A reading of The Metaphysics of Pragmatism by Sidney Hook (1927).
Photo of Sidney Hook from Wikimedia Commons.
I completed this reading with a 1927 hard copy published by The Open Court Publishing Company (Chicago & London); although it should be in the public domain by now, so it would not surprise me to be able to find a reproduction of this relatively short (144pp.) book online. I shall post a link to the ebook here if I am able to find one. But I’ll also quote fairly liberally from the text in my analysis in case web access to the book is ultimately restricted.
I first became aware of Sidney Hook by way of Westbrook’s 1992 intellectual history of John Dewey’s career, John Dewey and American Democracy. Westbrook presents Hook as one of many intellectual foils for Dewey. Westbrook’s list of Dewey expanders and detractors includes figures as variously renowned and obscure as Randolph Bourne, Dewey’s student, who opposed the United State’s entry into WWI even as Dewey threw his support behind President Woodrow Wilson, and William James, who was among those Philosophers who wooed Dewey to pragmatism from his early Hegelian idealist days.
Sidney Hook was a student of John Dewey’s at Columbia. Dewey wrote an interesting forward to Hook’s Metaphysics, which anticipates Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Dewey is deferential to the synthesis that the young Hook has wrought between the old guard of “classical philosophy” and the burgeoning pragmatism, which Hook calls “instrumentalism.” In fact, the first third of the book is dedicated to an explanation of the meaning of “the instrument,” and the specific implications of what Hook latches onto as the central metaphor of pragmatism
Pragmatism is, of course, derived from the Greek word for ‘action.’ But Hook, by re-naming it “instrumentalism” emphasizes a different (possibly reciprocal) aspect of human action—namely the “how” of it. Generally speaking, pragmatism proceeds by means of instruments. But going further still, Hook argues that the existence of instruments in the world offers clues to the structure of the world. In his chapter, “The Metaphysics of the Instrument,” Hook demonstrates convincingly that instruments always carry meaning, that they exist either a) in reference to some object, b) for some domain-specific application or c) in respect and because of its form, arrangement or structure.
These references generate a number of relations highly interesting for philosophical analysis. They show that nature instrumentalized is nature, so to speak, grown or brought to self-consciousness (p.19).
He clarifies further:
An instrument is a monument to a felt lack in existence. But it is more. It is a promise of its eventual check and elimination.
This preliminary definition or movement towards (i.e. zur, in German) a definition of the instrument as a category of phenomenon is a very interesting post-structural move for Hook to be making. In this case Hook is sticking close to the letter of Dewey’s conception of aims (for instance in Democracy and Education). Dewey admits as much in the final paragraphs of his introduction to Hook actually:
It is possible for a reader by means of rigid definition of the terms of “metaphysics” and “pragmatism,” laid down inflexibly in advance, to hide his mind from the enlightenment which this book can convey… (p.5)
This is Dewey at his best in my opinion. It is also Dewey at his most post-structural, especially as he pushes his readers towards a metaphysics of pragmatism sous rature (under erasure) or as Jacques Derrida might have it, Dewey’s and Hook’s is a
metaphysics of pragmatism.
Hook is definitely most comfortable with the pragmatism of Dewey and Peirce, which he says is more concerned with the social and political world, as opposed to the “personal and consolatory” pragmatism of Schiller or the “nominalistic” pragmatism of James. I frankly have not read enough of these other philosophers to know what Hook means with these epithets. But the political kernel of Dewey’s pragmatism is clearly what Hook is most comfortable with and wants to build from with his metaphysics and the new category, instrumentalism.
Another interesting tangent that appears to link pragmatism (as instrumentalism) with other later-20th century developments in Marxist critical theory is the centrality of language and social construction of meaning (=language) and its study (=linguistics, or semiotics more specifically). This is an area of great interest for me. And an area that I devoted some measure of previous study to as an undergraduate linguistics major.
In particular, Husserl’s claims about how meaning is structured, comes to mind. But also, Chompsky’s theory of a universal grammar, and even Vygotsky’s understanding of the social development of language, come to mind reading Hook’s introduction to the metaphysics of the instrument. Hook writes:
Without instruments there can be no objectified meanings… it follows that the existence of certain structural lineaments which condition the possibility and presence of instruments, condition therefore a range of meanings. Where instruments are inapplicable or useless, there meanings can never be found (p.23).
It seems like Hook might be making a reductio ad absurdum argument here, because I can’t think of a counter-instance of a situation in which meaning is present without instrument.
And Hook’s definition of instrument, as I referenced earlier, is tied directly to its symbolic valence or meaning.
