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.
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one of his graduate students, embarked upon a project of collecting all Berlin's disparately published essays and unpublished lectures; seven volumes resulted.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.
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.
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.
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
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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...
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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 feel and create, prophets dedicated to one coherent view of life, to one consistent aim or purpose. This contrast between, so to speak, the centrifugal and centripetal types of human thinking is picturesquely portrayed by Mr. Isaiah Berlin in the symbolism of The Fox and the Hedgehog—the title which he has given to his revised version of a brilliant essay published in a recent number of the Oxford Slavonic Papers. The key to the enigma is a fragment from the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog one big thing.” In this sense we are invited to regard Aristotle, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin and Balzac as “foxes,” and Plato, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche (and, no doubt, Marx)...
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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 future. Vico and Condorcet, Kant and Hegel, Marx and Comte, Buckle and the addicts of geopolitics, the political adapters of Darwinism and the racial theorists, have all paid their tribute to this belief. Some were idealists, others materialists; some, according to later canons of judgment, were reputable, others less reputable; some were holists, others presented only fragmentary pictures of past experience. But, one and all, they took it for granted that history was a meaningful process, and that its meaning could be elucidated by those who studied it with care and insight. On the evidence of these two centuries Mr. Isaiah Berlin seems right in saying, in his last year's Comte Memorial Lecture, which has just been published under the title...
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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 famous as a scholar, diplomatist and conversationalist in at least two continents—has chosen to subject these historical passages to careful attention. In this brilliant essay [The Hedgehog and the Fox] he not only succeeds in making very good sense out of Tolstoy's historical theory but also finds in it an indispensable key to the complex and divided personality of the great Russian novelist.
The fox, said the old Greek poet, knows many things, but the hedgehog only one big thing. On this ancient bit of wisdom Mr. Berlin bases his distinction between two fundamental human types: those who have sharp eyes, like the fox, for the multiple things of the world, and those, like the hedgehog, whose defense consists of a...
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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 had reached Oxford. Lectures were sparsely attended, and libraries were over-crowded, for undergraduates had found out that the printed word stuck in the mind more readily than did the spoken word.
None the less, some lecturers could attract large audiences; a few could hold them. A. J. P. Taylor modestly justified his habit of lecturing at nine in the morning by the need to comply with the fire regulations and avoid over-crowding his hearers. But the biggest draw at the box-office were the lectures in which Isaiah Berlin annually conducted a horde of the curious on the Grand Tour from Athens to Greenwich Village—the history of ideas from The Republic to Partisan Review.
It is, perhaps,...
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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.]
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 those lawyers who in the eighteenth century came down from the provinces to Naples to fill high positions in the administration and who embodied the Enlightenment.
Benedetto Croce and Fausto Nicolini, the scions of two such Abruzzese families (as Nicolini was fond of recollecting), are exactly a case in point. To be the historians of Naples, and more specifically the interpreters and editors of Vico, they had to come to terms both with the saint of the plebeians and with the plebeian philosopher who had understood the fancies of the “bestioni” so well. As for San Gennaro, it was simple enough. Croce expressed his sympathy for a popular Catholicism which in his judgment was more meaningful than the Catholicism...
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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 remarked that, appalling though Bolshevik despotism was, it seemed the right sort of government for Russia: “If you ask yourself how Dostoevsky's characters should be governed, you will understand.”
The view that despotic socialism was no more than Russia deserved would be accepted by many Western liberals as not unjust, at least with regard to the “devils” of Dostoevsky's novel, the Russian radical intelligentsia. In the degree of their alienation from their society and of their impact on it, the Russian intelligentsia of the nineteenth century were a phenomenon almost sui generis. Their ideological leaders were a small group with the cohesiveness and sense of mission of a religious sect. In their fervent moral...
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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 another direction:
“I asked myself whether I wished to devote the rest of my life to a study, however fascinating and important in itself, which, transforming as its achievements undoubtedly were, would not, any more than criticism or poetry, add to the store of positive human knowledge. I gradually came to the conclusion that I should prefer a field in which one could hope to know more at the end of one's life than when one had begun, and so I left philosophy for the field of the history of ideas.”
