Sidney Hook

An Unquiet Life, Part I

VTR Date: June 6, 1987

Guest: Hook, Sidney


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Sidney Hook
Title: “An Unquiet Life” Part I
VTR: 6/6/87

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Man thinking — that noble Rodinesque posture — will ever be the delight, the glory, of human beings… more important, of being human. In my lifetime, no one has ever better represented for me at least that fulfillment of man’s potential than my dear and honored teacher nearly a half-century ago, Columbia’s great logician and philosopher of science, Ernest Nagel. And it was he one day, in his ever kindly, studiously quiet, wonderfully patient manner, who suggested that perhaps even I (intellectually unsophisticated kid that I was) might better understand some now long forgotten philosophic point if I observed it being made at a public lecture that very night — made much more aggressively, more explosively, perhaps even a bit outrageously, and surely much more in keeping with whatever public, political controversy was then strenuously dividing America’s intellectual community — by Nagel’s good friend: NYU philosopher Sidney Hook, who today, and next week too, is my guest on THE OPEN MIND.

Now I was taken aback by what I heard and saw that night. The shy, tentative, questioning Nagel was much more my cup of tea. For in my guest’s long, long lifetime of brilliantly and vitally translating key philosophic issues into immediately pressing, practical, public political choices, no one would ever accuse Sidney Hook of hiding his light — or his thoughts about all sorts and kinds of controversial contemporary questions. As Nagel said about him just twenty years ago, Sidney Hook isn’t like the specialist “who finds problems nobody is interested in.” And he doesn’t do so now, in his still often outrageously direct and aggressive Harper and Row autobiography, “Out of Step.”.. so clearly showing him still out of step with most of the intellectual rigidities of our century, with the thinking-less orthodoxies of right and left alike… ever the man not of ritual, but of reason… agree with that reason or not. One further note. Reminding us that Senaca observed, “the wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can,” octogenarian Hook recently used his own near death a few years ago as an argument in defense of voluntary euthanasia, “When life”, as he wrote, “has become qualitatively unworthy of living.”.. an argument that “Life for the sake of life” is not much more rational than “art for the sake of art”, science for science’s sake, religion for religion’s sake,” and so on. “Life is indeed worth living”, he argued, “but only so long as it makes possible something more valuable than life itself.” Well, like all of Sidney Hook’s viewpoints, that notion stirred up much debate, and if we don’t get to discuss it this week, we will next. So welcome here, Professor Hook, and you know, I made so incredibly many notes as I read Out of Step that as I went this morning to try to think through what I was going to ask you about, I just have too many things. But I know that fifteen years ago, when you retired from NYU, you said you would title your autobiography eventually, Out of Step, as you have. “I’ve always been out of step,” you said. And I wonder why that is such a source of pleasure and pride.

Hook: Well, I’m not sure whether it is. If I wanted to phrase it differently, I might say that I was a step ahead. But it is true that from the very outset of my career I found myself defending positions which were regarded as heretical. And not merely heretical, but as dangerous. So that in my own experience the First World War played a decisive role. And as a comparatively young man, all of fifteen, on the basis of my early Socialist faith, but also on the basis of what seems to me available evidence, I had come to the conclusion that the First World War was a conflict that wasn’t worth fighting and it fundamentally represented an opposition between two camps, one a little more civilized than the other, but certainly not sufficient.


Heffner: If you were to bring that notion up to date. Between East and West, would you feel the same way?

Hook: Quite different, quite differently. Now… I’m always tempted at this point to quote Santayana’s famous dictum, “those who fail to remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” and then point out the weakness of that dictum. Namely, those who always remember the past do not recognize the genuine differences in the future.

Heffner: Are you talking about our attitudes towards Viet Nam, perhaps?

