Sidney Hook

Sidney Hook (20 December 1902–12 July 1989)

Today is the 119th anniversary of the birth of Sidney Hook (20 December 1902–12 July 1989), who was born on this date in 1902.

It is interesting to note that the Wikipedia entry for Sidney Hook explicitly identifies him as a philosopher of history, while other philosophers who had more to say about history are not so identified, but that is neither here nor there. Like many intellectuals of his generation, Hook went through a Marxist period, and while he eventually became critical of Marxism, the influence of Marx remained in his thought. Also typical of many intellectuals in his generation, he was politically involved and engaged, entering into contemporary controversies through articles in newspapers and magazines.

Sidney Hook edited a volume of conference proceedings for a philosophy of history gathering, Philosophy and History: A Symposium, published in 1963. His contribution to the symposium was “Objectivity and Reconstruction in History,” which opens with this paragraph:

“No matter what the upshot of our theoretical analysis of history turns out to be, historical judgment will continue to serve as a mainstay of our daily life. For our experience would be an incoherent extravaganza, without confidence in our memory; and memory is a primal form of historical judgment. Even when our memory turns out to be false, what we imagine the past to have been is a ground of belief as well as a cause of expectation. In this sense our very reliance upon natural events and regularities depends upon some historical memory. Nor can we plan for the future intelligently without assuming that we are in possession of some knowledge about the past.”

One essay in Hook’s The Question for Being is titled “The New Failure of Nerve,” which references Gilbert Murray’s classic work Five Stages of Greek Religion (the first edition was Four Stages of Greek Religion). Murray diagnosed a “failure of nerve” in late antiquity that led the peoples of that time to neglect public affairs in favor of private salvation. To set a sense of what Murray wanted to critique, read the famous Funeral Oration of Pericles in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, and compare the attitudes expressed by Pericles to the attitudes expressed by the early Christian writers. The contrast is palpable. Hook thought that he saw signs in a new failure of nerve in his time, and in this essay he concludes thus:

“The new failure of nerve in contemporary culture is compounded of unwarranted hopes and unfounded beliefs. It is a desperate quest for a quick and all-inclusive faith that will save us from the trouble of thinking about difficult problems. These hopes, beliefs and faiths pretend to a knowledge which is not knowledge and to a superior insight not responsible to the checks of intelligence. The more fervently they are held the more complete will be their failure. Out of them will grow a disillusion in the possibility of intelligent human effort so profound that even if Hitler is defeated, the blight of totalitarianism may rot the culture of his enemies.”

Much of this essay is a critique of the work of Reinhold Niebuhr. In the middle of the twentieth century Niebuhr was a force to be reckoned with, being perhaps the most influential theologian to write on the philosophy of history. (William Dray’s widely available textbook Philosophy of History devotes a chapter to Niebuhr.) Hook’s Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life includes another essay critiquing Niebuhr, “The Moral Vision of Reinhold Niebuhr.” This book also includes two essays of particular relevance to the philosophy of history, “Intelligence and Evil in Human History” and “On Historical Understanding.” The latter reads like a review of Popper’s The Poverty of Historicism (which is perhaps how it was originally published), and the essay leads with an epigraph from a different work by Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies:

“Indeed, it is necessary to recognize as one of the principles of any unprejudiced view of politics that everything is possible in human affairs.”

Of this epigraph Hook wrote:

“…one of the marks of sanity is the realization that not everything can happen in nature. Wishes cannot be ridden like horses and pious thoughts cannot turn away flying missiles. If it is false that everything can happen in nature, it is also false that everything can happen in human affairs because all human affairs depend upon regularities in natural affairs. We must therefore conclude it is one of the principles of any sane view of politics to disbelieve that everything is possible in human affairs. And Popper himself in his less splenetic moods must agree with this. For otherwise everything he says about the desirability and practicability of piecemeal social engineering is nonsense.”

One can read in Hook’s engagements with Popper and Niebuhr his forthright approach to problems in the philosophy of history that touch on practical issues of the day in which everyone feels they have a certain stake. In this sense, Hook’s philosophy of history is what I have previously called a practical philosophy of history.

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