"Before impugning an opponent's motives, even when they legitimately may be impugned, answer his arguments.""Everyone who remembers his own education remembers teachers, not methods and techniques. The teacher is the heart of the educational system.""Fear of death has been the greatest ally of tyranny past and present.""I was guilty of judging capitalism by its operations and socialism by its hopes and aspirations; capitalism by its works and socialism by its literature.""Idealism, alas, does not protect one from ignorance, dogmatism, and foolishness.""Philosophy, most broadly viewed, is the critical survey of existence from the standpoint of value.""Students rarely disappoint teachers who assure them in advance that they are doomed to failure.""Those who say that life is worth living at any cost have already written an epitaph of infamy, for there is no cause and no person that they will not betray to stay alive.""Tolerance always has limits - it cannot tolerate what is itself actively intolerant.""Wisdom is a kind of knowledge. It is knowledge of the nature, career, and consequences of human values."
Born in Brooklyn to Jennie and Isaac Hook, who were Austrian-Jewish immigrants, Hook was a Socialist Party supporter during the Debs era when he was in high school. He earned his Bachelor's degree at the City College of New York in 1923, then his Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1927, where he was a student of the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. Upon finishing his studies, Hook was hired by New York University, which employed him until his retirement in 1972. From 1948 to 1969 he was head of the department of philosophy.
At the beginning of his career, Hook achieved prominence as an expert on Karl Marx's philosophy and was himself a Marxist. He attended the lectures of Karl Korsch in Berlin in 1928 and did research at the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow in the summer of 1929. He wrote enthusiastically about the Soviet Union. In 1932 he supported the Communist Party's William Z. Foster when he ran for President of the United States. However, Hook broke completely with the Comintern in 1933, holding its policies responsible for the triumph of Nazism in Germany. He accused Stalin of putting "the needs of the Russian state" over the needs of the international revolution.
Hook remained, however, active on the far left during the Great Depression. He was a leading member of the American Workers Party headed by A. J. Muste. He also debated the meaning of Marxism with radical Max Eastman (who, like Hook, had studied under John Dewey at Columbia University) in a series of public exchanges. In the late 1930s, Hook assisted Leon Trotsky's efforts to clear his name in a special Commission of Inquiry headed by Dewey, which investigated Stalinist charges made against Trotsky during the Moscow Trials.
The Great Purge prompted in Hook an increasing ambivalence toward Marxism. In 1939, Hook formed the Committee for Cultural Freedom, a short-lived organization that set the stage for his postwar politics by opposing "totalitarianism" on the left and right. By the time of the Cold War Hook was a prominent anti-Communist, although he continued to consider himself a democratic socialist throughout his life.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hook helped found Americans for Intellectual Freedom, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), and the American Committee for Cultural Freedom. These bodies—the CCF was most central—were funded by the Central Intelligence Agency through a variety of fronts, and sought to dissuade American liberals or leftists from continuing to advocate cooperation with the Soviet Union.
In the 1960s, Hook was a frequent critic of the New Left attaining notoriety for his outspoken support of the Vietnam War and for his defense of Governor Ronald Reagan's decision to remove Angela Davis from her position as a professor at UCLA because of her membership in the Communist Party (she was later rehired). He ended his career in the 1970s and 1980s as a fellow of the conservative Hoover Institution in Stanford, California.
The National Endowment for the Humanities selected Hook for the 1984 Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government's highest honor for achievement in the humanities. Hook's lecture was entitled "Education in Defense of a Free Society."
Hook's memoirs, Out of Step, recount his life, his activism for a number of educational causes, as well as his recollections of John Dewey, Mortimer J. Adler, Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein and Morris Cohen.
On May 23, 1985 Hook was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan.