Isaiah Berlin Essay - Critical Essays

Berlin, Isaiah

Introduction

Isaiah Berlin 1909-1997

Russian-born, English historian, political philosopher, essayist, educator, and translator

Berlin is best known for a long, distinguished, and influential career as a historian of ideas and a political philosopher. He was the champion of a pluralistic liberalism based on skepticism regarding human perfectibility, final solutions to human problems, and the ameliorative powers of rationalism. Berlin's theories were also based upon the conviction that the human condition demands choices between often conflicting values of equal worthiness.

Biographical Information

Born to a wealthy and distinguished Jewish family in Riga, Latvia, Berlin grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he enjoyed a comfortable youth, with loving parents, and an intellectually stimulating environment until the Russian Revolution. In 1921, fearful for their safety, his family immigrated to England, where his father, a timber merchant, had managed previously to deposit their fortune. After attending St. Paul's School, Berlin enrolled in Oxford in 1931, and became a lecturer in philosophy in 1932. He was associated with the university until his death. Berlin spent the Second World War working for the British Foreign Service in Washington, D.C.; his dispatches to Downing Street impressed Churchill by their intelligence and vivacity. After the war he was assigned to the British embassy in Moscow. During his time in the Soviet Union, Berlin met the dissident poets Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak. Their determination to bear witness in their art to the inhumanity of totalitarianism despite censorship, terror, and desolation influenced his later pro-Cold War stance. Berlin became known as a writer in the 1950s with the publication of his study of Leo Tolstoy and the place of determinism in history The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953). In the mid 1970s, Henry Hardy, one of his graduate students, embarked upon a project of collecting all Berlin's disparately published essays and unpublished lectures; seven volumes resulted. In the 1960s Berlin taught at Harvard and Princeton and was appointed to a chair at the City University of New York. In 1965 he was invited to create a college at Oxford dedicated to the natural and social sciences. Through his friendship with McGeorge Bundy, then head of the Ford Foundation, and his prominence in the Jewish Community in London, Berlin secured funding for building the college; he also gathered the faculty and supervised the design of the buildings. Berlin's sociability was legendary, and he was on familiar terms with many notable figures of the twentieth century and served as an advisor to such figures as Winston Churchill, David Ben Gurion, John F. Kennedy, and Margaret Thatcher. Berlin's fame and prestige grew in his later years. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1957, became president of the British Academy in 1974, received numerous honorary degrees from prestigious universities, and was awarded the Jerusalem prize in 1979, the Erasmus Prize in 1983, and the Agnelli Prize for contributions to the ethical understanding of advanced societies in 1988. He died in 1997.

Major Works

The body of Berlin's work, comprising a variety of essays and lectures on related themes, reflects the ongoing engagement of a public intellectual. In essays on Niccolò Machiavelli, Giambattista Vico, J. G. Herder, Joseph de le Maistre, Benjamin Disraeli, Karl Marx, Ivan Turgenyev, Alexander Herzen, and Tolstoy, as well as on themes including liberty, the incommensurability of equally worthy values, the Enlightenment, romanticism, and fascism, Berlin explored the tensions between monism and pluralism, negative and positive freedom, individual liberty and social justice, historical determinism and free choice, and rationalism and anti-rationalism. Informed by impeccable scholarship, Berlin's essays are well-regarded for their relevance to current problems and for his ability to give readers the impression of immediate contact with the figures about whom he wrote.

Critical Reception

Berlin is regarded by many as a towering figure in twentieth-century thought. His writings on negative and positive liberty have served as the starting point for numerous discussions in scholarly and political journals. His metaphor of the fox for those with wide ranging interests who can see things from varying perspectives, and the hedgehog for those who know “one big thing” has become a common designator of literary and political types. Because of his radio lectures in England, he became known to a general as well as to an academic audience. The liberalism he espoused has been challenged by ideological opponents on the left and on the right.

Principal Works

Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (biography) 1939

The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History (essays) 1953

The Age of Enlightenment (philosophy) 1956

Historical Inevitability (lecture) 1957

Four Essays on Liberty (political theory) 1969

Fathers and Children (lecture) 1972

Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas (history) 1976

Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays (philosophy) 1978

Russian Thinkers (history) 1978

Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (history) 1979

Personal Impressions (essays) 1980

The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas (history) 1990

The Magus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism (history) 1993

The Sense of Reality (history) 1997

Criticism

Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: “In the Name of Marx: The Philosopher and the Fight,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 1966, October 7, 1939, p. 570.

