Philosophy & Faith
To the Editor:
I am very grateful to Hilton Kramer (“The Importance of Sidney Hook,” August] for his vindication of my political thought and behavior during the last fifty years.
It is not therefore out of churlishness that I am moved to comment on some of his observations. From the perspective of the things that mean most to me I must confess that I am more concerned with his criticisms of my philosophy than I am by the animadversions on my anti-Communism by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., so obviously animated by his unreflective reversal of judgment about the Kremlin and its intentions and actions toward the democratic world. If only for the record, therefore, I must enter this demurral from some of Hilton Kramer’s statements. Indeed, I am thankful that he has given me an opportunity to do so since the impression of so perceptive and intelligent a reader as Hilton Kramer cannot be lightly discounted.
Mr. Kramer refers to the philosophy of John Dewey, which was the starting point of my own philosophical development, as “spiritually arid.” Unless he is using the term “spiritual,” as he does the term “soul,” in a literal sense (i.e., as something disembodied, rather than as an activity of the acculturated organism), I would suggest that his judgment would be modified by a rereading of Dewey’s Experience and Nature, his Ethics, or his Art as Experience. But more pertinent to Mr. Kramer’s criticism seems to be his unfamiliarity with the bulk of my own philosophical writings that bear in detail and at considerable length on the very questions he charges me with ignoring or dismissing as inconsequential as a result of Dewey’s influence on me.
As a young man, Mr. Kramer correctly reports, I nourished the hope of writing a book on Dostoevsky because of the sweep, dramatic power, and significance of his ideas about man, his place in the cosmos, and the foundations of morality. After referring to the episode, Mr. Kramer writes:
And then [Hook] adds surprisingly: “Despite my absorption with political and social affairs, I still believe that the questions of God, freedom, and immortality are the most important of all questions that human beings can face.” From an avowed rationalist and atheist, this is an extraordinary admission, but we hear little more about it in the course of this long chronicle.
Mr. Kramer could have heard more about these questions and the religious and metaphysical issues they pose had he read my The Quest for Being and Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life, large sections of my Education for Modern Man, and scores of articles devoted to related themes. (Among my very first contributions to professional philosophical journals was an essay devoted to “The Ethics of Suicide,” International Journal of Ethics, January 1927.) Perhaps I should have summarized their argument in my already overlong chronicle of my life.
That Mr. Kramer should regard it as an “extraordinary admission” for a rationalist and atheist to declare that questions of God’s existence, the place of human freedom in a determined world, immortality or death are important testifies to the strength of a traditional common assumption that naturalism, the reasoned denial of all varieties of supernaturalist transcendence, is necessarily reductive. But important questions do not necessarily disappear from human concern because one offers negative answers to them, particularly for a fallibilist to whom there are no final, absolute solutions. And to the complex question of human freedom I do not offer a negative answer in all senses of the term.
The very fact that so many persons cannot live with their political disillusionment without yielding to the temptations of religious belief, no matter how refined, is usually evidence that they had not thought through the grounds of their initial faith or lack of it. This is the sad tale of many left bereft and chastened by their unhappy political pilgrimages. I admit that no unillusioned naturalism can match the consolatory cosmic optimism of religious world views that dismiss a naturalist outlook on the world as limited and arid. Limited it may be, but not unimaginative. It is limited by the available evidence, yet not closed to the multiple dimensions and glories of authentic human experience conditioned by the compulsions of natural existence. A life based on it usually requires more courage than one inspired by a will to believe or an irrational leap of faith. Properly interpreted, there is still a profound truth in Marx’s observation that the critique of religion is the basis of all rational criticism.
Only unfamiliarity with many of my writings can account for Mr. Kramer’s assertion that my mind “has long been closed to the whole religious dimension of human affairs.” I have been well aware of the testimony of religious experience and the long history of religious institutions. But the experience itself, no matter how intense, is not compelling evidence of the objective existence of what has been testified to. Much of my life has been spent criticizing the mischievous influence of institutional religion on public human affairs and in pleading for freedom for religious belief and disbelief in all cultures as a private human affair (cf. my discussion with Jacques Maritain anent my criticism of T.S. Eliot in my Philosophy and Public Policy).
I am less concerned with the harsh criticisms by Mr. Kramer of my “cultural philistinism,” since they are to some extent based on misunderstandings of my positions for which I am in part responsible. Here as elsewhere I unwisely yielded to pressure to cut an overlong manuscript. My primary objections to the Festival of Arts of the Congress for Cultural Freedom were to its expense. It would have been less costly had it been restricted mainly to works that had been tabooed in totalitarian cultures. There were other auspices under which the rest could have been shown. There were alternative cultural activities for our limited resources that were more in keeping with the announced goal of the Freedom Manifesto. In the sentence in which I referred to the existence of great works of art in authoritarian and undemocratic cultures, I had in mind the fact that not all freedoms are interrelated.