As a splendid result, of course, we have his books on Marx, on Vico and Herder, on liberty and the Enlightenment, and the wonderful essays on Tolstoy and Herzen included in Russian Thinkers. Russian...
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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 those who came to sit at his feet and acquire wisdom, and also to enjoy the pleasure of his company and the dazzling effect of his personality; and no one who came was rejected. I myself first met him, when we were both undergraduates, on a beautiful summer afternoon in Christchurch Meadows. Since I was then deeply absorbed in Rilke's Duineser Elegien we discussed angels. I came away convinced that he knew more about angels than I ever should, that by a kind of empathy he perfectly and intuitively understood everything that Rilke had intended, but most of all that this was one of the most remarkable people I had met or was ever likely to meet.
But that was all a long time ago. The essays in Against the...
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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 capacities can provide such a reason. Nothing outside of us, be it God, Reason, History, Spirit, or the Good, provides a purpose for existence which we can discover; we are not only the discoveres, but actually the creators, of meaning and purpose in the universe. Captivated by a vision of humanity as self-creative and developing in unpredictable and conflicting directions and by a vision of the world as not infused by any cosmic pattern or purpose, Berlin denies that any of us can demonstrate that our way of life is morally superior to others; thus, we need to tolerate one another.
Berlin's defense of tolerance and freedom is fairly unique. As he depicts it, our Western tradition has rested on one basic, yet mistaken...
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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 and tendencies that affect historical and social development.
As these and other writings attest, Isaiah Berlin has emerged since Lovejoy's death as the most distinguished explorer of a vast area of thought in the humanities and social studies. The intellectual styles of Lovejoy and Berlin, however, are quite different and achieve their respective effects of excellence in different ways. Lovejoy was concerned with the intricate structure of argument and had an unerring eye for the weaknesses, breaks, and lacunae in the logical connecting tissues. Biographical details about the thinkers he discussed were at best peripheral: one gets little sense of the flavor and texture of their personalities. Berlin, on the other hand,...
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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 restrictivist1 approach to the subject of freedom there are wide differences as to the nature of freedom and about the means whereby discussion about its nature is to be rationally foreclosed. Some writers are prepared to treat as decisive the production of a stipulative definition of freedom backed up by weighty arguments about its operational utility. Others make their ultimate appeal to intuitions about freedom which are supposed to be embedded in ordinary thought and practice, or to allegedly standard uses of the concept in classic texts of social and political thought. Whatever their disagreements in these areas, restrictivists all hold that it must in principle be possible to elaborate a preferred view of freedom against...
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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, Russian Thinkers—will find Personal Impressions altogether welcoming and rewarding.
Berlin is something of a mythic figure, not least in the dazzling flow of his conversation. His writing reflects the diversionary excursions, unexpected self-interruptions and recommencements, of a great talker—at home equally with Russian history and literature, with political philosophy, with Marx, Herder and Vico, or with subtle ruminations on the world as he has known it. We are assured in his company of a supremely intelligent, highly civilized approach to whatever he touches upon. In the present book, he is at his most conversational. And yet, for all the brilliance of these pieces, they are, with a few quite...
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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 Gibbon are considerably less awful, but they diffuse a chilling radiation of self-regard.
Memoirs, the record of what the subject observed rather than of what he felt and did, are the appropriate form for less self-worshipping, more self-critical spirits—for, one might say, the Isherwoods of real life, cameras preoccupied with the surrounding scene and not at all disposed to go on about their lenses, focal length, exposure speed and so forth. Being, perhaps, one degree more squeamish and humane than even the memoirists of the world, Sir Isaiah Berlin is not prepared to reveal himself through a continuous account of the interesting people he has encountered. In these éloges—one or two of them were, in fact,...
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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 most forceful arguments with which they defend their views and refute actual and possible objections.’1 Despite Berlin's belief that this basic vision of human life ‘will, as a rule, turn out to be relatively simple and unsophisticated’,2 his own image of us is complex, subtle, and highly sophisticated. Perhaps more than any other political philosopher of his generation, Berlin has sought to articulate the complexity of human life on which our freedoms are based. Fearful of the rationalistic dangers of ‘expressivism’ and other theories of self-realization, Berlin sees us as self-creative, as incomplete and incapable of completion, and as capable of living in a variety of different, contradictory, yet...