[In the following excerpt a reviewer praises Berlin's study of Karl Marx.]

Mr. Berlin has packed a great deal into this scholarly and admirably written little volume [Karl Marx: His Life and Environment]. It is a biographical sketch, a vividly condensed study of the background of ideas and personalities against which Marx's labours grew to maturity, a summary of the theory and the diverse implications of historical materialism and a review of Marx's historic achievement. In all these respects the book is a model of objective clarity. One could wish that Mr. Berlin had a taste for shorter sentences, but on the other hand it must be said that his elaborate and almost neo-Augustan precision of style is not without charm.

Whatever else he might be, Marx declared towards the end of his life, he was not a Marxist. The saying should be borne in mind as an aid to distinguishing between Marx's ideas and the things that have been said and done in his name. Though the essence of his philosophy is the claim that, unlike other philosophies, it is a means of changing the world and not merely of explaining it, though also it was Marx who in fact created the International and in so doing directed the practical course of Socialism on the Continent of Europe, it is as a thinker, needless to say, and not as a man of action that he carries the astonishing weight of his influence. He was never a popular leader or agitator, though there may have been something of the thwarted Realpolitiker, as others have suggested, in the man who denounced yet appeared to envy Lassalle's dealings with Bismarck. The library was Marx's real field of battle; the laws governing the history of society were the weapons he fashioned for the predetermined victory of the proletariat.

LIFE OF POVERTY

Having wisely emphasized this view of his subject at the start, Mr. Berlin goes on to describe the man. Marx is not an attractive figure. Only the affectionate simplicity of his family life and the enduring trust of his friendship with Engels soften the portrait of an overbearing and aggressive theorist, harshly intolerant, at once insensitive and thinskinned, uncompromising and jealous, contemptuous of personal authority even while he strove for undisputed intellectual leadership. Marx was approachable to others only on his own terms. Yet the most forbidding features of the man, as Mr. Berlin justly points out, were traced either by the force of circumstance or by the indomitable...

(The entire section is 1104 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: “Fox and Hedgehog,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2703, November 20, 1953, p. 743.

[In the following essay, the reviewer contemplates Berlin's distinction between “foxes” and “hedgehogs.]

There are artists, historians and philosophers whose processes of thinking, feeling and creating seem to range far and wide over the infinite variety and multiplicity of experience without seeking to find a single focal point round which to organize their creation, a single all-illuminating vision. There are artists, historians and philosophers for whom this single point, this single vision, dominates and permeates everything they think and...

(The entire section is 1116 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: “History and Morals,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2759, December 17, 1954, p. 821.

[In the following essay, the reviewer discusses Berlin's ideas regarding historical determinism and human responsibility in Historical Inevitability.]

For the past 200 years or more, historians and philosophers of history have been busily engaged in an attempt to organize the past experience of mankind, to marshal the facts of history into an orderly sequence of cause and effect, and to enlarge our understanding of the past, in the spoken or unspoken belief that such understanding would contribute to the more effective management of the present and the...

(The entire section is 857 words.)

William Barrett (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: “Sharp Eyes for the Multiple Things,” in The New York Times, February 14, 1954, p. 4.

[In the following review of The Hedgehog and the Fox, Barrett praises Berlin's interpretation of the digressions on history which punctuate Tolstoy's War and Peace.]

Most of us, I imagine, reading War and Peace tend to skim over the long disquisitions on history as rather tedious breaks in a marvelously exciting story, and nearly all critics hitherto have given official sanction to this habit by attempting to prove that these historical essays are an unnecessary blemish upon a great work of art. However, Isaiah Berlin—lecturer in philosophy at Oxford and...

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Alan Ryan (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “A Glamorous Salon,” in Encounter, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, October, 1974, pp. 67-72.

[In the following essay, Ryan describes the style and the substance of Berlin's work in the history of ideas.]

At the very first lecture I ever attended as an undergraduate a clever voice behind me remarked, “Lectures have been obsolete since Gutenberg; it's typical that Oxford hasn't noticed yet.” Since I, if pressed, would have guessed that Gutenberg was somewhere in Sweden, I was relieved to discover that the clever voice had borrowed the joke from a previous night's speaker at the Union—John Wain, I think. I discovered almost as quickly that the Gutenberg revolution...

