Isaiah Berlin Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)
ph_0111207219-Berlin.jpg Isaiah Berlin Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Drawing upon the liberal heritage of Western civilization, Berlin advocated viewing history and ideas from a plurality of viewpoints, the better to provide realistic and reasonable answers to the conditions and problems of human existence and society.

Early Life

Isaiah Mendelevich Berlin, the son of Jewish parents, was born in 1909 in Riga, a major city in the Baltic nation of Latvia, which had been part of the Russian Empire since the eighteenth century. Both Berlin’s father, Mendel Berlin, and his mother, Marie Berlin, spoke Russian. They were very interested in the arts, especially writing and music; throughout his life, Isaiah Berlin displayed a keen appreciation for and enjoyment of literature and opera.

World War I began in 1914, and by 1915, German armies were pressing close to Riga. The Berlins moved into Russia for greater safety, first to Adreapol and then, in 1917, to the capital, Petrograd (modern-day St. Petersburg). In Petrograd, the young Berlin witnessed first the moderate February Revolution, which brought Prince Aleksandr F. Kerensky to power, and then the more violent Bolshevik Revolution in November, led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. It was during this time that Berlin saw a former czarist police officer dragged away, pale and struggling, to his almost certain death by a mob, an action that, as he remembered years later, “gave me a lifelong horror of physical violence.”

When Latvia achieved its independence in 1919, the Berlins returned to Riga, where they endured the extreme hardships of the postwar years. Berlin later recalled standing in line for up to five hours to buy bread or other food. Berlin’s father, a committed Anglophile, had friends and business acquaintances in Britain, and in 1921, the family moved to England, living in London before settling in Hampstead. While in Britain, the young Berlin grew fluent in English but retained his knowledge of Russian by reading the great classics of Russian literature.

After establishing himself as an outstanding student in preparatory school, Berlin received a scholarship to attend Corpus Christi College of Oxford University in 1928. While there, he edited an intellectual periodical, The Oxford Outlook, and made a lifelong friend of the poet Stephen Spender. His time at Oxford confirmed his choice of career: an intellectual, whose service to the public in both government and the academy would be appreciated primarily because of his own independence of thought and interests.

Life’s Work

After graduation, Berlin became a lecturer in philosophy at New College, Oxford. Soon after, he was elected to a fellowship at All Souls College. He was commissioned to write a biographical and critical study of German political philosopher Karl Marx for the Home University Library; ironically, he was not the first choice of the editors. With perhaps equal irony, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment was Berlin’s only full-length book; although a prolific writer, he would confine himself to essays and collections throughout his lengthy and productive career.

Berlin’s Karl Marx was, in many ways, the first serious consideration of Marx as a philosopher and political thinker in the noncommunist world. It gave Marx the respect he deserved for having acutely isolated and analyzed the failures and inequities of unrestrained capitalism and honored him for his criticisms of the often hypocritical stances of bourgeoisie democracy but did not shrink from noting that Marx, in his view of the inevitable trend of human history, had failed to foresee either fascism or the welfare state. In short, in this relatively brief work, Berlin described Marx the man, Marxism the philosophy, and Marxism’s fatal contradictions.

Chosen in 1938 as a fellow of New College, Berlin spent the first years of World War II teaching. In 1941, he was sent by the British Foreign Office to the United States, first to New York and then to Washington, D.C. He was responsible for drafting reports on the political mood in the United States. Later Winston Churchill would state that Berlin’s dispatches were the ones he most prized and enjoyed during the war years. They were published as Washington Despatches, 1941-1945 (1981).

Berlin was transferred to Moscow in 1945 and remained there until the following year. While in the Soviet capital, he met a number of writers and intellectuals, among them the novelist and poet Boris Pasternak and the poet Anna Akhmatova. He was especially impressed with Akhmatova and later wrote movingly of their meeting and her influence on him in his work Personal Impressions. His regard for Akhmatova was not one-sided, for the Russian poet was impressed enough by Berlin to write a poem about the visit, and she felt that the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was so suspicious of the meeting that it was a small, but real, cause of the Cold War.

During the war, Berlin had decided that his interests were less in pure philosophy than in the history of ideas, especially those of political science. In 1950, he returned to All Souls College and began his examination of how, and perhaps why, people believe what they do and how they act upon those beliefs. One of his central concepts was that there was no single, universal answer to the perpetual questions of human...

