Sidney Hook

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Western philosophy
20th-century philosophy
Name: Sidney Hook
Birth: December 20, 1902
New York
Death: July 12, 1989 (aged 86)
Stanford, California
School/tradition: Pragmatism
Marxism (early)
Main interests
Political philosophy, Philosophy of education
Notable ideas
Ethics of controversy
Influences Influenced
John Dewey, Morris Raphael Cohen, Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell Paul Kurtz, Morris Janowitz, Cornel West, Lionel Trilling,[1] Barbara Branden

Sidney Hook (December 20, 1902 – July 12, 1989) was an American philosopher in the school of pragmatism, known for his contributions to the philosophy of history, the philosophy of education, political theory, and ethics. After embracing communism in his youth, Hook was later known for his criticisms of totalitarianism, both fascism and Marxism–Leninism. A social democrat, Hook sometimes cooperated with conservatives, particularly in opposing Marxism–Leninism.

He argued, controversially, that members of such groups as the Communist Party USA and Leninists could ethically be barred from holding the offices of public trust because they called for the violent overthrow of democratic governments. As both a scholar and an activist in the defense of human rights, Hook never lost his great love of freedom and democracy, which he argued were expressed through the lively interchange of ideas and opinions based on rational thought and carried out through civil discourse.


Albert Einstein, Sidney Hook, and others signed a December 4, 1948 letter published in The New York Times[2]

Sidney Hook was born on December 20, 1902, in Brooklyn, New York City, to Jennie and Isaac Hook, Austrian Jewish immigrants. He became a supporter of the Socialist Party of America during the Debs era when he was in high school.

In 1923, he earned a BA at the City College of New York and in 1927 Ph.D. at Columbia University, where he studied under pragmatist philosopher John Dewey.[3]

Hook was a lifelong agnostic:

This faith in rationality emerged early in Hook's life. Even before he was a teenager he proclaimed himself to be an agnostic. It was simply irrational, he declared, to believe in the existence of a merciful and powerful God in the face of widespread human misery. Only the pleadings of his parents that he not embarrass them in front of relatives and friends convinced Hook to participate in a Bar Mitzvah ceremony on his thirteenth birthday. People frequently asked him in his later years what he would say if he discovered after death that God really existed. He answered that he would simply state, "God, you never gave me enough evidence."[4]

He married Carrie Katz in 1924, with whom he had one son. Katz had studied at the Rand School in the early 1920s under Scott Nearing, and wrote a chapter in his book The Law of Social Revolution entitled "The Russian Revolution of 1917" (1926).[5] She was a Communist Party member who went on to work at the Labor Defense Council, a legal advocacy organization established in 1925 as the American section of the Comintern's International Red Aid network. The couple separated in 1933.[1]

In 1935, Hook married Ann Zinken, with whom he had two children.[4]

Hook died age 86 on July 12, 1989, in Stanford, California.


In 1926, Hook became a professor of philosophy at New York University and was head of the Department of Philosophy from 1948 to 1969. He retired from the University in 1972. He then became a fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University in 1973.[6]

In 1931, Hook began teaching at the New School for Social Research continuing through 1936, after which he taught night school there until the 1960s.[7]


At the beginning of his career, Hook was a prominent expert on Karl Marx's philosophy and was himself a Marxist. He attended the lectures of Karl Korsch in Berlin in 1928 and conducted research at the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow in the summer of 1929.[8] At first, he wrote enthusiastically about the Soviet Union, and, in 1932, supported the Communist Party's candidate, William Z. Foster, when he ran for President of the United States. However, Hook broke completely with the Comintern in 1933, holding its policies responsible for the triumph of Nazism in Germany. He accused Joseph Stalin of putting "the needs of the Russian state" over the needs of the international revolution.[4]

Nevertheless, Hook remained active in some of the causes of the Marxist left during the Great Depression. In 1933, with James Burnham, Hook was one of the organizers of the American Workers Party, led by the Dutch-born pacifist minister A.J. Muste. He also debated the meaning of Marxism with radical Max Eastman, who had also studied under John Dewey at Columbia University, in a series of public exchanges.[9]