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Arnaldo Momigliano (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “On the Pioneer Trail,” in New York Review of Books, November 11, 1976, pp. 33-8.

[In the following reflection on Berlin's Vico and Herder, Momigliano focuses on the problem of what relation pluralism bears to relativism inside cultural and historical contexts.]

I

There is perhaps a slight element of prejudice in the opinion, widespread among us Piedmontese, that San Gennaro and Giambattista Vico must be left to the Neapolitans. This opinion is in deed prejudiced in so far as it does not take into account that both San Gennaro and Vico have proved embarrassing to educated Neapolitans, and more especially to the descendants of...

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Aileen Kelly (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Isaiah Berlin and Russian Thought,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3953, December 30, 1977, pp. 1523-4.

[In the following introduction to Russian Thinkers, Kelly explains Berlin's insights into the conflict between iconoclasm and the need for an overriding belief which dominated nineteenth century Russian intellectual activity.]

Do not look for solutions in this book—there are none; in genral modern man has no solutions.—Alexander Herzen, introduction to From the Other Shore.

In an attempt to explain the Russian Revolution to Lady Ottoline Morrell, Bertrand Russell once...

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John Leonard (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Books of The Times,” in The New York Times, April 20, 1979, p. C29.

[In the following review of Concepts and Categories, Leonard traces the development of Berlin's thought, interests, and literary style from the 1930s through the 1960s.]

They must have had fun—Isaiah Berlin and Stuart Hampshire and A. J. Ayer—lolling around Oxford in the late 1930's, wrangling over positivism and symbolic logic, verification and phenomenalism, wondering about linguistics. And it must have been more of an emotional wrench than Mr. Berlin, now Sir Isaiah, is willing to concede in his brief preface to this book, when he decided at the end of the war to look in...

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Encounter (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “Column,” in Encounter, Vol. LIII, No. 4, October, 1979, pp. 23-5.

[In the following essay, a reviewer explores Berlin's challenge to western rationalism.]

Maurice Bowra once said of Isaiah Berlin that, “though like Our Lord and Socrates Berlin has not written much”, his influence was immense. As in all Bowra's best jokes, this had a measure of truth in it, when it was said. Indeed, even Berlin's greatest friends and admirers once found it difficult to account for the reputation which, so it seemed, he had so effortlessly acquired.

His rooms in Oxford, in Corpus, All Souls, New College, were always the Mecca of an endless pilgrimage of...

(The entire section is 2446 words.)

Robert A. Kocis (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Reason, Development, and the Conflicts of Human Ends: Sir Isaiah Berlin's Vision of Politics,” in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 74, No. 1, March, 1980, pp. 38-52.

[In the following essay, Kocis examines Berlin's concept of negative and positive liberty, and explores and evaluates several critiques of it.]

What makes life worth living? To this, the central question of political and all practical philosophy, Sir Isaiah Berlin returns a singularly striking answer: there is no system to the cosmos, no plan to human development, nor any pattern to human values which can provide a reason for living. Only each individual's artistic and creative...

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Sidney Hook (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Isaiah Berlin's Enlightenment,” in Commentary, Vol. 69, No. 5, May, 1980, pp. 61-4.

[In the following essay, Hook reflects on Berlin's observations on Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment thought.]

Isaiah Berlin's third volume of collected essays, Against the Current, falls within the area of historical sociology This is the last of the twelve divisions in which Arthur O. Lovejoy, the father of the academic discipline known as the history of ideas, charted the interests and themes customarily explored under that rubric. The field is concerned, among other things, with the ruling ideas, the climates of opinion, the underlying intellectual currents...

(The entire section is 3768 words.)

John N. Gray (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “On Negative and Positive Liberty,” in Political Studies, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, December, 1980, pp. 507-26.

[In the following essay, Gray examines the components of the arguments Berlin advances, and other writers' responses to them, regarding the nature and value of negative and positive freedom.]

It is the argument of an influential school of philosophers working within a tradition of thought strongly influenced by logical positivism and by linguistic analysis that disputes about the nature of freedom may be resolved conclusively and to the satisfaction of all reasonable students of the subject. Among such exponents of what I shall henceforth call a...

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Peter Stansky (lecture date 1981)

SOURCE: “Friends and Heroes,” in The New York Times, February 8, 1981, pp. 1, 26.

[In the following review of Berlin's Personal Impressions, Stansky focuses attention on Berlin's accounts of meetings with Boris Pasternak and Anna Akmatohva.]

