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  • Sidney Hook (1902-1989)

With the death last July 12 of the American philosopher Sidney Hook at the age of 86, the cause of democracy in the twentieth century lost one of its most stalwart champions. Beginning in the mid-1930s, Professor Hook stood in the front rank of those who opposed tyranny wherever it appeared. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University, where he studied under the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, whose influence was to have a lasting impact on his life and work. Professor Hook's professional life was spent at New York University and later at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University. His classroom teaching and his voluminous writings (both popular and scholarly) on the practical challenges and theoretical foundations of democracy influenced generations of students.

Professor Hook's break with the U.S. Communist Party in the early 1930s culminated in one of the first critiques of Soviet totalitarianism and its apologists formulated by an important left-wing intellectual in the West. He also vigorously opposed appeasement and disarmament as responses to the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy, and Japan. A leading figure in the postwar effort to counteract the influence of communist-controlled organizations on the cultural and intellectual life of the United States and Western Europe, Professor Hook at the same time denounced the anticommunist excesses of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom he termed "a heavy liability to the friends of American democracy and international freedom."

During years when many intellectuals despaired of liberal democracy and hailed communism-first of a Soviet and then of a Maoist, Castroist, or "national-liberationist" stripe-as "the wave of the future," Professor Hook fearlessly swam against the tide of opinion. Once a Marxist and long a self-described "social democrat," he harnessed his enormous energies as both a scholar and an activist to defend human rights and free, popular government against all their foes.

Amid the din of many controversies, and throughout the scenes of a long and intensely active career, Professor Hook never lost either his unstinting dedication to reason and the examined life, or his great love [End Page 133] of freedom and democracy. Nowhere is the spirit that linked these objects together in his devotion better expressed than in the statement he placed at the end of his entry in the American edition of Who's Who for 1988-89, a statement which might fittingly serve as his epitaph:

"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."

Remarks of graduate student Yin Lujun at a Memorial Service held for Sidney Hook at Stanford University, 18 July 1989:

Sidney Hook and I were close friends of radically different ages and cultural traditions. He was a classmate of my former advisor in China, who had also studied under John Dewey at Columbia University in the 1920s. Like those of his teacher Dewey, Sidney's works on Man and on pragmatism were at first condemned and banned in the China of the 1960s and 1970s. By the late 1980s, however, works of his such as Reason, Social Myths, and Democracy and The Hero in History had gone through many editions.

The relationship that I had with Sidney during my years at Stanford has proved to be the most treasured and intellectually enriching experience of my life. As a philosopher, a fighter for freedom, and a man, Sidney had profound compassion, great integrity, and a noble cast of mind. I am very proud to have been his friend during his last years. The day before he died, he held my hand as I stood by the side of his hospital bed, and said with a trembling voice: "Fight for freedom, fight for freedom. God bless you and your family." I could not hold back my tears before this man...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 133-135
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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