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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 obscure. Nevertheless, though philosophically so vague, the burning issue of liberty cannot be treated as merely academic in the contemporary world. Let this serve as justification for my adding one more voice to a long and complex discussion.
Participants in the debate have recognized different threads of Berlin's essay as the most significant ones. Many have concentrated on his conception of negative freedom, some criticizing its narrowness and tracing its links with classical liberalism.3 It seems to me, however, that the main value and originality of Berlin's approach lies not so much in his discussion of negative liberty but in his perceptive critique of the positive concept. The...
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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 have suffered this fear of grown-ups more than Sir Isaiah Berlin, now eighty, who is frequently called all these things, at times simultaneously. What follows is not an attempt to redress the terminological chaos: it is but a tribute by a simpleton to a superior mind from which the former for a number of years has been learning about mental subtlety but apparently hasn't learned enough.
A study in genealogy normally is owing to either pride in one's ancestry or uncertainty about it; our history of ideas is no exception. Given the fruit this century came to bear, however, there are additional reasons for such scrutiny, which have nothing to do with attempts to braindish or ascertain the origins of our nobility. These reasons...
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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 Berlin himself was never regarded as a quintessential proponent, if indeed there ever really was such a thing, of Oxford analytic philosophy. He was always somewhat apart: an enormously engaging lecturer to audiences of scholars and undergraduates alike, endowed with a vast repertoire of cultural allusions from diverse times and places that would put to shame the ordinary philosophy don. I remember once attending a lecture that he gave at Yale just a few years after his installation in the Chichele Chair; while I cannot recall the exact title or topic, except that much of it had to do with the notion of historical determinism, two impressions of it remain fresh in my mind—first, that he unashamedly admitted having written it up on the airplane...
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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 parts without ceasing to be what it essentially is. In the former case, the individual is an “atom;” in the latter, he is a “great individuality.”1
These words mark an appropriate starting place for a discussion of William McBride's “‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ Thirty Years Later: A Sartre-Inspired Critique.” First, they focus our attention directly upon the issue Isaiah Berlin asserts is prior to all others in shaping our philosophical understandings of freedom. “Conceptions of freedom,” Berlin writes, “directly derive from views of what constitutes a self, a person, a man.”2
Second, they propose a vision of the self (that is, “an individual …...
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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 philosophers are either monists or pluralists, and those who do not. The recurrent theme of Isaiah Berlin's new collection of essays, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, sketching the career of ideas that have shaped modern politics, particularly some of its most destructive and catastrophic tendencies, is that monism, particularly in its utopian varieties has been the central, harmful illusion of the twentieth century. (Berlin writes of our century in an essay on European unity, “It is by now a melancholy commonplace that no century has seen such remorseless and continued slaughter of human beings by one another as our own.”) The recognition of pluralism, traced to the thought of romanticism and of the counter-Enlightenment, appropriately...
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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’ interests rather than the actual preferences of the agent. By and large these theorists have shared Berlin's fear that by a ‘monstrous impersonation’ a positive notion of freedom would encourage that particularly insidious form of paternalism which views coercion as the essential means to true freedom. Paternalistic coercion forces me to act according to my true self, according to the dictates of my real will, and thereby allegedly frees me from the tyranny of the misguided and irrational promptings of my actual will. Coercion can make me truly free. Berlin attributes what he diagnoses as the ‘rationalist theory of politics’ underlying positive accounts of freedom to such diverse figures as Plato, Spinoza, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Fichte,...
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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 own society and enamored of various exotic regimes,” and a continuing commitment to egalitarian communism despite the Soviet collapse. Yet the attack seems oddly out of focus, for these targets hardly constitute a united front. For one thing, none of the liberal philosophers Gray attacks (Rawls, Dworkin, Nozick, Ackerman, and Nagel) is either an alienated fellow-traveller or an undisillusioned post- or neo-marxist.