Simply put, “Every tool, appliance or artifice recites a lesson on the nature of the world” (p.24). This maxim of instrumentalism, also interestingly operates in parallel to what I’ve heard called in a documentary on WWII code decryption technology, “the first law of cryptology,” that is: every code has its cipher. It’s also another way of looking at the problem Hook glosses elsewhere as the tautological or necessarily circular nature of any system of knowledge.
This also harkens back to Dewey’s and others’ criticisms of logical positivism, which was in vogue in the first half of the 20th century. But in contrast to positivism’s impossible quest for certainty, Hook writes,
The instrument marks a point at which human interest intersects the natural continuity of the historical process, converting the even flow and existent brutality of natural ends into multiply-implicative foci of rational enterprise. Endings that are natural and causal become ends that are rational and informed (p.26).
Further, Hook explains: “Not only does the instrument pre-suppose continuity, it manifests in its own history a continuity. Having a growth, it has a genealogy too” (ibid.). And most critically:
Instrumentalities can never become transmuted into irrecoverable certainties, for their effective application depends upon definite objective environmental traits as well as upon the passing needs and purposes of those who live and react [interesting choice of words] in that environment (p.30).
For Hook as well as Dewey, all knowledge is contingent, dependent on the experience of the subject, the conditions of the object, and the dialectical (or at least reciprocal—Dewey stayed far away from this Hegelian designation, but Hook, seems less timid if still a little hesitant to provide this bridge between the worlds of Marx and Dewey) relationship between subject and object (or subject and environment). Thus:
Every instrumental operation, whether it be scientific or artistic, industrial or personal, implies an order to which it owes its existence and an order in virtue to which its ends are realized. The instrument enables us, by utilizing these natural processes, arrangements and termini which antecede and provoke its existence, to create new ends which they suggest and sometimes compel; and to regard in moments of exuberance, the mechanics of transformation as the magic of mind” (p.38).
This is how Hook ends his preliminary discussion of the metaphysics of the instrument. The next chapter comprises an extended discussion of an important particular case of instrumentality: mind. Hook’s consideration of mind—that specific instrumentality which pragmatist philosophers (especially Dewey among them, for whom psychology was of prime importance) have come to ascribe to the dialectic of human subjectivity, is important in its treatment of thought as a phenomenon “that goes on among [objective] things and events” (p.48).
But the most important segment of this chapter is a brief discussion of the ethics of the instrument that starts on page 57. Hook writes:
All social reform whether undertaken in the name of god, social engineering or revolution presupposes a belief in the instrumental character of social institutions. Reorganization is easiest and most effective when the direction of the change is in line with the natural unfolding and growth of institutional forces [~hegemony?]. An examination of the instrumentalities of economic production for example, suggests to collectivists [~socialists?] a revision and extension of the social ends of current distribution. These readings in terms of economic forces and resultants distinguish them from the Utopians [yet another name for a 1920s political faction I am unfamiliar with], who like the poor, are always with us and in the eyes of those who pride themselves on their social realism, attempt to transform things nearer their hearts’ desire by the incantation of democratic shibboleths and by philanthropic exhortation rather than by class organization and struggle (p.61).
So, Hook, here is getting on board with Dewey’s conception of pragmatism as political philosophy. But this section also sounds a certain note of criticism of Dewey, especially perhaps his hawkishness a decade earlier during WWI. Dewey’s magic word was always “democracy.” So, perhaps Hook’s barb (no pun intended) here may actually be aimed at least in part at the older generation of pragmatist philosophers.
Another example from collectivist theory to show how the desire to widen the interest of a political or social instrument may lead to its abolition, is illustrated in the conception of the state. The state regarded as the executive committee of the ruling class, capitalist or proletarian, will in Engel’s phrase ‘wither away’ when economic classes are abolished and will be replaced by more voluntary forms of organization. So long, then, as ethics pays attention to ways and means, instruments and agencies, it is intimately linked with social philosophy. “Although instruments have often been the means of man’s enslavement, construed as they appear in their social setting they breathe a promise that they will make him free” (ibid.).
Hook, who was avowedly a socialist (or collectivist perhaps) himself, according to Westbrook could not have anticipated the deformed bureaucratic state that would emerge out of Stalinism.
So, it is best perhaps to excuse his faith in Engels’ words as an instrument of revolution, just as Dewey’s earlier exhortations about democracy should be considered as at least in some respects detached from the political realities and contemporaneous rhetoric of the United States as an instrument of “democracy” and its attendant ideologies. Hook’s beliefs about socialism were well informed to say the least, but I think he would argue in retrospect, that his beliefs as well as the realities they were connected to were all contingent.
