Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Isaiah Berlin

English social historian, political and social philosopher, essayist, friend of the Russian authors Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak. According to an anecdote, the Cold War began in 1945, when Berlin visited Akhmatova in Leningrad. This so irritated Stalin that he personally ran the philosopher down on the telephone. Berlin never wrote a single-volume magnum opus but only brilliant essays. Like Karl Popper, he is widely acclaimed for his anti-authoritarian social philosophy and criticism of totalitarian doctrines. Berlin's most important contributions in social and political theory include the essays 'Historical Inevitability' (1954) and 'Two Concepts of Liberty' (1958). The Independent stated that "Isaiah Berlin was often described, especially in his old age, by means of superlatives: the world's greatest talker, the century's most inspired reader, one of the finest minds of our time ... there is no doubt that he showed in more than one direction the unexpectedly large possibilities open to us at the top end of the range of human potential"
"It is seldom, moreover, that there is only one model that determines our thought; men (or cultures) obsessed at their models are rare, and while they may be more coherent at their strongest, they tend to collapse more violently when, in the end, their concepts are blown up by reality - experienced events, 'inner' or 'outer' that get in the way." (from 'Does Political Theory Still Exist?, 1962)
Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin was one of the most formidable defenders of philosophical liberalism and distinguished practitioners of the history of ideas. He took R. G. Collingwood's (1889-1943) idea that the thought of a period or an individual is organized by 'constellations of absolute presuppositions'. Thus philosophical analysis required a historical dimension, but Berlin argued against the Marxist determinist view of history and rejection of free will.In his youth, Berlin studied Marx, although during World War I and the Revolution he had witnessed the ill omens of a totalitarian ideology struggling for power, and was not enchanted by the promises of the Bolsheviks. "History does not reveal causes; it presents only a blank succession of unexplained events", he said. However, he acknowledged that a historian's approach to his subject cannot be entirely objective or value-free, some degree of moral or psychological evaluation is inevitable. "I do not here wish to say that determinism is necessarily false, only that we neither speak nor think as if it could be true, and that it is difficult, and perhaps beyond our normal powers, to conceive what our picture of the world would be if we seriously believed it..." (from 'Historical Inevitability', 1953)

Berlin was born in Riga, Latvia, the son of a Jewish timber merchant. Berlin's grandfather on his mother's side was a Hasidic rabbi. Berlin had some religious education but confessed later that as a child he found the Talmud a ''very, very boring book." At the age of 11 Berlin emigrated with his parents to England. A prodigy, he had already read War and Peace.

Berlin was educated at St Paul's School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. To his father's disappointment, he did not go into the family timber business. From 1932 he taught at Oxford, where he became friends with A. J. Ayer and other leading analytic philosophers. Berlin was the first Jew to be accepted into the college. With Ayer he argued about philosophy, but where Ayer was a radical liberal and had a great appetite for life, Berlin was sexually insecure and unsure of his beliefs. "You're not much of a crusader are you?" Ayer once teased his friend. Later Berlin became disillusioned with Ayer as a philosopher, saying that "he never had an original idea in his life. He was like a mechanic, he fiddled with things and tried to fix them." ( A.J. Ayer: A Life by Ben Rogers, 1999)

Berlin was a brilliant talker. The author Virginia Woolf, who first met Berlin in 1933, said that he looked like a swarthy Portuguese Jew and talked with the vivacity and assurance of a young Maynard Keynes. In 1934 Berlin visited Palestine. Zionism was to him as important as Communism was to Guy Burgess, his friend, who was a Soviet spy.Berlin was a founding father with Austin, Ayer, and others of Oxford philosophy. After publishing several papers on the rebellion against idealism, he broke away from the general spirit of positivism. With his first book, KARL MARX (1939), Berlin disengaged himself from the fashionable philosophical trends, and started his lifelong examination of such thinkers as Vico, Herzen, Herder, Tolstoy, Machiavelli, and such topics as liberty, determinism, relativism, historicism, nationalism – and his most distinctive doctrine: pluralism. He also translated into English several Russian classic authors, among them Turgenev.
Isaiah Berlin