In the late 1930s, Hook assisted Leon Trotsky in his efforts to clear his name in a special Commission of Inquiry headed by Dewey, which investigated charges made against Trotsky during the Moscow Trials.[10]


The Great Purge encouraged Hook's increasing ambivalence toward Marxism. In 1939, Hook formed the Committee for Cultural Freedom, a short-lived organization that set the stage for his postwar politics by opposing "totalitarianism" on the left and right. By the Cold War, Hook had become a prominent anti-Communist, although he continued to consider himself both a democratic socialist and a secular humanist throughout his life. He was, therefore, an anti-Communist socialist. In 1973, he was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto II.[11]

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hook helped found Americans for Intellectual Freedom, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), and the American Committee for Cultural Freedom. These bodies—of which the CCF was most central—were funded in part by the Central Intelligence Agency through a variety of fronts and sought to dissuade American leftists from continuing to advocate cooperation with the Soviet Union as some had previously.[12] Hook later wrote in his memoirs that he, "like almost everyone else," had heard that "the CIA was making some contribution to the financing of the Congress."[13]

On February 6, 1953, Hook discussed "The Threat to Academic Freedom" with Victor Riesel and others in the evening on WEVD radio (a Socialist radio station whose call letters referred to Socialist Party of America (SPA) founder Eugene V. Debs).[14]

In May 1953, the John Day Company published Heresy, Yes–Conspiracy, No, in which he argued that communism was not “an open and honestly avowed heresy but an international conspiracy centered in the Kremlin, in a state of undeclared war against democratic institutions.”[15] This 283-page book expanded from a 1952 pamphlet of the same title published by the American Committee for Cultural Freedom in 1952, itself expanded from a 1950 New York Times article called "Heresy, Yes–But Conspiracy, No."[16] The book became "perhaps the most influential justification for firing Communists and suspected Communists from university and schools in the early 1950s."[1]

Hero in History

Hook opposed all forms of determinism and argued, as had William James, that humans play a creative role in constructing the social world and to transforming their natural environment. Neither humanity nor its universe is determined or finished. For Hook this conviction was crucial. He argued that when a society is at the crossroads of choosing the direction of further development, an individual can play a dramatic role and even become an independent power on whom the choice of the historical pathway depends.[17]

Hook's book The Hero in History was a noticeable event in the studies devoted to the role of the hero, the Great Man in history, and the influence of people of significant accomplishments. In his book, Hook provided a great number of examples of the influence of great people, and the examples are mostly associated with various crucial moments in history, such as revolutions and crises. Some scholars have critically responded because, for example:

[H]e does not take into account that an individual's greatest influence can be revealed not so much in the period of the old regime's collapse, but in the formation period of a new one. [...] Besides, he did not make clear the situation when alternatives appear either as the result of a crisis or as the result of Great Man's plan or intention without [a] manifested crisis.[18]

Hook introduced a theoretical division of historic personalities, especially leaders, into the "eventful man" and the "event-making man," depending on their influences on the historical process.[19] For example, he considers Lenin as having been an event-making man, because of his having acted in an important circumstance to change the developmental direction not only of Russia but also of the whole world in the twentieth century.

Hook attached great importance to accidents and contingencies in history,[17] thus opposing, among others, H.A.L. Fisher, who made attempts to present history as "waves" of emergencies.[20]

"Ethics of Controversy"

In 1954, Hook published perhaps his best-known essay, titled "The Ethics of Controversy,"[21] in which he set down ten ground rules for democratic discourse within a democracy:

  1. Nothing and no one is immune from criticism.
  2. Everyone involved in a controversy has an intellectual responsibility to inform himself of the available facts.
  3. Criticism should be directed first to policies and against persons only when they are responsible for policies and against their motives or purposes only when there is some independent evidence of their character.
  4. Because certain words are legally permissible, they are not therefore morally permissible.
  5. Before impugning an opponent's motives, even when they legitimately may be impugned, answer his arguments.
  6. Do not treat an opponent of a policy as if he were therefore a personal enemy or an enemy of the country or a concealed enemy of democracy.
  7. Since a good cause may be defended by bad arguments, after answering the bad arguments for another's position present positive evidence for your own.
  8. Do not hesitate to admit lack of knowledge or suspend judgment if evidence is not decisive either way.
  9. Only in pure logic and mathematics, not in human affairs, can one demonstrate that something is strictly impossible. . . The question is always one of the balances of probabilities. And the evidence for probabilities must include more than abstract possibilities.
  10. The cardinal sin, when we are looking for truth of fact or wisdom of policy, is refusal to discuss, or action which blocks discussion.

