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Hospers and the Socratic Spirit

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Source: Editorial in Literature of Liberty, Spring 1981, vol. 4, No. 1

Editorial: John Hospers and the Socratic Spirit

Professor John Hospers's principled life, voluminous writings, and precise scholarship are of a piece, wedding theory and practice in the Socratic pursuit and clarification of the true, the good, and the beautiful. His speculative analysis—practiced over thirty-five years of a productive scholarly career —has advanced and illuminated his chief areas of philosophic concern: social-political philosophy, ethics and art theory. All the while he engaged in the rigorous demands of a teacher and a scholar, he practiced what Theodore Roszak in The Dissenting Academy describes as “the spirit of Socrates,” the responsibility of the academic to participate in the discussion of the vital public issues of our individual rights and liberties. Making the proper and central business of the academy this Socratic examination of man's life with respect to its moral qualities, Professor Hospers's work is highly germane to the following bibliographical essay. Professor Hospers's scholarly practice thus embodies the insight of F.A. Harper, founder of the Institute for Humane Studies:

…it is clear that if one would change the society in which he lives, in some major way, there must first occur a change in the philosophical position of key intellectual leaders. This will then bear fruit in its time. There is no other way. All history confirms this.

Professor Hospers's Socratic spirit of open-minded examination of the key issues of philosophy has shone through his fairness as editor of the Personalist (now the Pacific Philosophical Quarterly) when, in the early 1970s he opened the journal's pages to the long-neglected discussion of rights, egoism, and normative political philosophy in general. Director of the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California, his teaching method reflects Socrates' manner of philosophizing. He enjoys proposing specific cases and counter-examples to his students as a way of questioning unexamined assumptions.

This same Socratic spirit informs his numerous books and articles. Professor Hospers's complete bibliography would run to several pages, but a sample of titles, many of them classroom standard texts, that have been translated into several languages may serve to indicate his scope:

  • Philosophic Method and Analysis:
    • Introduction to Philosophic Analysis. 2nd ed. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1967.
    • “What Is Explanation?” Journal of Philosophy (June 20, 1946):356–377.
    • “What Is Knowing?” The Graduate Review of Philosophy 1(Fall 1956):3 – 12.
  • • In Aesthetics:
    • Meaning and Truth in the Arts. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1946.
    • “Problems of Aesthetics.” In the Encyclopedia of Philosophy ed. Paul Edwards. New York: Macmillan-Free Press, 1967, pp. 35–36.
    • “Philosophy of Art.” In the Encyclopedia Britannica. 15th ed., 1974 pp. 40–56 (26,000 words).
  • • In Ethics:
    • Human Conduct. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1961.
    • “Ethical Egoism.” The Personalist 51(Spring 1970):190–195 (with Wilfrid Sellars).
    • Readings in Ethical Theory, 2nd ed. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1970.
    • “The Literature of Ethics in the Twentieth Century.” Literature of Liberty 3(Autumn 1980):5–41.
  • • In Social and Political Philosophy:
    • “Political Ethics.” In Human Conduct. New York: Har-court Brace Jovanovich, 1961. Chapter 8.
    • Libertarianism: A Political Philosophy for Tomorrow. Los Angeles: Nash Publishing Co. 1971
    • “What Libertarianism Is.” In Tibor Machan (ed) The Libertarian Alternative Chicago: Nelson Hall Co., 1974, pp. 3–20.

Even this partial listing of his scholarship impresses one with John Hospers's achievement in philosophic theory. Just as remarkable has been his ability in converting theory into practice. Not simply an abstract aesthetician, his is adept as a practicing critic of music, movies, and literature, not to mention his skills as a gourmet cook. His fusion of theory and practice is equally impressive in political philosophy. He is as much at home in analyzing the normative foundations of rights as in running for the presidency in 1972, when he held out the remote but exhilarating Socratic promise of installing a philosopher-president in the White House. Much of his commitment to human freedom and individual rights he imbibed from the valuestatic/s practiced by the independent and self-reliant Dutch farming community of Pella, Iowa, where he was born in 1918.

This last consideration leads us to the vital Socratic inquiry—the nature, preconditions, and justification of a free and humane society—a theme which John Hospers has skillfully analyzed together with the libertarian philosophers surveyed in David Gordon's following essay. This Socratic inquiry into human rights and liberty, involving life-and-death issues of man's survival, demands no less than a full Socratic examination making use of all resources of every philosophic tradition or mode of thinking that can shed some light on these issues.

In his Critique of Religion and Philosophy, the late Walter Kaufmann similarly stressed the need to bring the full “heritage of Socrates” to bear on the central questions of man's lot, his nature, mortality, and freedom. In Kaufmann's terms, an adequate Socratic inquiry into human freedom and rights would require our combining “two perennial tendencies,” that of the “analyst” and of “the existentialist,” that is, logic and intuition, scholastic analytic rigor and romantic insightful vision. The true Socratic investigation into the mystery of man's freedom and meaning in the universe avoids the exclusive polarities of either undisciplined vision or unpoetic analysis. Our inspiration as philosophers could well be Socrates' insistence at the end of the Crito (on the very eve of his death on behalf of the examined life) for a union in the psyche of Apollo and Dionysus, of rational logos and Bacchic music or mythos. In a word the examination of human rights and freedom demands the integrated philosophizing of scientific visionaries.

In Friedrich Hayek's analysis, the theorists of human freedom and rights are today polarized into two camps. The dominant camp consists of “constructivist rationalists,” who, uninformed by man's history, biology, evolution, or place in nature and universe, derive substantive rights from abstract self-evident axioms. The second camp, which Hayek endorses, avoids the undue rationalism of the successors of Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Kant, Moore, or Rand, and seeks to explore the implications for human ethics and social philosophy of man's biological, social, and historical evolution in the universe. Socrates might have been inclined to suspect that both camps contain a measure of truth and that there may be more than two camps which might have something of value to contribute to our understanding of freedom.

The philosophic profession has been rising in complaint about the domination by one philosophical approach. This need for pluralism in approaches and methodology in philosophy is mirrored in the reality of pluralism on rights theory among libertarian thinkers. In a world of new sciences—biochemistry, quantum theory, systems analysis—any discipline must adopt a pluralist attitude or destroy creativity and discovery. New truth will be accepted in a discipline only in an atmosphere of freedom to choose. Yale historian Franklin L. Baumer has shown in Modern European Thought that the modern world has increasingly abandoned the generally static outlook of earlier ages and has gradually adopted a world view that recognizes dynamic process and continuity in change. As in earlier ages, the academic world may be the last to accept the reality of dynamic process and continuity in change.

Last modified April 10, 2014