I have never denied the significance of Partisan Review as an organ for independent left-wing political and cultural thought. I contested, and still do, the widespread myth that it was the center of active political life at the time. I did not regard its editors, some of whom had been my students, as “ignorant dolts and untalented knaves,” but found offensive their passing themselves off to themselves and others as serious political activists, basking in the cachet of revolutionary dedication. Only one of them, Dwight Macdonald, for a short time was really politically engaged. The rest were litterateurs of varied talent who led risk-free lives—which was virtue enough if it did not pretend to be something more.
I still call myself a socialist or social democrat for many reasons, but especially to make it clear that it is possible to oppose Communism from the standpoint of a democratic welfare state. By this time everyone is aware that for me the basic issue of our age is the conflict between a free society and totalitarianism. So long as we preserve the political processes of freely given consent, the questions of socialism or capitalism are of degree, of more or less. In an extended sense of the term, I have contended that socialism today can best be construed as democracy, as a way of life which is closer to Dewey’s explicit views than Marx’s. The few contexts in which I currently refer to myself as a socialist are not misleading. Indeed, it is much less misleading than those who today call themselves “Christian” although they believe either God is dead or are doubtful of His existence, and less misleading than many who proudly regard themselves as “liberals” although passionately defending, among other illiberal practices, reverse discrimination and various disguised forms of the quota system.
That despite all his disagreements and perceptions of the flaws in my book, which I suspect are more numerous than he has expressed, Hilton Kramer should be so generous in his overall judgment is very gratifying to me. Indeed, his words leave me with a feeling of regret that I have not enough years left to live up to them.
To the Editor:
Hilton Kramer has written a most appreciative article on the contributions of Sidney Hook to the political and intellectual life of America, and has justly appraised Hook’s autobiography Out of Step as an “indispensable text for our times.” In these contributions Hook was much inspired and guided by the teachings of John Dewey, who early recognized in Hook, as a young student, the rare combination of logical acumen, social understanding, and extraordinary courage that have marked his whole life. On April 22, 1927, Dewey wrote to his old friend and colleague George Herbert Mead of this new young man: “We have a man who is finishing soon who promises to be a prize, Sidney Hook. He has a section in his dissertation on the metaphysics of the instrument which is a corker. I almost feel that I am ready to quit, as he has not only got the point but sees many implications which I hadn’t seen. . . .” And how much Dewey’s prophecy was fulfilled can be judged from a letter that the cautious philosopher-logician Clarence I. Lewis sent to Hook concerning his address to the American Philosophical Association in 1960 on the theme “Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life” [published in COMMENTARY, August 1960]: “I have an inclination—a compulsion even—to tell you that I think this presidential address the best delivered in any branch of the association in my lifetime. I could add my conviction that pragmatically your contribution is the most important of any in the present generation. . . .”
Mr. Kramer, however, thinks that Hook paid a high penalty for Dewey’s influence, for “Dewey’s is a spiritually arid philosophy,” in Mr. Kramer’s opinion: “It leaves the soul . . . defenseless and mute in the face of life.” According to Mr. Kramer, Dewey has “no way of accounting” for the poetry of life, the tragedies of history, “not to mention the tragic dimension of human experience,” in the face of which “its problem-solving mentality has proved to be a feeble instrument.” . . .
Although Dewey in his long life went through successive stages of emphasis, he remains perhaps the only modern American philosopher who asserted having had a genuine mystical experience. He was never satisfied that he could interpret it adequately, but it explains in part the enthusiasm with which he wrote of Maurice Maeterlinck’s mysticism, of Henri Bergson, and of Alfred North Whitehead’s panpsychist cosmology. Evidently the human experience in terms of which, according to Dewey, a philosophy should be tested was not to be restricted in some narrow, arbitrary way. . . . Of course, Dewey, always concerned with the betterment of human lives, refused to ignore practicable goals in favor of contemplating compulsively the insoluble questions. It is true that Dewey would have preferred, for instance, a pragmatic approach to the Holocaust, that is, to inquire how we could prevent a next Holocaust rather than to speculate, perhaps fruitlessly, as to the attributes of a God Who so fashioned the laws of nature as to allow for limitless depravities in human nature, a God incapable or undesirous of intervening pragmatically into human history, as, according to tradition, He had done on previous occasions. I do not know whether or not Mr. Kramer seeks a form of theistic philosophy. But a theism which eventuated in a maleficent God, as in Thomas Hardy’s view of an unconscious, evolving Will, or a President of the Immortals, sporting or experimenting with human beings, still leaves us virtually ineffective in the face of macro-misery.