These ground rules reflect Hook's rejection of any form of totalitarianism in favor of the democratic process, in which the idea of freedom of inquiry retained pride of place:

One of [democratic society's] basic assumptions is that truth of fact and wisdom of policy can be more readily achieved through the lively interchange of ideas and opinions than by unchallengeable edicts on the part of a self-perpetuating elite - whether of theologians or philosophers or politicians or even scientific experts.[22]

Still, Hook came to the conclusion that it was legitimate for a democratic system to take steps to constrain the influence of anti-democratic or totalitarian groups or parties within a democratic society.

Later years

In the 1960s, Hook was a frequent critic of the New Left. He was opposed to a unilateral withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Vietnam War and defended California Governor Ronald Reagan's removal of Angela Davis from her professorship at UCLA because of her leadership role in the Communist Party USA.

Hook was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1965[23] and ended his career in the 1970s and 1980s as a fellow of the conservative Hoover Institution in Stanford, California.

The National Endowment for the Humanities selected Hook for the 1984 Jefferson Lecture, the U. S. government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities.[24] Hook's lecture was entitled "The Humanities and the Defense of The Free Society."[25]


Hook's memoir, Out of Step, recounts his life, his activism for a number of educational causes, his controversies with other intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky, and his recollections of Mortimer J. Adler, Bertolt Brecht, Morris Cohen, John Dewey, Max Eastman, Albert Einstein, and Bertrand Russell.[26]

Throughout his long and active career, replete with controversies, Hook never lost either his unstinting dedication to reason and the examined life, or his great love of freedom and democracy. The statement he placed at the end of his entry in the American edition of Who’s Who for 1988-89 fully captures his approach to life:

Survival is not the be-all and end-all of a life worthy of man. Those who say that life is worth living at any cost have already written for themselves an epitaph of infamy, for there is no cause and no person they will not betray to stay alive. Man’s vocation should be the use of the arts of intelligence in behalf of human freedom.[3]

The Sidney Hook Memorial Award of the Phi Beta Kappa Society was established in 1991 in memory of Sidney Hook who was a Phi Beta Kappa member. The award "recognizes national distinction by a single scholar in each of three endeavors — scholarship, undergraduate teaching, and leadership in the cause of liberal arts education."[27]

In October 2002, a conference marking the centennial of Hook's birth was organized by Matthew Cotter and Robert Talisse and held at the City University of New York Graduate Center in Manhattan.


In 1984, Hook was awarded the In Praise of Reason Award from the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), their highest honor. It was presented by CSICOP Chairman Paul Kurtz.[28]

In 1985, Hook was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan. In his remarks, Reagan said:

Sidney Hook stands as one of the most eminent intellectual forces of our time. His commitment to rational thought and civil discourse has made him an eloquent spokesman for fair play in public life. His devotion to freedom made him one of the first to warn the intellectual world of its moral obligations and personal stake in the struggle between freedom and totalitarianism. A man of truth, a man of action, Sidney Hook's life and work make him one of America's greatest scholars, patriots, and lovers of liberty.[29]

In April 2011 the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) (formerly known as CSICOP) again honored Hook who was a member until his death.[30] At a meeting of its executive council in Denver, Colorado he was selected for inclusion in their Pantheon of Skeptics. The Pantheon of Skeptics was created by CSI to remember the legacy of deceased fellows of CSI and their contributions to the cause of scientific skepticism.[31]