Even if we confine our attention to Gray's case against the “new liberalism,” his scatter-gun misfires and, when it hits, scarcely wounds. Thus, Rawls is criticized for lacking a “theory of human nature” (such as those found in Aristotle or Mill) but also for failing to see human beings as...
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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 Riga and eventually ended up in Petrograd. From a window above a Petrograd shop in Wassily Ostrov, the child Shaya, as he was affectionately called by his parents (it is a diminutive of the original Hebrew for “Isaiah”), watched the Russian Revolution. In 1920, when he was almost 11, the family emigrated to England. They landed in March, the young Isaiah wearing a coat with a fur collar and knowing very little English. In July of that same year, he won the Surbiton's Arundel House School's first prize for an English essay.
Later Berlin was posted at still another central event of the century. At the British Embassy in Washington, the young don from Oxford served as a first secretary during World War II, in order to...
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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 in a sense the inventor of pluralism as a doctrine, defines it as
the belief not merely in the multiplicity, but in the incommensurability, of the values of different cultures and societies and, in addition, in the incompatibility of equally valid ideals, together with the implied revolutionary corollary that the classical notions of an ideal man and of an ideal society are intrinsically incoherent and meaningless.
Let us begin with a very general question. What are we to think of that phrase, “the incompatibility of equally valid ideals”? Here Berlin is speaking not so much of different cultures or societies as of humankind in general, and it is of course true...
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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 between its citizens and its institutions. For readers of this journal, his identification of the cultural roots of political and social identity will be familiar.
Yet he stands somehow to one side of the debates that have consumed academia for over half of the twentieth century. I went through the index pages, references and bibliographies in a range of tomes that have accumulated on my shelves over the last ten years. Some celebrated essays are, justly, touchstones. But overwhelmingly, references to Berlin are scarce and, when they are present, tangential. The preoccupations of academic political philosophers have been elsewhere. The heat of debate has focused on all sorts of rationalistic enterprises that seek uniquely...
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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.]
“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 a big world. The injunction seems sentimental, onerous. “So say, rather, that all are like his kin.” A distinction! But it is not enough of a distinction to release anybody from the duty to mourn.
And if you never knew the man, if you never sat in the dust at his feet, if you never heard him teach? Still he is not a stranger. The Talmud proceeds to the story of the death of Rabbi Safra, a scholar and a merchant of the fourth century. “When Rabbi Safra died, the rabbis did not rend their garments, because they said: ‘We did not study with him ourselves.’ But Abbaye said to them: ‘Does it say “when your master dies”? No, it says “when a sage dies”! Besides, every day in the house of study we consider his...
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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 sifted through and put to higher use. I have never met anyone with a more remarkable memory. Isaiah could sum up books he had read a long time ago with exemplary clarity, and quote from them with astonishing accuracy. He could also hum musical themes, while tapping with the right hand on his knee, from the obscurest operas. To talk to people of all backgrounds, professions, and persuasions—or better, to communicate with them—was what he liked best.
Isaiah was convinced of the power of individuality and the force of genius. He had his heroes. In music, they were Verdi and Rossini, whom he also admired as human beings. He deemed both of them “naive” (in Schiller's sense), yet the “sentimentalists” Beethoven and...
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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 scholar and had no desire for mastery or monopoly. When in the summer of 1936 I traveled with him to Ireland on holiday, I remarked, censoriously, that he seemed to study texts only when conversation with his friends lapsed and he needed a substitute.
In one of my still-vivid pictures of him that summer he is standing in an Irish country bus, holding a copy of Bouvard et Pécuchet in a Russian translation, and exchanging banter with an Irish priest who thought he was a Communist. His ideal at that time, and again immediately after the war, was to live among a small group of friends who shared his passion for the history of thought in all its varieties—discussing, for example, Russian intellectuals before the...
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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 totalitarian impulses, and as a political theorist he defended the liberal civilization it sought to destroy.
He was the last representative of the passionate, comic, voluble, and morally serious intelligentsia of old Russia. When he and Anna Akhmatova talked through the night in her bare apartment in the Fontanny Dom in November 1945, sharing a dish of boiled potatoes, it was as if two Russian traditions—one exiled, the other persecuted—were meeting to pledge that they would endure and persevere. He lived long enough to see the pledge honored.
