’s warmly inspired portrait of Hook as the first “tragic-comic” pragmatist provided a suitable backdrop for the closing session in which Michael Eldridge, Gary Bullert, Leonard Bushkoff, and Cornelie Kunkat engaged questions of Hook’s political successes and failures through the Cold War.  Many presentations were met with challenges from the audience that often mixed anecdotes and remembrances of Hook with insightful points of philosophical and historical significance.

William James identified pragmatism as a forward-looking doctrine. So much, then, for recounting the scene. Now that we have devoted a full weekend to thinking and arguing about the life, thought, and legacy of Sidney Hook, what have we learned? The fact is that there were many lessons learned in the course of the weekend, and several important insights were offered. We shall therefore have to fix upon those that are most fundamental to understanding the relevance of Hook today.

More than one presentation emphasized Hook’s Socratic nature both in the classroom and out. Like Socrates, Hook was, first and foremost, an inquirer; again like Socrates, Hook was a public inquirer, a public intellectual in the fullest sense.  Hook’s unquiet life provides compelling testimony to the demands and risks of the life of public inquiry. As proper inquiry requires one to follow the evidence and arguments where they lead, the inquirer must always be prepared to change one’s mind or revise one’s position in light of the persistent stream of new data and further considerations to which all thinking is subject. However, given the urgency that often accompanies questions of public policy and political judgment, one cannot wait until all the relevant facts are surveyed before making a judgment. In this way, proper inquiry is experimental in two related senses. First, inquiry is experimental in that it appeals to data and evidence in producing beliefs; second, inquiry is experimental in that its conclusions are tentative, and thus always seen as more or less well-confirmed hypotheses. Accordingly, proper public inquiry is an ongoing self-corrective enterprise of confronting new problems, gathering new evidence, and considering new arguments in the perpetual project of revising old beliefs and forming new ones. Hence public inquiry often involves some degree of risk: we must gather the evidence as best we can in the time we have, and then act, knowing always that our understanding is at best partial and that our conclusions are at best hypotheses subject to revision or refutation in the light of future experience.

Hook saw clearly that inquiry, even at its best, was no guarantee of success in public affairs. The most conscientious inquirer with access to the fullest set of relevant data and given time to consider matters to a sufficient degree may yet err. As Dewey taught, the world is constituted by a mixture of precarious and stable elements, which can frustrate even the best of efforts and intentions. However, the lack of assurance that inquiry will succeed is, according to Hook, no reason to abandon inquiry; lack of certainty is no excuse for a failure of nerve. Hook maintained that in a world of contingency, experimental inquiry is the best means we have for attaining knowledge of the world and the wisdom necessary for our actions within it.

Hook’s pragmatism thus stands between optimism and pessimism, but incorporates elements of both. Experimental inquiry cannot promise certainty, but holds out the hope for progress in the form of piecemeal ameliorations of present evils. Yet this hope is always accompanied by the realization that the precarious, risky, and, indeed, evil elements of the world are ultimately inexorable. The pragmatist hence aims to not be so dazzled by the possibility for progress as to become complacent and quietist, yet also to not be paralyzed by or despair at the prospect of a confrontation with evil in which there can be no final victory. The pragmatist maintains this middle position between optimism and pessimism by entering the fray of public controversy; it is only through the perpetual engagement in public inquiry that one can avoid both complacency and paralysis.

Some mistakenly propose to evaluate Hook’s life as a public intellectual in terms of the conclusions of his inquiries, the positions he adopted and defended at particular times and in particular contexts. Taken in this way, Hook’s career is, like Dewey’s, a mixed bag of many incredibly astute judgments and some mistakes. Any quick survey of Hook’s career can reveal the apparent lapses of judgment and other errors for which Hook is, in some circles, notorious. However, a proper evaluation of Hook must focus not simply on the conclusions he reached, but the reasons he offered in support of those conclusions. That is, any responsible estimation of Hook as a political thinker must examine Hook’s record as a public inquirer. By this pragmatic measure, Hook’s life stands as an inspiring image of success, for success consists precisely in the activity of political engagement by means of public inquiry. Despite what some would consider his political mistakes, one will not find in Hook a refusal to argue, a reluctance to listen to an opposing view, or an unwillingness to reconsider his own position in light of countervailing considerations. 

It is this image of Hook as the public inquirer that strikes us as most relevant today. It is not uncommon to hear that our democracy is faltering. Recent studies of voter nonparticipation and voter ignorance confirm the suspicion that all is not well with democracy. Diagnoses and solutions are on offer from across the political spectrum. Some locate the source of our civic malaise in the country’s loss of religion, others point to the corrupting influence of corporate money and global capitalism, still others blame the “liberal” media, while some cite the power of the Religious Right. Questions concerning the state of our democracy are complex and difficult; there are

no quick fixes and no easy answers. Our current mode of democratic politics, which is focused on horse-race contests between the slick sound-bytes and audience-tested platforms of our major parties, is unfit to confront the current crisis in American democracy. What is needed is more critical inquiry, and more Socratic engagement on the part of citizens. In this way, Sidney Hook remains for us today an inspiring example of democratic citizenship.

Robert B. Talisse is a professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee; Robert Tempio is an independent scholar; and Matthew J. Cotter is studying for his Ph.D. in history at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

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