Major Works


  • The Metaphysics of Pragmatism. Cosimo Classics, 2008 (original 1927). ISBN 978-1605203607
  • Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation. Prometheus; Expanded edition, 2002 (original 1933). ISBN 978-1573928823
  • From Hegel to Marx: Studies in the intellectual development of Karl Marx. Columbia University Press; Morningside edition, 1994 (original 1936). ISBN 978-0231096652
  • John Dewey: An Intellectual Portrait. Cosimo Classics, 2008 (original 1939). ISBN 978-1605203850
  • Reason, Social Myths, and Democracy. Hassell Street Press, 2021, (original 1940). ISBN 978-1013599156
  • The Hero in History: A Study in Limitation and Possibility. Cosimo Classics, 2008 (original 1943). ISBN 978-1605203744
  • Education for Modern Man. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2020 (original 1946). ISBN 978-1532694516
  • John Dewey: Philosopher of Science and Freedom. Greenwood Press, 1976 (original 1950). ISBN 978-0837188409
  • Heresy, Yes–Conspiracy, No. Greenwood Press, 1973, (original 1953). ISBN 978-0837165622
  • Marx and the Marxists: The Ambiguous Legacy. Martino Fine Books, 2011 (original 1955). ISBN 978-1614271468
  • Common Sense and the Fifth Amendment. Constructive Action, 1963, (original 1957). ISBN 978-0911956108
  • Political Power and Personal Freedom: Critical studies in democracy, communism, and civil rights. Forgotten Books, 2018, (original 1959). ISBN 0483306940
  • The Quest for Being, and Other Studies in Naturalism and Humanism. St. Martin's Press, 1961.
  • The Fail-Safe Fallacy. Stein and Day, 1963.
  • The Paradoxes of Freedom. Prometheus, 1987 (original 1963). ISBN 978-0879754105
  • Religion in a Free Society. University of Nebraska Press, 1967. ISBN 978-0803200777
  • Academic Freedom and Academic Anarchy. Cowles Book Co, 1970. ISBN 978-0402122111
  • Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life. Basic Books, 1974. ISBN 978-0465061761
  • Philosophy and Public Policy. Southern Illinois University Press, 1980. ISBN 978-0809309375
  • Marxism and Beyond. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1983. ISBN 978-0847671595
  • Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century. Harpercollins, 1987. ISBN 978-0060156329
  • Convictions. Prometheus, 1990. ISBN 978-0879754730
  • Sidney Hook on Pragmatism, Democracy, and Freedom: The Essential Essays, Robert B. Talisse and Robert Tempio (eds.). Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2002. ISBN 1591020220


