The Relevance of Sidney Hook Today: Reflections from the Centennial Conference

Article excerpt

Some two hundred philosophers, historians, academics, intellectuals, journalists, students, and citizens gathered on October 25 and 26, 2002, at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in Manhattan to celebrate the centennial of Sidney Hook and to re-examine his work. The conference was organized into six sessions, each focusing on a different aspect of Hook's life and thought, ranging from Hook's philosophical development and place in American intellectual history to his secular humanism, philosophy of education, and political theory. By all accounts, "Sidney Hook Reconsidered: A Centennial Celebration" was a resounding success: the sessions were well attended, the presentations were, on the whole, stimulating, and the discourse was civil yet penetrating. It was, in the estimation of one distinguished participant, "worth every second."

As the principal organizers, we were especially gratified by the success of the event, for it seemed at many points in the past year that, despite our collective efforts, there would not be a Sidney Hook centennial conference. In addition to the well-publicized and unfortunate protest of Cornel West's involvement by a few prominent neo-conservatives who had agreed to participate, our task was frustrated at various stages by funding difficulties, personality conflicts among participants, and last-minute program changes. Perhaps it is fitting that the very organization of a conference on Hook should be fraught with controversy and conflict. It is certainly apt that organizing a conference celebrating a great pragmatist philosopher should require endurance and cooperation. In the final analysis, we feel that the resulting conference made our efforts worthwhile.

The weekend featured many highlights. Philosopher David Sidorsky of Columbia University opened the conference with an stimulating survey of "five major steps" of Hook's intellectual development. Nathan Glazer, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Tibor Machan, and Neil Jumonville offered intriguing and conflicting visions of the legacy of Sidney Hook, whereas Paul Kurtz and Barbara Forrest each focused on Hook's philosophical commitment to pragmatic naturalism and its implications for the current political scene. Steven Cahn and Ed Shapiro reminded us of Hook's unflagging commitment to education both as an educator and as a philosopher of education who defended the indispensability of a liberal education in a free society. Cornel West's warmly inspired portrait of Hook as the first "tragic-comic" pragmatist provided a suitable backdrop for the closing session in which Michael Eldridge, Gary Bullert, Leonard Bushkoff, and Cornelie Kunkat engaged questions of Hook's political successes and failures through the Cold War. Ma ny presentations were met with challenges from the audience that often mixed anecdotes and remembrances of Hook with insightful points of philosophical and historical significance.

William James identified pragmatism as a forward-looking doctrine. So much, then, for recounting the scene. Now that we have devoted a full weekend to thinking and arguing about the life, thought, and legacy of Sidney Hook, what have we learned? The fact is that there were many lessons learned in the course of the weekend, and several important insights were offered. We shall therefore have to fix upon those that are most fundamental to understanding the relevance of Hook today

More than one presentation emphasized Hook's Socratic nature both in the classroom and out. Like Socrates, Hook was, first and foremost, an inquirer; again like Socrates, Hook was a public inquirer, a public intellectual in the fullest sense. Hook's unquiet life provides compelling testimony to the demands and risks of the life of public inquiry. As proper inquiry requires one to follow the evidence and arguments where they lead, the inquirer must always be prepared to change one's mind or revise one's position in light of the persistent stream of new data and further considerations to which all thinking is subject. …