Only the title is bland. The contents of this fourth and final volume of Isaiah Berlin's Selected Writings bear the distinctive stamp of one of the great thinkers and writers of our age. The general reader, unfamiliar with his work, or put off by the formidable subject matter of the earlier volumes—Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas,...

(The entire section is 2274 words.)

Anthony Quinton (review date 1981)

SOURCE: “The Liberal Mind,” in Encounter, Vol. LVI, No. 5, May, 1981, pp. 83-6.

[In the following review of Personal Impressions, Quinton draws a picture of Berlin from an examination of Berlin's portraits of others.]

Autobiographies are ordinarily the work of those who in certain crucial ways are unselfconscious, those who have no doubts about their own importance or interestingness, a state of mind that is the typical outcome of complete absence of a sense of humour. In the greatest autobiographies this is carried to a point of monstrosity, as in the cases of St Augustine and Rousseau, two of the most detestable human beings known to history. Cellini and...

(The entire section is 2364 words.)

Robert A. Kocis (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Toward a Coherent Theory of Human Moral Development: Beyond Sir Isaiah Berlin's Vision of Human Nature,” in Political Studies, Vol. XXXI, No. 3, September, 1983, pp. 370-93.

[In the following excerpt, Kocis criticizes the use Berlin makes of rationalist and romantic thought in his philosophy of liberty, and Berlin responds.]

Sir Isaiah Berlin rightly contends that the ‘ideas of every philosopher concerned with human affairs in the end rest on his conception of what man is and can be. To understand such thinkers, it is more important to grasp this central notion or image, which may be implicit, but which determines their picture of the world, than even...

(The entire section is 12895 words.)

Beata Polanowska-Sygulska (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “One Voice More on Berlin's Doctrine of Liberty,” in Political Studies, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, March, 1989, pp. 123-7.

[In the following essay, Polanowska-Sygulska defends Berlin's wariness of positive freedom.]

Sir Isaiah Berlin's famous essay on political freedom, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’,1 was described by Professor Marshall Cohen as ‘academic, inflated and obscure’.2 It is perhaps an indication of the value of the essay that it should produce such a violent reaction. However, this characterization of the essay has relevance to the problem of political liberty itself for there is no doubt that the concept is of its nature...

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Joseph Brodsky (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Isaiah Berlin at Eighty,” in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVI, No. 13, August 17, 1989, pp. 44-5.

[In the following essay, Brodsky offers an eightieth birthday tribute to Berlin.]

It is almost a rule that the more complex a man is, the simpler his billing. A person with a retrospective ability gone rampant often would be called an historian. Similarly, one to whom reality doesn't seem to make sense gets dubbed a philosopher. Social critic or ethical thinker are standard labels for somebody who finds the ways of his society reprehensible. And so it goes, for the world always tries to arrest its adolescence, to appear younger than it is. Few people...

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William L. McBride (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Two Concepts of Liberty Thirty Years Later: A Sartre-Inspired Critique,” in Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 297-322.

[In the following essay, McBride challenges Berlin's concept of negative liberty by comparing it to Jean-Paul Sartre's concept of freedom.]

“Two Concepts of Liberty” was first delivered by Isaiah Berlin as an inaugural lecture, upon his installation in the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory at Oxford, on October 31, 1958. Oxford's influence in the world of philosophy, at least in the English-speaking world, was at that time still at a height from which it has since greatly declined. But...

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Timothy M. Renick (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Response to Berlin and McBride,” in Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 323-35.

[In the following essay, Renick extends McBride's critique of Berlin's concept of negative liberty—see previous essay—to include McBride in the criticism, and introduces the concept of political obligation.]

An “individual” may be an individual or indivisible because he has so little in him that you cannot imagine it possible to break him into lesser parts, or because, however full and great his nature, it is so thoroughly one, so vital and true to itself, that like a work of art, the whole of his being cannot be separated into...

(The entire section is 4746 words.)

David Sidorsky (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “On Isaiah Berlin,” in Partisan Review, Vol. LIX, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 309-15.

[In the following review, Sidorsky examines Berlin's concept of pluralism.]

There is an old dogma which can be traced back before Aristotle's argument with the Platonists to the conflict between followers of Parmenides and of Heracleitus that all philosophers can be divided into two camps: monists who are the champions of the One and pluralists who are the champions of the Many. This doctrine rises to the stature of an aphorism only with its topping and undercutting conclusion that all historians of philosophy can be divided into two groups: those who believe that all...

