Commentary Magazine

Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life, by Sidney Hook

Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life.
by Sidney Hook.
Basic Books. 224 pp. $12.50.

For as long as I can remember I have read Sidney Hook’s books and articles fairly systematically. Perhaps the first I read was one of the essays here collected, “The Moral Vision of Reinhold Niebuhr” (1956). I was graduating from college then and, full of the fervor of a Catholic undergraduate, I wanted to learn from a major American philosophical figure who was unafraid to take on current social issues, in the mold of John Dewey or Jacques Maritain. Sidney Hook’s interest in religious figures made him perfect for my purposes. His comments on Jean-Paul Sartre, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Eliseo Vivas, Michael Polanyi, and others (collected in this book), provided me with a kind of compass in the exploration of unknown and vaguely threatening territory, “the American secular philosophical world.” I thought of Hook as my favorite atheist, my paradigmatic secular, anti-religious figure.

In recent years, Hook has become a conservative figure in the public mind, but I had looked to him in those early days as a symbol of all that was solid, progressive, enlightened, and right-minded in American social thought, the heir to Dewey and a central participant in (as I saw it) the New York Left. To my knowledge then, most American thinkers who knew the socialist democratic traditions lived in New York and were Jewish; it appeared to me to be the normative culture, with a complicated urban and psychological flavor that was exciting and made me feel in part at home and in part alive to a sense of difference and danger. I had no clear idea what a Trotskyite was, but it sounded like a delicious deviance, after all; and names used as tokens in learned articles—Bakunin, Gletkin, Kornilov, Bukharin, and the rest—suggested a dense jungle of intellectual work I would one day have to hack through. Naively, I say, coming from a wholly different intellectual world, I thought Hook was a buoy on the Left, who would always mark out the limits of a sensible, astringent, and enlightened progress.

Imagine my surprise, then, in the sunny California days of 1965-68, when I found myself writing A Theology for Radical Politics and drifting far out in open seas while Hook remained anchored firm. By this time, I had come to be dissatisfied with the “liberalism” and “secularism” in American intellectual life represented by Hook. He takes note of others like myself in the title essay of this book, not quite as sensitively as I would like: “It is now an almost unchallenged commonplace that pragmatism is a superficial philosophy of optimism, of uncritical adjustment and conformity, of worship of the goddess success.” Pragmatism, he adds a little heavily, “was cried down as the typical philosophy of a parvenu people, insensitive to tradition and culture, and devoted only to the invention of machines . . . by human beings who acted as if they were themselves only complicated machines.” In his introduction, Hook slightly overstates another of my negative impressions, “. . . the rationalist is pictured as a man without feeling, taste, emotion. . . . ‘Reason’ is interpreted not as the manifestation of ‘the reasonable’ but as the purely ratiocinative . . . by identifying the life of reason . . . with the enterprise of technical scientific inquiry. . . .”

These criticisms of his point of view he does not, as I say, reproduce precisely. But by 1960 many younger students of philosophy were, indeed, quite restless. In order to make room for the religious sensibility, in order to defend a respect for human history and complexity, in order to uphold an almost Burkean sense of the organic, I for one wanted help against the arid analysis offered in the universities. Revolt seemed nowhere near in 1961, but some new movement seemed to be the only way to open up the secular scholasticism I encountered in the Harvard philosophy department. Tillich was made to feel so unwelcome there that he soon left for Chicago; Henry David Aiken, newly working in Continental existentialism, moved to Brandeis.

Sidney Hook, all the while, as the present book demonstrates, was trying to show that the mainline tradition of pragmatism did not call for radical revolt. It was not a dessicated method; it already imagined philosophies as “different ways of construing life” (Dewey). Pragmatism, he was arguing, did respect the pluralism of the world, its concrete traditions and historical streams; it did recognize that choice was almost always between two goods, and therefore tragic; it did ground itself in “a recognition of the tragic sense of life.”

Polemics, especially among professors, almost always mislead. Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, for example, advanced points against Hook and Dewey which it is now plain that Hook himself (and Dewey, too) already held, in their own fashion. And Hook’s counterattacks, printed here, seem in mellow rereading to have been more conciliatory, less antagonistic, than they did at the time. What is it about controversy in print that appears to emphasize distances? Difference, I suppose, is the pen’s spur; agreement makes one merely nod.

