By Sidney Hook

Prometheus Books. 310 pp. $24.95

IN THE WORLD of liberal-to-left politics, Sidney Hook was usually viewed as a relentless cold warrior who conducted a discomforting 50-year battle against Stalinism and its apologists up to his death in July 1989. He seems to have been the first, in the mid-1930s, to use the concept of "totalitarianism" to describe Stalin's introduction of terror "over the entire fabric of social life," long before Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) gave the term wide acceptance. Yet the fact that his criticisms have proved to be accurate, and are today repeated daily in the Soviet Union itself, has not generally reversed the hostility engendered by his premature anti-Stalinism.

Hook accepted the unpopularity of a truthful prophet with stoicism and even humor. At a sizable public celebration of his 80th birthday, he remarked with some satisfaction that "it would be possible to fill a much larger hall with those who are not friends of Sidney Hook." No intellectual of his time enjoyed the high-spirited combat of ideas as much as he did. His bibliography -- which runs to 37 closely printed pages -- is studded with the notations: "reply by . . ." (a large assortment, including Leon Trotsky, Bertrand Russell, Upton Sinclair and Malcolm Cowley), followed by "rejoinder by Hook."

I sense a thawing in recent years of sentiment about this embattled polemicist. The present volume, composed largely of pieces written in the late 1980s along with a few published earlier, should help the process. Some of the articles are more personal and revealing, even heartbreaking, than anything in his splendid but basically political autobiography, Out of Step (1987). A serious illness in the early 1980s brought Hook so painfully close to death that he asked his doctor to cut off life-support services. The doctor refused and Hook recovered to finish his autobiography and write the articles collected here.

But he does not find these compensations sufficient reason to reject voluntary euthanasia. A short op-ed piece in the New York Times defending that choice brought him more positive response than anything he had ever written. In this essay and in several others reprinted here, he argues that the value of life depends on its quality (he cites Seneca: "The wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can"), that limited medical resources could be put to better use than to sustain the painful or insensate survival of the very old, and that the imposition of helpless misery on family and friends in such circumstances can hardly be justified.

Hook asked the editor to place directly after this cri de coeur a stunning article on "The Ethics of Suicide," written in 1927 when he was 25 years old. Here, curiously, he offers as the strongest argument against impulsive suicide the pain it inflicts on family and friends. This youthful effort displays Hook's lifelong gifts of reason and balance, but employed with literary panache, invoking the insights of Goethe and Dostoevsky to enrich the budding philosopher's logic.

In old age, too, despite his protestations of declining verve, Hook never loses the passion of his polemics, even when he returns to familiar territory like academic freedom or the requirements of a truly liberal education or socialism and the welfare state (he sees them as kin and desirable) or equality and affirmative action. Nor does he lose the dogged, inquisitive persistence of the professional philosopher, which was the vocation that occupied most of his time and attention. He was chairman of the philosophy department at New York University, a past president of the American Philosophical Association and the foremost expositor of pragmatism after William James and John Dewey. His special role in American intellectual life was to bring the rigor of philosophical reasoning, the habit of making fine distinctions, to the discussion of social and political issues.

Two of the pieces in this volume seem to me superb examples of Hook's combination of polemical zest and logical sobriety. Both are essay-reviews of currently provocative books. Hook begins his critique of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind by giving the writer credit for airing the unsavory impact of the 1960s New Left on American culture generally and the university in particular. But his main theme is the philosophical weakness of Bloom's proposed remedy: an elitist education based on moral absolutes, which in Hook's view sadly overlooks the complexity of circumstances that surround real moral choices. In private life as in the political arena, he believes, most often the best choice that we can reasonably make is the lesser evil, rarely the absolute good, even if one could isolate that good from other competing goods.

Reviewing Ellen Schrecker's No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the University, Hook finds that the author's justifiable detestation of Senator McCarthy's unscrupulous methods does not absolve her of the sins of historical distortion and faulty logic. He adduces persuasive evidence to refute the writer's claims that Communist professors for the most part held views independent of the changing party line, and that American academics were overwhelmingly terrorized into craven cringing by the senator. On the contrary, he argues, the rare defenders of McCarthy were generally ostracized and their careers more often damaged. ON TWO issues, however, Hook's formidable logic seems to me to bypass the complicated reality. In his article on academic freedom, Hook returns to his long-held view that while any heresy is acceptable in the university, conspiracy is not; that is, teachers who took their classroom guidance from a Communist Party cell should be judged by their peers as incompetent. Clearly, it is undesirable to have teachers with a secret agenda on the faculty. But Hook's cure may well be more dangerous than the affliction, since the search for conspiracy would create an atmosphere more subversive of academic standards than the ocasional fanatic adherent of an inflexible dogma.

On the issue of affirmative action in the form of quotas, Hook objects reasonably that this violates the ideal of judging people as individuals rather than as members of an ethnic or racial group. What he overlooks is that discrimination of many varieties, racial and non-racial, has been endemic in American society. Some craft unions limited membership to relatives of members. Hiring in big cities is often based on ethnic or political networks, and in small cities on personal networks. Many universities admit students on the basis of geographical variety or athletic ability, rather than pure academic merit. Is it that much more dangerous to the fabric of American society to include by goals or quotas, in special and limited situations, members of a group previously excluded from, say, a southern police force, so long as those chosen are competent, even if not the most competent? Is there not a compensatory social gain in the visible representation of important groups with a history of valid grievance?

Sidney Hook was rarely if ever distressed by admirers who took issue with him; his own pattern was always to make clear his disagreements even with those who generally agreed with him. As for those who held views profoundly alien to his own, Hook consistently observed toward them a scrupulous style of debate. I recall his crisp admonition in an early article on the ethics of controversy: "Before impugning an opponent's motives, even when they legitimately may be impugned, answer his arguments." His latest collection shows him to have been to the very end a nonpareil marshaler of arguments, as well as an exemplary figure in American intellectual life. Nathan Glick is the former editor of the U.S. Information Agency's quarterly, Dialogue.