(The entire section is 3713 words.)

David West (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Spinoza on Positive Freedom,” in Political Studies, Vol. XLI, No. 2, June, 1993, pp. 284-98.

[In the following excerpt, West summarizes Spinoza's concept of positive freedom in order to refute Berlin's assertion that it is likely to produce coercive systems of government; Berlin's response to West follows.]

Isaiah Berlin's influential attack on the positive concept of liberty has set much of the tone for political thought within the liberal tradition. Liberal theorists have echoed the warnings about any account which sees freedom as the expression of the ‘rational’ or ‘true’ self, as the fulfilment of the ‘real’ or ‘authentic’...

(The entire section is 8173 words.)

Steven Lukes (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “The Singular and the Plural: On the Distinctive Liberalism of Isaiah Berlin,” in Social Research, Vol. 61, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 687-717.

[In the following essay, Lukes defines Berlin's Liberalism in the context of his counter-Enlightenment scholarship.]

John Gray's attack [in his “Against the New Liberalism,” Times Literary Supplement, July 3, 1992] has several objects in view: among them a “tradition of liberal theorizing” that “does little more than articulate the prejudices of an Anglo-American academic class that lacks any understanding of political life in our age,” as exhibited by its “alienated counter culture, hostile to its...

(The entire section is 10065 words.)

Avishai Margalit (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “The Philosopher of Sympathy: The Daring Humanism of Isaiah Berlin,” in The New Republic, Vol. 212, No. 8, February 20, 1995, pp. 31-6.

[In the following encomium, Margalit outlines Berlin's life and work.]

People who talk with Isaiah Berlin are often struck by a feeling of regret that he does not write his autobiography. Many have annoyed him with their excited pleas that he should devote himself to this task. The demand is understandable. After all, Berlin was at several “observation posts” from which he could follow closely the unfolding of some of the central events in this century.

In 1915, when Berlin was 6, his family moved from...

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P. N. Furbank (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “On Pluralism,” in Raritan: A Quarterly Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, Summer, 1997, pp. 83-95.

[In the following critique, Furbank argues that Berlin's concept of pluralism is politically invalid.]

We have heard a great deal about “pluralism” in the last decade or two, and it would be easy to gain the impression that pluralism was not only an ethical concept but a political one—that, politically speaking, it has something of value to add to democracy and is, indeed, a rival to it. I want to argue that this is a fallacy.

Of course, it is not instantly clear what people mean by pluralism. Isaiah Berlin, who claims Herder to have been...

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Simon Upton (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Isaiah Berlin as Anti-Rationalist,” in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 21, No. 2, October, 1997, pp. 126-32.

[In the following essay, Upton examines John Gray's challenges to Berlin's liberalism.]

For over half a century Sir Isaiah Berlin has been a towering figure in the literature of political philosophy and the history of ideas. He has repeatedly distilled the essence of key subjects of political discourse. Through his exploration of intellectual currents that run, frequently, beyond the insularity of the English speaking world, he has provided new insights into debates that go to the heart of how Western civilization understands the relationship...

(The entire section is 2580 words.)

Leon Wieseltier (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “When A Sage Dies, All Are His Kin,” in The New Republic, Vol. 217, No. 217, December 1, 1997, pp. 27-31.

[In the following eulogy, Wieseltier enumerates the qualities which, he asserts, made Berlin a sage.]

I.

“When a sage dies,” says the Talmud, “all are his kin.”

The rabbis were speaking practically, not philosophically. They were ruling that, when a sage dies, everyone must observe some of the practices of mourning. When a sage dies, for example, all must rend their garments. “But do you really think that all are his kin?” the text asks itself, incredulously. For all are obviously not his kin. It is...

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Alfred Brendel (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “On Isaiah Berlin,” in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIV, No. 20, December 18, 1997, p. 12.

[In the following reminiscence, the world-renowned pianist discusses Berlin's love of music.]

No one ever wrote obituaries like Isaiah. Unlike some of those printed in British papers, they appraised mainly by praising. Isaiah knew a vast amount about an amazing number of people. Never full of himself, he was full of others. His curiosity was insatiable, his criticism playful rather than malicious. The first person to be critical about was himself. Always keen to take in new information, his memory seized on it, and retained it precisely. A lot of gossip was...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Stuart Hampshire (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “On Isaiah Berlin,” in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIV, No. 20, December 18, 1997, p. 11.