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Isaiah Berlin Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Berlin, Isaiah, and Ramin Jahanbegloo. Conversations with Isaiah Berlin. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992. In a question-and-answer format, Berlin discusses a wide range of topics, including his personal history, intellectual development, and opinions on philosophy and philosophers. Berlin’s responses to questions on such topics as “two kinds of liberty” are direct and lucid, and the biographical sections, especially those dealing with Berlin’s life as a young boy in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, are fascinating.

Cohen-Almagor, Raphael, ed. Challenges to Democracy: Essays in Honour and Memory of Isaiah Berlin. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. A tribute. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Galipeau, Claude. Isaiah Berlin’s Liberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A thoughtful consideration of Berlin’s version of liberalism and how it differs from and yet is linked to the traditions of classical liberalism. Galipeau is especially good at placing Berlin’s thought in relationship to modern world politics, the excesses of which were often in direct, if not brutal, conflict with his more humane and humanitarian stance.

Gray, John. Isaiah Berlin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. A thoughtful examination of Berlin’s belief in the existence of values that while different are equally important. The central thesis of the book is that Berlin’s work is based on a principle that might be called “value-pluralism,” meaning that ultimate human values are objective but diverse and may often conflict.

Ignatieff, Michael. Isaiah Berlin: A Life. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998. A biography. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Lilla, Mark, Ronald Dworkin, and Robert Silvers, eds. The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin. New York: New York Review Books, 2001. Examines Berlin’s contributions in political science.

Margalit, Edna, and Avishai Margalit, eds. Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991. This collection draws together essays that touch on the wide range of Berlin’s interests, from opera to political science to philosophy. Although a number of the pieces included here are valuable, the essay by celebrated legal scholar Ronald Dworkin on “Two Concepts of Liberty” is especially illuminating for those wishing to understand the full impact of Four Essays on Liberty.

Ryan, Alan, ed. The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honor of Isaiah Berlin. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1979. A useful collection of essays that shed light on Berlin’s philosophy of history and his views on the history of philosophy.

Isaiah Berlin Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In writings that earned for him a position as one of the most remarkable political thinkers of his age, Isaiah Mendelevich Berlin demonstrated an unusual and sweeping grasp of related disciplines, summoning intellectual history, moral philosophy, and literary criticism to support an essentially liberal view of historical and social values in the twentieth century. Berlin was born in 1909 in Riga, Latvia, when that country was part of the Russian Empire; his parents were Jewish, and his father, Mendel Berlin, was a prosperous timber merchant. Early impressions of Russian life may have affected Isaiah Berlin’s cultural proclivities, but in 1920 his family settled in England.

After attending St. Paul’s School in London, Berlin received a scholarship that allowed him to enroll at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He graduated with first-class honors in two subjects, and in 1932 he became a Fellow of All Souls College. He began his teaching career as a lecturer in philosophy at New College. By that time, he had already published some short articles, including music reviews; among subsequent essays were studies of induction and philosophical verification.

Although he did not at this stage feel impelled to produce academic writings in quantity, Berlin found the company of other scholars and thinkers both congenial and stimulating. It would seem that he considered the companionship of J. L. Austin, an analytical philosopher, diverting and rewarding; when other commitments did not impinge upon them, he and Austin spent hours at a time, day and night, pondering the relative merits of logical positivism, linguistic analysis, and other movements that had transformed their discipline. Other concerns were also significant to Berlin, and in his full-length work Karl Marx: His Life and Environment he set forth the philosophical sources for the ideas of the well-known socialist thinker. As an intellectual biography, this study is regarded by many as provocative and useful, though some critics have reproached Berlin for neglecting the economic elements of Marx’s theories.

Berlin spent much of World War II in the United States; in 1941, he was assigned to a branch of the British Information Service in New York, and during the four years that followed he served as first secretary of the British embassy in Washington, D.C. He was, in effect, charged with evaluating information about political developments and America’s intentions during the conflict, and he composed working drafts of the great majority of dispatches that were received in London from this office. The quality of Berlin’s reports was widely recognized by members of the wartime government, including, it has been said, Winston Churchill, and indeed, in 1946 Berlin was made Commander, Order of the British Empire.

Because of his background and his knowledge of Russian, Berlin was also called into service for a certain period in 1945-1946 at the British embassy in Moscow; during his travels, he met important writers such as Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova. A return visit to the Soviet Union, in 1956, fortified Berlin in his convictions that literary and cultural traditions remained vital matters under the Soviet state. Upon his resumption of university work, Berlin returned to Oxford; in 1949, he became a visiting professor at Harvard University, where he lectured during subsequent terms as well. Other appointments of...

(The entire section is 1400 words.)