During World War II Berlin served in the British Information Service in New York and later as First Secretary of the British Embassy in Washington. After the war he met in the Soviet Union the film director Sergei Eisenstein, who was in poor spirits after Stalin had condemned his film Ivan the Terrible, and the writers Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, both also in disfavour by the authorities. Later Berlin gave his account of them in the essay 'Meetings With Russian Writers.' "When we met in Oxford in 1965 Ahkmatova told me that Stalin had been personally enraged by the fact that she had allowed me to visit her: 'So our nun now receives visits from foreign spies,' he is alleged to have remarked, and followed this with obscenities which she could not at first bring herself to repeat to me." (from 'Conversations with Akhmatova and Pasternak' in The Proper Study of Mankind, 1997)

From 1947 to 1958 Berlin wrote and lectured at Oxford, in London, and in several American universities. Joseph Brodsky, the Russian-born poet and essayist, once said that Berlin's English was just like his Russian, only faster, '"courting the speed of light." Rayner. An extrovert by nature, Berlin has also been characterized as a "compulsive chatterer". Between the years 1957 and 1967 Berlin held the prestigious Chichele Chair in Social and Political Theory at Oxford. In his inaugural lecture at Oxford 'Two Concepts of Liberty' Berlin attempted clearly to distinguish 'negative' and 'positive' liberty. He contrasted the ideas of such thinkers as J.S. Mill, Herzen, and others, who made minimal assumptions about the ultimate nature and needs of the subject, with Hegel and German Idealism, and their 'despotic vision' and dogmatic assumptions about the essence of the subject.

Among many other academic distinctions, Berlin was from 1966 a professor at the City University of New York. During the period which led up to the foundation of the State of Israel, he was a close friend of Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), the first president of Israel. Berlin led a bachelor's life until 1956, when he married Aline de Gunzbourg at Hampstead Synagogue; she was an aristocratic Frenchwoman, who had three sons from previous marriages. They moved into Headington House, where Berlin lived for the rest of his life. "I don't mind death," he once said, "But I find dying a nuisance. I object to it." Berlin died in 1997 in Oxford of a heart attack following a long illness at the age of 88.

In one of his most famous essays, 'The Hedgehog and The Fox' (1953), Berlin focused on the tension between monist and pluralist visions of the world and history, and drew the line between different authors and philosophers. As the Greek poet Archilochus said: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." The Hedgehog needs only one principle, that directs its life. Typical examples are Plato, Dante, Pascal, Nietzsche and Proust. The Fox, pluralist, travels many roads, according to the idea that there can be different, equally valid but mutually incompatible concepts of how to live. The roads do not have much connection, as is seen in the works of Aristotle, Montaigne, Shakespeare, MoliƩre, Goethe and Balzac. In Tolstoy, whose view of history inspired Berlin to write the essay, he saw a fox who believed in being a hedgehog. Berlin's central dichotomy of monists and pluralists and his interest in such Counter-Enlightenment figures as Vico, was later interpreted as an attack on the values of Enlightenment. He was also accused of ultra-individualism.

In his essays on Machiavelli, Montesquieu and Hamann in AGAINST THE CURRENT (1979), Berlin stated that these thinkers replaced the doctrine that all reality forms a rational whole with a radical pluralism, from which sprang such -isms as irrationalism, nationalism, fascism, populism, existentialism, and, above all, some of the central values of liberalism. Berlin stated in FOUR ESSAYS ON LIBERTY (1969) that liberty is in essence the casting off of chains. 'Negative liberty' allows men the freedom to act diversely and 'positive liberty' limits some freedoms to achieve a higher good. Berlin once stated: "Total liberty can be dreadful, total equality can be equally frightful." All those doctrines which define liberty as self-realization and then prescribe what this is, end up by defending liberty's opposite. To the perennial human problems there are no final answers. "Liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or human happiness or a quiet conscience." Liberal governments should recognize that all political values must end up in conflict, and all conflicts require negotiation.

For further reading : The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin, ed. by Mark Lilla et al (2001); Isaiah Berlin: A Life by Michael Ignatieff (1998); Isaiah Berlin by John Gray (1996); Isaiah Berlin's Liberalism by Claude J. Galipeau (1994); Conversations With Isaiah Berlin by Isaiah Berlin, Ramin Jahanbegloo (1992); Isaiah Berlin, ed. by Edna and Avishai Margalit (1991); On the Thought of Isaiah Berlin by Avishai Margalit et al (1990); Critical Appraisal of Sir Isaiah Berlin's Political Philosophy by Robert Kocis (1989); Personal Impressions, ed. by Henry Hardy (1981); The Idea of Freedom, ed. by Alan Ryan (1979); 'Berlin and the liberal tradition' by M. Cohen, in Philosophical Quarterly 10 (1960) -

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