Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Sidney Hook Recanonized (1)

I'd have to think twice about wasting a dollar on Sidney Hook, so I got a friend to buy Sidney Hook Reconsidered (edited by Matthew J. Cotter, afterword by Richard Rorty; Prometheus Books, 2004) for me for $6.98. It is a deeply reactionary book, with the final section devoted to reminiscences, the worst puff pieces of the book. The sticking point with Hook is of course Hook's redbaiting and his move ever farther to the right as the decades wore on. By and large this is acknowledged but with outright endorsement or nuanced defense.

For example, in "Politics and Dogmas: Hook's Basic Ideals," Robert B. Talisse emphasizes distinctions in Hook's position on purging Communist Party members from teaching and other positions, but defending the warranted assertability of Hook's assumption that the Communist Party was intent on overthrowing American democracy and that members by signing on to it could be presumed to be following Moscow's alleged marching orders (p. 124)

Much of the book is obnoxious. Paul Kurtz, instrumental in making a hero of Sidney Hook, is vacuous as ever. Rorty is as bad or worse than usual.  This whole book reminds me of the backwardness of the American secularist movement. What has changed is that what remains of that generation is dying off, and hence its preoccupations.

Informative at least is David Sidorsky's "Introduction: Charting the Intellectual Career of Sidney Hook: Five Major Steps." The five steps are pragmatism, Marxism, anticommunism, neoconservativism, and Enlightenment naturalism. Sidorsky gives an account of Hook's epistemological perspective of his 1927 The Metaphysics of Pragmatism, but one must go to the work itself to get whatever genuine substance there is. Some account of Hook's Marxist phase is given, and his transformation at the end of the 1930s facing the twin evils of Hitler and Stalin.

I see almost no value to Hook after his Marxist period was over, with the exception of defending secularism ("The New Failure of Nerve," etc.) under attack by the religious revival of the early 1940s and the feudal nostalgia of Mortimer Adler and company and the attempt to turn the clock back at the University of Chicago. I see no reason as yet to revise this assessment. Just from reading the barebones account here, I gather that Hook found himself at the dead end at the end of the '30s as so many leftists found themselves a decade later, when the practical choices apparently foisted on them were Washington and Moscow. Hook's dissatisfaction not merely with Stalinism but also with Trotskyism apparently left him little room to maneuver. His defense of free inquiry and democracy, the supposed basis of his subsequent development, proceeded on a very thin basis. The platitudes of pragmatism don't seem to have gotten him very far.

One interesting fact: Hook split with James Burnham not over their shared anticommunism, but on the issue of McCarthy's hijacking of the anticommunist cause (46). I guess this makes Hook look better, as Sidorsky ends up justifying Hook's anticommunist crusade. Hook did remain an advocate of democratic socialism, or more accurately, social democracy (welfare state liberalism).

Hook's neoconservatism was political, not economic or religious, in reaction to the New Left of the 1960s, especially in the universities. By 1975 he abandoned his residual loyalty to the ideas of Marx, and became concerned with the alleged excesses of egalitarianism in the academy. Sidorsky's account of multiculturalism as forced group consensus, thus justifying Hook's position, is rather dubious and the wrong basis on which to attack the tacit ideological basis of multiculturalism. The ideal of free inquiry notwithstanding, in practice how many academics are free of prevailing intellectual trends in their institutions whatever their philosophical or political loyalties?

Whatever else changed, Hook remained steadfast in his advocacy of Enlightenment naturalism.

Sidorsky ends by recounting an exchange of letters with Hook, who accepted a criticism, days before his death. He recounts a couple of other examples of Hook's teaching.  Hook's life of being perpetually "out of step" with prevailing trends is vindicated.

Thus the tone is set for the insipid boosterism that follows.