Doesn’t Mr. Kramer himself, however, finally have recourse to a form of pragmatic test? For he proposes to test a philosophy by its success in defending the soul and making it articulate in the face of “extreme experience.” Perhaps Mr. Kramer’s is a pragmatism more akin to William James’s than to Dewey’s, though Dewey in Philosophy and Civilization pleaded for a philosophy that would liberate the imagination and help envisage new conceptions of the universe. It was for a relatively brief period during and after World War I that he felt the basic test of philosophies to lie in political action, even as a generation earlier he had believed that a philosophy was most adequately tested in educational methods, a view he later modified considerably. And always, whether in writing of Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, or Tolstoy, or in choosing Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles as the novel which (apart from Looking Backward) had most affected his era, Dewey believed that the poet and the novelist led mankind in those intuitions that would advance its existence, and that philosophers followed in their footsteps. When he went to the Armory Show in 1913, his delight, as one of his companions at the time told me, was boundless as he saw a freer, more freshly perceptive and expressive art in formation.
Mr. Kramer is surprised that Sidney Hook, an avowed rationalist and atheist, has had an abiding interest in the classical questions of “God, freedom, and immortality.” Sidney Hook is a rationalist in the usual sense of wishing to think as profoundly and dispassionately as he can. The classical rationalists, Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, believed in addition that all metaphysical truths, including the existence of God, could be derived logically from self-evident axioms; none of them was an atheist. Hook parts company with them on this point, and in this sense he is equally an empiricist. He has, however, never accepted the view of the “logical empiricists” that the ultimate metaphysical questions are meaningless. And as a rational philosopher, experiencing all the concerns and perplexities of human beings, he returns to consider the recurrent, perhaps insoluble, questions of philosophy.
Regrettably, Mr. Kramer accuses Sidney Hook of a certain “cultural philistinism” toward American critics and novelists. Has the body of evidence that Hook could adduce for his opinion been sufficiently weighed? European novelists wrote great political novels during the period of Hook’s most intense activity and thought—Arthur Koestler with Darkness at Noon, Ignazio Silone with Bread and Wine and The Seed Beneath the Snow, and George Orwell with 1984. Did any American write a novel of comparable enduring significance? And in explaining the lesser American achievement, Hook is probably right in finding there was a dilettantish, thin, secondhand character to the political experience of American literary intellectuals. Did the later zeal of various American women writers of fiction for their North Vietnamese Communist hosts accrue from their many years of political dabbling?
Let us be thankful that when he battled the left-wing Philistines, there was a touch in Sidney Hook of the cultural Samson; he is, however, the only American thinker that Philistines of sundry varieties have really feared, and on occasions that I have seen, they would have chained him, if they could.
Such thinkers as Dewey and Hook represent a return to the tradition of wisdom, that of the Seven Wise Men of Hellas, the sages of ancient Greece. They were mainly lawgivers, men of affairs, and even included such a scientist and marketing expert as Thales, a kind of Hellenic Benjamin Franklin, who, like Franklin, had no interest in metaphysical verbalizing. Their wisdom was an application of intelligent judgment to human problems, and though they accepted the gods, they had little to say about them. Plato, in his counterrevolution against wisdom, defined philosophy instead as the study of death, and wanted to make professional philosophers the ruling elite; he himself failed pathetically in Syracuse, and showed all the perverse angularity in practical judgment that his disciple Bertrand Russell did in later years.
Meanwhile, in the world today, the word “pragmatic” has become the symbol in every country for a rational approach to political and social problems, free from ideological postulates or doctrinaire commitments. From America to the Western European nations, to the African and Latin American republics, to China and the Soviet Union, to call a statesman “pragmatic” is to indicate that he wishes to study the facts in every problem-situation, and is then also more likely to aim at the happiest solution available under the given conditions. “Existentialist” and indeed “Marxist” have receded in usage; “pragmatic” signifies the call to men from different backgrounds: let us reason together as men. . . .
For many years . . . nobody has been more influential than Sidney Hook in maintaining the standpoint of wisdom. His unswerving resolve to take all the relevant considerations into account in addressing problems, to maintain open-mindedness, and to analyze fully and courageously, while unfailingly preserving his good humor, merits the gratitude of people everywhere.
Lewis S. Feuer
To the Editor:
Congratulations on the publication of Hilton Kramer’s brilliant, well-rounded essay on Sidney Hook. A real scoop. We are all in your debt.
Palo Alto, California
Hilton Kramer writes:
It was not to be expected that Sidney Hook would agree with my assessment of John Dewey and his intellectual influence. I must point out, however, that my criticism in this matter is not based on any “unfamiliarity” with Mr. Hook’s philosophical writings. Reading Mr. Hook’s letter—and Lewis S. Feuer’s, too—I am reminded of an earlier effort I made to set the record straight about Sidney Hook’s importance. That was my long review of his Philosophy and Public Policy in the New York Times Book Review for February 8, 1981. After that review was published, Sidney Hook and I met for the first time. Over a very agreeable lunch, he expressed his amazement again and again that I should have displayed so comprehensive a knowledge of his writings. It was not, perhaps, the kind of knowledge he expected from anyone seriously interested in art. Understandably, he seems now to have forgotten his remarks on that occasion, for John Dewey and his influence were not then the issues under discussion.
I am grateful to Ella Wolfe for her very kind words.