Hook: Partly that, but I’m talking about our attitudes towards the Second World War. The Second World War was quite different from the First World War. Now I came to sort of self-consciousness during the days of the First World War, which I opposed. The United States entered that war. And I had to take the brunt of popular ostracism and their physical abuse. When I think back to those days when I was called pro-German because I thought that the First World War to be negotiated, I never dreamed that I would live to look back at that period and say, “well suppose the First World War had been negotiated between the Wilhelmine Empire and the British Empire. What kind of a world would we have?” It couldn’t have been worse than the world that took place. Because of the consequence of the First World War, we had Lenin in Russia. We had Mussolini in ltaly and we had Hitler in Germany.

Heffner: But when you say we had Lenin in the Soviet Union. As I read the book and as I remember Hook from those years, you were, yourself, a Socialist and there is a part of your book here in which you ask the question about what responsibility you must take for luring some people into communism.

Hook: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. And I must accept the responsibility. But it is all related to the First World War. And the senseless slaughter from 1914 to 1917. And when the Russian Revolution took place, there was a hope that peace would be established and there would be no longer any war. Now there have been three great disillusionments in my life. And the first great disillusionment is involved in the hope I had that with the birth of what seemed to be a Socialist commonwealth, that would be the end of war. Because we interpreted the First World War as a conflict of imperialist rivalries. What we never dreamed… what we first welcomed, the February Revolution in which the Czar was overthrown and then the October Revolution when the Bolsheviks came to power, we never dreamed that the promise of peace and democracy which inspired us would be transformed into a totalitarian despotism that was worse than anything that had existed previously in history.

Heffner: You feel the seed of that development were not found deep in the Marxist writings that you interpreted for so many Americans?


Hook: No. It may have been a kind of naivete. But we interpreted socialism when I was young as really… as an extension of the liberal faith. We thought that socialism meant that the ideals of democracy would be extended to all areas of human life. And even today when someone asks me, “do you still regard yourself as a Socialist?” I say, “well, if you permit me to define socialism.” Than I would define it in Deweyan terms, as a belief in democracy as a way of life. But let me point out that in the early years, and I’m talking now of pre-World War I, when we spoke of socialism, we conceived it as the collective ownership and democratic control of the needs of production. Now we were very ignorant about economics. We assumed that the ideals of democracy could readily be applied to other areas where problems of production were not very realistic to us. But you see… and I’m sure it’s not only true of the United States but in Western Europe, many people who were part of the liberal tradition though of socialism as a fulfillment of that, as an extension of the liberal tradition. And a great disillusionment occurred when it turned out that we thought would be a new birth of human liberty was transformed into a totalitarian despotism.

Heffner: Of course, a reporter once asked Franklin Roosevelt what he was. He said, “Mr. President, you’re not a communist, you’re not a fascist, etc., what are you?” And he said, a Christian and a democrat,” with small “d” in that instance. What do you respond when someone asks you, “Professor Hook, what are you? Where do you put yourself in the political spectrum?”

Hook: Today?

Heffner: Today.

Hook: I characterize myself as a social democrat today. With emphasis upon the democratic aspects. Now when Roosevelt called himself a democrat with a small “d”, at that time he also included the southern democrats. Now at that time, when Roosevelt called himself a democrat, I was supporting Norman Thomas and Norman Thomas in his development gradually came to the conclusion that the economic problem of a program of the New Deal was the program which was part of the socialist program. You must remember that when I was young, there was no such thing as Social Security or unemployment insurance. And that the welfare state, as it exists today, to us would have been a fulfillment of socialism.

Heffner: And do you think it has been a fulfillment?

Hook: Up to a point, it hasn’t gone far enough. There are still a great many people who are left out of the aspects of welfare. That is to say, the welfare state is not a state which Marx did not anticipate, just as he did not anticipate fascism and did not anticipate communism in its present form. So the welfare state is really the beginning of the desirable state which I define as a whole, as democracy as a way of life.

Heffner: Now, when you say that, today, and when this program is seen and seen again and seen again…

Hook: Yes.