Exile in England never left him beset by nostalgia. In Englishness, he discovered a skeptical empiricism which became the central strand of his identity and which...
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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 on the Russian intelligentsia. Out of nervousness I delayed replying until one day he descended on me at lunch, commanding me to come back with him to his office. I emerged nearly three hours later after a dazzling tour of the landscape of Russian thought combined with a passionate vindication of the subject of my research, which others had frequently urged me to change. In the Sixties Western liberal academics tended to regard the Russian intelligentsia mainly as fanatical precursors of communism. With a warmth that recreated them as persons, Isaiah defended them as worthy of admiration for their moral commitment to dispelling illusions about the world and our place in it.
Much of that afternoon we spent discussing...
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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 Mill. Born in Latvia, Berlin attended Corpus Christi College, Oxford, from 1928-32 and seems there to have taken the first important steps toward the influential role in British and Western intellectual life which he came to hold. His academic career was interrupted by service, 1941-45, in the British Embassies in Washington and Moscow. He was a fellow at Oxford's All Souls College from 1932-38 and at the university's New College from 1938-50. Later he was Chichelle Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, 1957-67, remaining afterward as a Fellow of that College while serving as President of Oxford's Wolfson College, 1966-75, and President of the British Academy, 1974-78.
Some of his most provocative...
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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 assumption that the world is ultimately made for us and that the disciplined exercise of a properly trained mind can make all things clear: the deepest fabric of reality, the unvarying structures of human consciousness, the proper end of human activity. It is a comforting idol, but a false and distorting one. Whatever contemporary philosophers think on the question of whether the world was designed for our purposes, most recognize (partly as a result of Berlin's efforts) that our ways of conceptualizing, the very tools of organized thought, are shot through with contingency reflecting our particular time in history and our distinctive forms of life.
But for Berlin, this ideal of mastery and its underlying hubris about human...
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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 Brendel and Sviatoslav Richter and their interpretations of Schubert, was a prodigy of practical knowledge, grace, and almost transcendent intuition.
He told me at our first meeting in Oxford, in April 1991, that he was an old man and would soon die. Might I have lunch with him in Salzburg in August at Tomaselli's? It was a cafe I loved, and our conversation that April day was filled with wonderful correspondences. Who, he asked, were the pianists I most admired? I named five and was right on the money: Radu Lupu, Richter, Brendel, Murray Perahia, and Andras Schiff. I asked him, quite terrified that I would be taken for a fool, did he not think Horowitz was very bad? He did.
When Isaiah was twenty-one,...
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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 brilliance of his mind, for the profundity of his thought, for the depth and range of his learning and—not least—for his steadfast defense of liberal values against their rivals both on the Left and on the Right.
Now, there can be no question that in some ways Berlin was an admirable figure. But there are also grounds for believing that he was overrated as a thinker (whether one classifies him as a political philosopher or more precisely as a historian of ideas). In my judgment, too, he suffered as a person from a serious character flaw that robbed even what many conservatives would consider his best and most valuable ideas of any real force in practice. These ideas were thereby prevented from having the salutary influence...
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Ignatieff, Michael, Isaiah Berlin: A Life, New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 1998, 356 p.
Critical study of Berlin's life and work.
Anderson, Perry. “Components of a National Culture,” New Left Review 50 (July-August 1968): 3-57.
Condemns Berlin for ignoring conditions of economic exploitation in his analyses of liberty.
Galipeau, Claude J. Isaiah Berlin's Liberalism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994, 196 p.
Explores the components of Berlin's liberalism and includes a comprehensive bibliography.
Gray, John. Isaiah Berlin, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996, 189 p.
A study of Berlin's political thought and its relevance to political history and human character.
Kocis, Robert. A Critical Appraisal of Sir Isaiah Berlin's Political Philosophy. Wales: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989, 278 p.
A thorough and scholarly study of Berlin's political theory; includes a comprehensive bibliography.
Additional coverage of Berlin's life and career is contained in the following source published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88, 162.
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