In other words, whether instrumentalism as a philosophy or any other political philosophy as an instrument sets you free or enslaves you just depends. It depends on you, your beliefs, the environment where you’re doing your believing in, and all of the other things and people which you and your philosophy interact with in that environment. “What then,” Hook wonders in the ensuing chapter, “is certainty in inference?” Hook’s answer on page 87 is this:
The only response that can be made is that certainty is the knowledge that the guiding principles which we have followed in the past, implicitly or not, have given us conclusions about the way in which things hang or hold together that have been verified by experience.”
Hook points to James’ assertion in The Meaning of Truth that “Pragmatism or pluralism has to fall back on a certain ultimate hardihood, a certain willingness to live without assurances or guarantees… on possibilities that are not certainties” (James p.229, quoted in Hook p.87).
Hook concludes this third chapter on what he calls the “leading principles” of instrumentalism by paraphrasing Alfred North Whitehead, another pragmatist philosopher whose Aims of Education I read for this class in week one:
Our knowledge of the structure or order of nature has been born in a shock, strengthened by a guess, and fixed through a habit. The logic of demonstration is the logic of discovery grown cold” (quoted in Hook p.88).
In this way logic itself can become a kind of metaphysics (ibid. p.93). Clarifying, Hook continues:
The metaphysical implication of the pragmatic-realist logic of leading principles is an open universe in which there is an element of radical indetermination, in which physical constants are limits of variation and physical laws summations and prognostications of physical flux” (ibid.).
So, for Hook, Dewey and the other pragmatist-instrumentalists, even hard science demands capitulation to uncertainty. All knowledge is necessarily socially constructed. And so:
A social movement, therefore, must be based not only on a social ideal, although that is a sine qua non, but upon a body of social knowledge. Not only is it true that the world can not be remade in its entirety, it can not even be completely re-thought or re-imagined. If this be questioned, I challenge anyone to see in his mind’s eye a color never beheld in experience before” (pp.99-100).
Hook’s position is not completely skeptical of knowledge, but demands a more comprehensive understanding of its sources and structures.
A fourth chapter here goes into what Hook calls “categorical analysis,” which on first blush appears to be a kind of phenomenology by another name perhaps. This is probably the least important chapter for my understanding of Hook’s philosophy. It is also the most tentative and unresolved.
But in his concluding chapter, “Of Human Freedom,” Hook speaks to a phenomenon that I have previously identified elsewhere as being of central importance to Dewey’s pragmatism and the project of progressivism in education more broadly. Hook begins by paraphrasing Augustine who wrote of the concept of time that, “If no one asks me what it is I know: If I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not” (referencing Augustine’s Confessions XI, xiv). Hook goes on to note decisively that freedom is not a question of psychology, seemingly deflecting some potential criticism from a proto-behaviorist readership.
Rather, Hook makes an interesting move, referencing Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, where Aristotle parses the possible limitations to freedom as 1) the physical compulsion of some external force, or 2) ignorance of the circumstances in which an act is performed. If I’m not mistaken, Dewey makes reference to these limits to freedom in his 1938 lecture that became the book, Experience and Education, which I have analyzed elsewhere for a different course in the “Ignorance Log” portion of this blog.
Again, if I’m not mistaken, both Dewey and Hook want to emphasize this second possible limitation on freedom. Hook writes:
Knowledge, then, of ourselves and of the world without is the key to freedom for it tells us what we are and that we can be no other than what we are. Freedom is the consequence of this knowledge revealed and attested to by our everyday activities” (p.140).
Here Hook with Hegel makes a leap to Adam in Eden, who arguably was not completely free until he ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Finally, Hook concludes:
Although human freedom depends upon a natural order, the natural order does not determine or confer upon itself significance. That is to say, the values which arise in the possession and exercise of freedom can never be derived from the order of the domain in which that freedom is a fact.
So, in similar fashion to the way in which knowledge systems are necessarily tautological, Hook notes that freedom’s existence is its own kind of a self-completing circle.
Just as Thomas Jefferson and the other founders of the political entity that became the United States of America recognized when they wrote that “certain inalienable rights” had been conferred upon all people by God, Hook seems to be saying that freedom is never completely “man-made.” More to the point, it is a similar move to the Audre Lorde epigram that became Arendt’s book title: The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I’m misquoting or misattributing that somehow I’m sure. But above, all, Hook’s conclusion with the possibility of freedom is true not only to his forebears’ pragmatism, but I think also pushes the envelope on their interpretations. His phenomenology of instruments—if it can be called that— is ingenious. I think I ultimately have to agree with Westbrook’s characterization of Hook’s oeuvre—at least in the case of his Metaphysics—holds true. instrumentalism is a welcome bridge between pragmatism and its underlying dialecticism.
Look for another (probably shorter) entry later on this week, on Dewey and Peirce /pers/ and the social and political directions they took pragmatism (or pragmaticism).