  • "Karl Marx and Moses Hess" (1934)[32]
  • "Marx's Criticism of 'True Socialism'" (1935)[33]
  • "Marx and Feuerbach" (1936)[34]
  • "Academic Integrity and Academic Freedom" (1949)[35]
  • "Heresy, Yes—But Conspiracy, No," (1950)[16]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Christopher Phelps, Young Sidney Hook: Marxist and Pragmatist (Cornell University Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0801433283).
  2. Isidore Abramowitz New Palestine Party The New York Times (December 4, 1948). Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Sidney Hook (1902–1989) Journal of Democracy 1(1) (January 1970): 133-135. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Edward S. Shapiro (ed.), Letters of Sidney Hook: Democracy, Communism and the Cold War (Routledge, 1995, ISBN 978-1563244872).
  5. Scott Nearing, The Law Of Social Revolution: A Cooperative Study By The Labor Research Study Group (Literary Licensing, LLC, 2011 (original 1926), ISBN 978-1258153489).
  6. Sidney Hook (1902-1989) Hoover Institution Library & Archives. Retrieved May 30, 2023.
  7. Matthew J. Cotter, Place and Profession in the Intellectual History of the City: Sidney Hook and NYU The Gotham Center for New York City History (December 29, 2015). Retrieved May 30, 2023.
  8. Michael Denning, The Cultural Front (New York: Verso, 2011, ISBN 978-1844674640).
  9. John P. Diggins, Up From Communism (Harper & Row, 1975, ISBN 978-0060110420).
  10. Harold Kirker and Burleigh Taylor Wilkins, "Beard, Becker and the Trotsky Inquiry" American Quarterly 13(4) (Winter, 1961): 516-525.
  11. Humanist Manifesto II American Humanist Association. Retrieved May 30, 2023.
  12. "The 'shocked' treatment" The Washington Times (December 8, 2005). Retrieved May 30, 2023.
  13. Peter Coleman, The Liberal Conspiracy: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe (Free Press, 1989, ISBN 978-0029064818).
  14. "On the Radio" The New York Times (February 6, 1953).
  15. Sidney Hook, Heresy, Yes–Conspiracy, No (John Day Company, 1953).
  16. 16.0 16.1 Sidney Hook, "Heresy, Yes—But Conspiracy, No" The New York Times (September 9, 1950), 7.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Sidney Hook, The Hero in History: A Study in Limitation and Possibility (Cosimo Classics, 2008 (original 1943). ISBN 978-1605203744).
  18. Leonid Grinin, The Role of an Individual in History: A Reconsideration. Social Evolution and History (September 30, 2010). Retrieved May 30, 2023.
  19. Walter Earl Fluker, "Professor Discusses Leadership, Obama and Civil Rights Pioneers" (February 26, 2009). Retrieved May 30, 2023.
  20. H.A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe (Edward Arnold, 1936).
  21. "The Ethics of Controversy," New Leader (February 1, 1954), republished in Robert B. Talisse and Robert Tempio (eds.), Sidney Hook on Pragmatism, Democracy, and Freedom: The Essential Essays (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2002, ISBN 1591020220).
  22. Sidney Hook, Philosophy and Public Policy (Southern Illinois University Press, 1980, ISBN 978-0809309375).
  23. Sidney Hook American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved May 30, 2023.
  24. Jefferson Humanities Speech To Be Given by Sidney Hook The New York Times (December 26, 1983). Retrieved May 30, 2023.
  25. How NEH has fostered the humanities National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved May 30, 2023.
  26. Sidney Hook, Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century (Harpercollins, 1987, ISBN 978-0060156329).
  27. The Sidney Hook Memorial Award Phi Beta Kappa. Retrieved May 30, 2023.
  28. Sidney Hook Prabook. Retrieved May 30, 2023.
  29. Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the Presidential Medal of Freedom (May 23, 1985) Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum. Retrieved May 30, 2023.
  30. History of CSICOP Skeptical Inquirer. Retrieved May 30, 2023.
  31. Pantheon of Skeptics Skeptical Inquirer. Retrieved May 30, 2023.
  32. "Karl Marx and Moses Hess" New International 1(5) (December 1934): 140–144. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  33. "Marx's Criticism of 'True Socialism'" New International 2(1) (January 1935): 13-16. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  34. "Marx and Feuerbach" New International 3(2) (April 1936): 47–57. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
  35. Sidney Hook, Academic "Integrity and Academic Freedom" Commentary (October 1939). Retrieved May 25, 2023.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Coleman, Peter. The Liberal Conspiracy: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe. Free Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0029064818
  • Cotter, Matthew J. (ed.). Sidney Hook Reconsidered. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2004. ISBN 978-1591021933
  • Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front. New York: Verso, 2011. ISBN 978-1844674640
  • Diggins, John P. Up From Communism. Harper & Row, 1975. ISBN 978-0060110420
  • Fisher, H.A.L. A History of Europe. Edward Arnold, 1936.
  • Kurtz, Paul (ed.). Sidney Hook and the Contemporary World. New York: John Day and Co., 1968. ASIN B000I98OW4
  • Nearing, Scott. The Law Of Social Revolution: A Cooperative Study By The Labor Research Study Group. Literary Licensing, LLC, 2011 (original 1926). ISBN 978-1258153489
  • Phelps, Christopher. Young Sidney Hook: Marxist and Pragmatist. Cornell University Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0801433283
  • Shapiro, Edward S. (ed.). Letters of Sidney Hook: Democracy, Communism and the Cold War. Routledge, 1995. ISBN 978-1563244872

External links

All links retrieved May 30, 2023.


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