[In the following recollection, Hampshire portrays the unity of Berlin's intellect and personality.]

By the superabundance of his curiosities and the range of his interests, Isaiah Berlin burst through all the usual restraints and cautions of academic thinking. He was in fact a peculiar kind of genius in academia. True scholarship has behind it a desire, even a compulsion, to dominate and to monopolize a field of study: a totalitarian wish to be first and everywhere in the field, in the spirit of A.E. Housman. Berlin never in his life thought of himself as a...

(The entire section is 709 words.)

Michael Ignatieff (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “On Isaiah Berlin,” in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIV, No. 20, December 18, 1997, p. 10.

[In the following tribute, his biographer sketches a portrait of Berlin as an intellectual.]

He was born in the twilight of imperial Russia and he was buried on a grey Friday morning at the end of the century in the Jewish section of Oxford's Wolvercote cemetery. At the age of seven, he watched the banners of the Russian Revolution waving below the balcony of his parent's apartment in Petrograd; he lived long enough to witness the collapse of Soviet tyranny. The Russian Revolution framed both his life and work: as an intellectual historian he uncovered its...

(The entire section is 927 words.)

Aileen Kelly (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “On Isaiah Berlin,” in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLIV, No. 20, December 18, 1997, p. 13.

[In the following homage, Kelly describes Berlin as a teacher and conversationalist.]

Few teachers will ever be as much loved and mourned as Isaiah. As a graduate student at Wolfson College, Oxford, whose first president he became in the late 1960s, I was constantly made aware of my great luck: my choice of college within the University had brought me into the daily orbit of what we all sensed was the most fascinating, the most remarkable person we would ever encounter. Soon after I joined the College, he sent me a note asking me to come and discuss my research...

(The entire section is 1963 words.)

Morton J. Frisch (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “A Critical Appraisal of Isaiah Berlin's Philosophy of Pluralism,” in The Review of Politics, Vol. 60, No. 3, Summer, 1998, pp. 421-33.

[In the following essay, Frisch argues that despite his allegiance to the equal authority of several incomparable and incommensurate values, Berlin, in fact, had an implicit standard of values.]

During the past year Isaiah Berlin died at the age of 88. He has undoubtedly been one of the leading British essayists in political philosophy in the twentieth century, covering a very wide range of topics in that discipline. One might justly say that he has written more extensively on human freedom than anyone since John Stuart...

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David McCabe (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Isaiah Berlin: Understanding, Not Mastery,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXXXV, No. 14, August 14, 1998, p. 16.

[In the following tribute, McCabe asserts that one of Berlin's outstanding qualities was his attempt to understand, rather than to master, his subject.]

Isaiah Berlin's greatest contribution to the world of ideas may have been his exemplary commitment to the ideal of genuine understanding over mere intellectual mastery. More than most philosophers, he understood not only that mastery of a subject is not synonymous with deep understanding, but also that the pursuit of the first may imperil the second. The drive for intellectual mastery grows out of the...

(The entire section is 688 words.)

Ned O'Gorman (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “My Dinners With Isaiah,” in Commonweal, Vol. CXXXV, No. 14, August 14, 1998, pp. 15-6.

[In the following reminiscence, O'Gorman writes of Berlin's love of music.]

Isaiah Berlin (1907-97), my friend of only six years, was the happiest man I ever met. He simply knew all about it. He saw the shadows and the terrible light hidden in the shadows. He listened to the world as he listened to Schubert and Bach, as he read Akhmatova and Herzen, touching them with his wit and the speed of his manner. What he perceived in literature and art, in political epochs and in their recorders, in composers and musicians, in the fine differences between virtuoso pianists Alfred...

(The entire section is 1979 words.)

Norman Podhoretz (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “A Dissent on Isaiah Berlin,” Commentary, Vol. 107, No. 2, February, 1999, pp. 25-37.

[Staking his Neo-Conservatism claim against Berlin's Liberalism, Podhoretz argues, in the following essay, that Berlin has been over-esteemed as a thinker and as a personality.]

By the time Sir Isaiah Berlin died in 1997 at the age of eighty-eight, a thick layer of piety and even reverence had long since come to surround his name, and accordingly the obituaries both here and in England took it more or less for granted that he had been, if not the leading political philosopher of the age, then at least a strong contender for that position. He was celebrated for the...

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