The Good Fight

Philosophy and Public Policy.
by Sidney Hook.
Southern Illinois University Press. 288 pp. $17.50.

The earliest essays in this collection date back to 1945, while the latest include scathing attacks on such current follies as reverse discrimination in university admissions and hiring practices. Taken as a whole, the volume offers the reader an overview of almost 35 years of the public career of Sidney Hook as a thinker and as a political polemicist. Whatever else one may say of that career, its sheer energy and intensity compel admiration. A selection like this, however, is bound to pose difficulties of evaluation, as the twenty-one essays were written in different times and places, for different audiences, and in a variety of contexts. Perhaps the best way to approach such a book is in terms of the diversity and unity it exhibits.

The diversity manifests itself primarily in the range of topics Hook is able to discuss with competence and even ease. The “public policy” to which the title refers covers both domestic and foreign policy of almost every kind. Thus one can learn here about the problems of our involvement in Vietnam; the dangers posed by Soviet imperialism; the difficulties India faces as well as the probability of Vinoba Bhave’s lasting impact on that troubled land—and much else. Hook feels equally at home with the analysis of Supreme Court decisions, the debate concerning the proper balance between freedom and other goods, the exposition of John Dewey’s philosophy, and the subtleties of criminal law. He discusses with aplomb the writing and actions of such diverse figures as Justice Douglas, Leon Trotsky, T. S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Lillian Hellman, Arnold Toynbee, and Alger Hiss.

Notwithstanding its variety, Philosophy and Public Policy also demonstrates great unity. To begin with, Hook speaks with a voice unmistakable and unique. I am not referring to the manner of his writing: he is always clear and always employs language that does the job, but even his most fervent admirers would hesitate to call him a great stylist. The voice is a trademark, rather, because it consistently manifests certain qualities of mind and heart.

The predominant characteristic is probably moral courage. Fittingly enough, Hook admires it whenever he finds it in others, and bemoans its absence in many places where it is sorely needed, especially our universities. And Hook himself embodies the virtue he praises. At a time when it was dangerous to an intellectual’s reputation to do so, he defended Trotsky against Stalin’s false accusations, though his mind remained free of subservience to Trotsky’s dogmatic Marxism. He took on Arnold Toynbee when the latter was basking in well-nigh universal acclaim. And he has in recent years been among the most relentless critics of reverse discrimination, refusing to be intimidated by accusations of racism and sexism. He is not always right but he is always willing to state his views and to suffer the consequences of his outspokenness. Such consequences have included long periods of virtual ostracism from the intellectual community whose fundamental values he has upheld while taking vigorous issue with some of its passing enthusiasms.

But one has not characterized Sidney Hook precisely enough by pointing to his courage alone. He is not only happy to state his convictions; he loves to argue them. This book is, as it were, stained with blood he has drawn, for he is a born debater and a formidable adversary. Though he has set up tough rules which he thinks should be followed in disputations—in an essay entitled “The Ethics of Controversy,” which attempts to banish Mc-Carthyism from the life of the mind—and almost always adheres to them, he also knows how to use a whole arsenal of weapons against positions he detests. Hook is masterful at spotting shoddy logic and a genius at introducing a telling historical detail. For example, in dealing with the fallibility of political judgment among philosophers, he mentions that Whitehead, Russell, Dewey, and Santayana all hailed the Munich settlement of 1938; disposing of Lillian Hellman’s disingenuousness on the Communist issue, he is able to throw in for good measure the all but forgotten fact that when Joseph McCarthy first ran for the Senate he was supported by the Communist party.



In the last analysis, however, what makes Hook effective is neither his skill as a debater nor his imposing fund of knowledge, but rather the comprehensive and thoughtful view of politics and public affairs which he has developed over the years. No all-embracing “system” of politics adorns—or encumbers—these pages, but the positions Hook articulates are all of one cloth.

Sidney Hook is a social democrat who thinks of democracy as much more than majority rule; it is, rather, a way of life and a moral phenomenon. And he believes that the superiority of the values of democracy can be established objectively. This, for him, is in fact the major task of philosophy, which must steer the difficult course between a relativistic skepticism that leads to nihilism and an abstract doctrinalism that leads inevitably to fanatical intolerance.

The democracy Hook supports is not, according to him, tied to any particular economic system. He continually distinguishes between the political and economic spheres, insisting on the primacy of the former in all decisive respects. He thus maintains that a good deal of socialism is compatible with a good deal of democracy, so long as proper safeguards for a private sector are maintained and the country takes care to balance goods that may conflict with each other.

The notion of balancing informs much of Hook’s political thinking, especially his prudent and judicious assessment of liberty. He understands that freedom is enhanced rather than diminished by law, and that it must be balanced by due regard for other goods. The right to heresy is almost sacred to him, but when speech spills over into deeds calculated to overthrow legitimate regimes, when it curdles into conspiracy, a society has a right to curb it. Similarly, a love of justice must at times be balanced against the need for survival, the rights of criminals weighed against the rights of victims, and even truth-telling balanced against the imperatives of kindness.

The United States lives up to some, though by no means all, of the standards for a good society entailed by the above views. On balance, Hook’s America is not a utopia but a country worth respecting, improving—and defending by war if need be. He has little patience with those who deny the usefulness and justice of our opposition to Soviet totalitarianism simply because we have domestic vices to combat. After all, these did not detract from either the necessity or the correctness of our fight against Hitler.


When one is done agreeing with much or all of Hook’s practical political positions, and admiring his devotion to them, one remains curiously uncertain whether one has understood Hook in the way he wishes to be understood. This is because of the philosophy in Philosophy and Public Policy. Hook asserts that his essays “illustrate the application of a philosophical standpoint commonly called pragmatism” or, better, “experimental naturalism.” One must doubt that they do. Rather, a series of arguments like these could be produced by a shrewd and humane man of any philosophical persuasion. Hook appears at his most disappointing when he dons the robe of the philosopher. Even his references to other philosophers such as Hobbes and Marx—the latter praised for his “democratic ethos”—tend to be dubious.

What is more important, the philosophical foundations for some of Hook’s major contentions seem rather shaky. Consider, for example, his arguments in favor of human rights. Hook tries to show that these rights are more than arbitrary suppositions, but what is their ultimate ground? He refuses to derive them from any “presuppositions about the nature of man,” nor does he think they stem from a divine source (Hook, indeed, appears to be a bit tone-deaf when it comes to the music of the spheres). To avoid caprice, he resorts to John Dewey’s notion that we can judge human rights and other values objectively because actions have consequences. But he never informs us how we are to achieve or formulate the standards by which to assess those consequences. It is hard to see how Hook avoids the problems that beset the ethics of his mentor, Dewey, whose stature as a thinker he probably overestimates.

To be sure, Hook has written a number of books dealing with the problems I have raised. Besides, it may not in the end matter all that much whether or not one agrees with his philosophy. Hook himself admires Solzhenitsyn, whose ontology he deplores. In like manner, those of us who are not experimental naturalists can be grateful to Hook for the good fight he has waged for so many years against the forces of intellectual and political darkness, and is waging still today at the age of seventy-eight.

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