Young Sidney Hook
by Christopher Phelps
Cornell University Press, 257 pp., $35.00
Sidney Hook started out in the world as a poor Jewish boy in Brooklyn. He was the fourth child of immigrant parents, his father from Moravia, his mother from Galicia. In the New World, his father became a tailor whose life was filled with little more than work. As a token of Americanization, his mother changed his first name from Saul to Sidney when he was enrolled in school at the age of five. He grew up in a milieu of poverty which, he later said, was “so stark as to be almost unimaginable these days.” Toilets were in the yard; the family froze in winter and fried in summer. It was the usual fate of most Jewish immigrants in New York in 1902, when Hook was born.
His future, as with so many others of the time, rested with his education. He was lucky to get into Boys High School, then and until World War II the only school in Brooklyn limited to outstanding students, most of them Jewish. From there he went to the College of the City of New York, better known as City College, from which he was once suspended for distributing a pamphlet by Upton Sinclair. At City College, he came under the influence of one of the few Jewish professors, Morris Raphael Cohen, a philosopher, his first mentor. He went on to graduate school at Columbia University; to pay for it he taught in an elementary school from 9 AM to 3 PM and at an evening high school from 7:15 PM to 10:15 PM, leaving the afternoon hours for his graduate courses.
At Columbia, from 1923 to 1927, he moved philosophically from the logic of Morris Cohen to the pragmatism of John Dewey. He was drawn to the experimentalism and empiricism in Dewey’s thought by writing what he intended to be a refutation of it. To his surprise, he ended up a convert to Dewey’s philosophy. For the rest of his life, Hook acknowledged Dewey as his mentor and based his own political and philosophical beliefs on Dewey’s pragmatism. Yet he used it in an original way, and it brought him his first notoriety.
For Hook had grown up in a milieu in which socialism was the only alternative to religion. He discovered sociialism at the age of thirteen and began to speak on soapboxes at street corners two years later. He was almost expelled from high school for his activity against the First World War. At City College, he fell in with some Communist students and with them organized a Social Problems Club. Nevertheless, all this was youthful effervescence until he went to Germany on a Guggenheim fellowship in 1928. He observed the increasing threat of a Nazi takeover and the fratricidal rivalry between the German Communists and Socialists. He spent the year in study and travel, after which he was invited to the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow where for fourteen weeks he devoted himself to Marx …