Heffner: …I wonder what the reaction will be of those people who will say, “well, Sidney Hook is a conservative. Over these past years I think of Sidney Hook as a conservative.” What are we doing to them?

Hook: Well, those people who use that ‘term are using the term not as an epithet of description but as an epithet of denunciation. When people refer to me as a conservative, I ask them… within what respect, what programs? Now when I was young and liberal and socialist, I believed that everybody ought to be rewarded on the basis of his individual achievement and merit, regardless of his race, religion, sex or national origin.

Heffner: And you still do, I’ll bet.


Hook: And I still do, and this is what affirmative action in its original sense meant. But today people say, “oh, no, that’s not enough.” You must believe not merely… you must oppose not merely discrimination, you must be in favor of reverse discrimination, you must judge people on the basis of their membership in groups. And I say, “oh, no, we always opposed that. Liberalism opposed that.” Roy Wilkins who is secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, seized on a phrase that Justice Harlan in a dissenting decision in Plessy v. Ferguson said, he says, “justice should be colorblind.” Now that’s the liberal position. To my astonishment that today the current Chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has said, to believe that justice should be colorblind is stupidity, you have to be attentive to color and make up for it regardless of individual achievement and merit. So I would maintain that I sill hold to the liberal position. Another illustration…

Heffner: Wait a minute… let me ask you a question. Have you as an historian…

Hook: Yes?

Heffner: …and you are an historian, no concern then for the hundreds of years of what Lincoln called unrequited toil and the impact of that toil.

Hook: I have every, every concern and I believe that society ought to go out of its way to remedy the situation where individuals have been deprived of the opportunity to achieve a proper place in life. But what I’m saying is after we are through with this remedial action, there should be one standard which applies to everyone. Now let’s…

Heffner: When do you think we’ll be through?

Hook: Now look, when I was young there used to be discrimination against young men and women of Jewish origin. When we went to college we knew that our prospects of employment were diminished when it was discovered that we were not of Anglo-Saxon origin. Now we were a minority. What did we request? All that we requested is that we be judged by the same standards as others. And actually that was the liberal position. Let’s take the case now of Jackie Robinson. There was terrible discrimination against Jackie Robinson in organized athletics. But after the bars were dropped, we said the positions grow to those who are best qualified.

Hook: Well you don’t hear about quota systems in basketball teams, do you? Or quota systems in baseball teams. You say, the best players get the jobs. And now we say, if that’s true, we ought to apply the same principles elsewhere. Abolish discrimination and provide remedial training for those who are suffering from the consequences of past discrimination. There are very few people who are a hundred years old though and are suffering from the past discrimination. But apply one standard. Today I know of young white men who cannot even get an interview at a college because they’re told directly and indirectly that there has to be a certain number of members of minorities or numbers of women who are to be judged and some of the people have had to change their careers.

Heffner: You recognize, of course, that there are strong positions contrary to your own. And I don’t want to belabor the point…

Hook: Well, no, no, I recognize that they are positions, but I think they cannot be defended on liberal grounds. Now we talked about the term conservatism. Now I maintain that I’m upholding a liberal tradition. To give you another illustration. I am a strong believer in the doctrine of judicial restraint. During the thirties, all the liberals believed that. Today, to my astonishment, I find people who regard themselves as liberal maintaining that the court should play an active role over and above the lead of Congress on the ground that very often the majority may be mistaken. Of course, the majority may be mistaken. But I point out as a Democrat and as a liberal, I always thought that the appeal from an unenlightened majority must be made to an enlightened majority and to an enlightened minority. And this was the view of Justice Holmes, of Brandeis, of Cardozo, of Frankfurter and in that sense, I hold, I still hold to that liberal doctrine. Although I am denounced today by those who think that Justice Brenner and some of the professors in the Harvard Law School, like Professor Tribe, represent the liberal tradition. I said no, they do not. I represent the Jeffersonian tradition which is democratic and liberal. And I do not know why that should be called conservative, except it gives people more satisfaction in dubbing me a conservative rather than meeting my arguments.


