The Proper Study of Mankind Essay - Critical Essays

Isaiah Berlin

The Proper Study of Mankind

Isaiah Berlin, who died in 1997, ranks as one of most admired practitioners of the genre which is usually called the history of ideas. THE PROPER STUDY OF MANKIND: AN ANTHOLOGY OF ESSAYS contains seventeen of his essays, composed over a period of four decades, and touching on most of the themes that most concerned him. One of them he refers to as pluralism: the conviction that although all systems of knowledge and value are not equally worthy, it is untenable to insist upon one universal value system as the only way of determining truth or assessing moral conduct.

Other themes prominent in this collection include his rejection of determinism, which he believes makes a mockery of the necessary concept of human purpose and responsibility; nationalism, which he sees as an always potential source of conflict, given human beings’ tendency to find their fulfillment in a larger community; and the split between scientific and humanistic knowledge, which he traces back to the eighteenth century German Sturm und Drang movement.

Also included in this selection are essays based on interviews with two Russian writers whom Berlin admired enormously, Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak; and essays on two monumental twentieth century political figures, Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. All these essays have been written or re-written with the general reader in mind, and Berlin’s style is, considering the weightiness of the subject matter, remarkably graceful and agreeable.

Sources for Further Study

Contemporary Review. CCLXXI, September, 1997, p. 165.

Library Journal. CXXIII, May 15, 1998, p. 87.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 30, 1998, p. 4.

New Statesman. CXXVI, December 5, 1998, p. 44.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, December 17, 1998, p. 29.

The New York Times. November 14, 1998, p. B9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, April 22, 1998, p. 59.

The Spectator. CCLXXVIII, March 8, 1997, p. 34.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 22, 1998, p. 3.

The Wall Street Journal. September 2, 1998, p. A16.