But there is more to it than that. Intellectual traditions generate their own vocabularies, concepts, connotative powers, and rhetorical enemies. If there is a failing in Hook, it is some failing of sensibility: he finds it hard to feel himself into the intellectual horizon of others. He is generous enough about attributing good intentions, fair in reporting what others actually say. But he is so wrapped up in his own horizon that he cannot feel the force of their arguments, and as a result he often evinces irritation at their own lack of perspicacity.

Thus, of Tillich he writes: “One feels that refuting him is like punching on eiderdown or fencing with a ghost. There is no sense of resistance. On the many occasions on which I have polemicized against him, with my usual mildness and restraint, he has always replied with manifest sincerity, ‘I agree with everything you have said.’ . . .” Hook was never able to penetrate the language of “being” in whose tradition Tillich reveled; he could not follow its distinctions, or detect the experiential referents from which each word in that vocabulary drew its tenuous but felt life. Watching Hook deal with a word like “being” was, indeed, like watching a pillow fight in which one protagonist is blindfolded. “It may be,” Hook writes as he tires, “that I am too literal-minded and old-fashioned, prepared to pay too high a price for clarity.” It would be truer to say that in different horizons there are different rules for clarity, different literal meanings, different ways of being old-fashioned. (Ironically, by the way, Niebuhr had as much trouble with Tillich’s “being” as Hook did.)

When writers agree with Hook, of course, he is able to enter their world and make translation easily. Here is Hook’s secular rendering of Niebuhr’s “conception of man”:

It is a conception which is sound, noble, and profound, one which fits man for the uses of war and peace, change and struggle. And there is not a thought in it which is foreign or new to an unillusioned naturalism. After all, it is not dogmatic belief or revelation but the scientific and experimental temper which illustrates in a preeminent way that humility, tentativeness, scrupulousness, openness to new horizons, combined with vigor of decision and of action in securing the next steps, that Niebuhr himself recommends as necessary to a good life. The imperialistic ontologies and absolutism Niebuhr fears do not dog empirical inquiry, which forbids nothing to be and asks only for adequate evidence to undergird belief. Niebuhr’s strictures against the classic theory of pure human reason are certainly justified, but they were made long before him by Hobbes and Hume, by James and Dewey, for whom intelligence is not pure but related to passion and need yet capable of establishing relative objective truths. . . .

In other essays in this book, in “The Quest for Certainty—Existentialism Without Tears,” in “The Place of Reason in an Age of Conflict,” in “Philosophy And/Or Agony,” and in “In Defense of the Enlightenment,” Hook rounds out his defense of a sober American naturalism by his criticisms of Michael Polanyi, Eliseo Vivas, such diverse European critics of reason as Martin Luther, David Hume, Bertrand Russell, and “the existentialists.” (These last are mostly unnamed and unquoted; they are attacked through a tendentious summary of “a library of existentialist literature in four propositions.”) There are some marvelous sentences in these essays, and the view-point is a sane and often untechnical, unprofessionalized one: “Reason is not so much reasoning as it is good sense, and like a sense of tact or humor it has as deep a root in our genetic structure as in our learned behavior.” Their feel is American, in a now old-fashioned way. as when Hook gives William James’s reply to the somber European question. “Does life have a meaning?” “It all depends on the liver.” (This pun was first French—“C’est une question de foie”—but it would have pleased Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Robert Ingersoll.)



Why, then, does one set this collection of thirteen essays aside with faint dissatisfaction? Ironically, this at once mild and stern man, a lifelong enemy of fanaticism, a despiser of dogmatism, a celebrator of openness and pluralism and variety, has a certain narrow range of sympathies. In recent years, his defense of academic freedom and intellectual excellence has made him into a kind of Defensor Fidei, the Protector of a Holy Grail, the champion of a sort of orthodoxy—even though it be of an experimental, reasonable, adjudicable sort. It sometimes seems to me that traditional liberals and intellectual Catholics have changed symbolic places: the latter now are all for “open doors” of every sort, to the point it sometimes seems of vacuity, while the former fight bravely for a tradition in danger of being lost, assuming in vintage years the defensive posture they once enjoyed attacking, when heresy rode in the saddle with them.

Life, indeed, has held a tragic sense for pragmatists of the classic age, and it has asked of them a virtue seldom asked of philosophers. except under totalitarian regimes: courage. Hook has shown himself, in days when moral bravery has not been in abundance, brave. And this, in the end, may be the most important thing to say of him.


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