Heffner: John Corry in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago said that I would sooner crawl under this black table cloth than interrupt a guest, but I’m going to because I want to move on to so many other things. You said, in 1972 that a fetishism of action has become a substitute for prolonged concern for ideas. You were basically talking about the campus. And yet, as I read Out of Step, I read about Sidney Hook and all of his friends being so incredibly much involved in political action when they were very, very young men and women. And I wondered how did you find time for anything other than all that action? The organizing, the disorganizing?

Hook: Those were extracurricular. My political activities took place outside as a student and as a teacher, outside the campus. But even when we were young radicals, we strongly believed in reason. We thought the university is a place where the winds of doctrine should blow freely. And now we find, to our astonishment, that today there is very little free speech on American campuses compared to the kind of free speech that existed in the past. That a very small minority of students, abetted by a passive faculty will not permit speakers whose positions they disapprove of, even to present their point of view. Why we would invite those with whom we disagreed to present their point of view, so that we can engage in a give and take of discussion with them. And to my astonishment, I find that students will prevent individuals from speaking, of whom they disapprove. And this is a transformation which is sickening to me. Because it means the politicalization of the American university.

Heffner: Yes, but you say politicalization and again Out of Step is a story of a college career that was totally, completely politicized.

Hook: Oh, no, no. I think you misunderstand what I’ve written if you interpret it that way. My… I have no objection to any individual acting politically. What I’m objecting to is the politicalization of the campus, of the ciriculum. The prevention of people from speaking because you disagree with their point of view. We never prevented anybody from speaking, we encouraged them to speak, so we would have an opportunity to debate with them. But what I’m criticizing today are students who will prevent speakers from presenting their position if they disagree with them.

Heffner: Of course the students aren’t alone. They are obviously supported by their faculty to some large extent.

Hook: Then, all the worse for the faculties.

Heffner: Well, but don’t…

Hook: Then the faculty’s responsible and actually, in the last analysis I hold the faculties responsible for the deteriorated state of intellectual freedom on American… campuses of American universities because the faculties do not enforce those disciplinary rules which were worked out in common with the students during the ‘60s. My gracious, if anybody reads the records of what happened on the universities of this country during the ‘60s, they can no longer accept the view that the universities today are institutions where the winds of doctrine blow freely.


Heffner: That’s why I come to the point that you make at the end of your book, in the chapter called “Reaffirmation.” You say, “why then do I feel that I am not at the end of my journey”? Partly because perhaps it is my passionate curiosity about how things will turn out, especially whether the open society will survive the assaults of its enemies within and without.” Now just between the two of us, what is your bet, how do you think the open society will fare?

Hook: I am very pessimistic but I believe we have to go down fighting for freedom. And our resolution will increase the probabilities of the survival of free society. That is my hope and faith.

Heffner: But it’s not your prediction. Why are you so…

Hook: If I had to bet…

Heffner: Yeah…

Hook: If I had to bet…

Heffner: Right, that’s what I mean.

Hook: If I had to bet, I would say the odds are against me because I find, as the years go by, there are fewer and fewer individuals who are prepared to take this position that I hold in defense of freedom.

Hook: As I look at what happens at commencements today or last year or even tomorrow, I discover that the faculties will play safe, making awards to individuals whom the students will approve of. The individuals who are unpopular are no longer recognized for their intellectual merit. Jeane Kirkpatrick, for example, offered an honorary degree in many institutions and refused to accept them because of evidences of opposition on the part of students and faculty.

Heffner: You know, we’ve come to the end of our time for this program and some time we’ve got to talk further and you promised to stay at the table and we’ll do another program for next week.

Hook: Yes.

Heffner: Sometime we’ve got to talk about the reluctance to bite the bullet and be pessimistic. Until next time, thank you very much for joining me today, Sidney Hook.

Hook: Oh, thank you.

Heffner: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope that you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, please send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and the New York Times Company Foundation.