Berlin, Isaiah (1909–1997)

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BERLIN, ISAIAH (1909–1997)


British political philosopher.

Isaiah Berlin was born in Riga in Latvia in 1909. He was a descendant of the Chabad Hasidim and a distant relative of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. His family lived through the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and immigrated to England in 1921. Berlin was educated at Saint Paul's School, London, and at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Except for a short time spent in New York and Washington, D.C., working for the British government during World War II, he spent virtually his entire adult life at Oxford. Berlin spent a short time in Moscow after the war where he met Boris Pasternak (1890–1960) and the celebrated poet Anna Akhmatova (1888–1966). Berlin was a renowned lecturer, conversationalist, and raconteur, and later became the founding principal of Wolfson College, Oxford. Since his death in 1997, numerous works on his life and work have been published as well as several volumes of previously unpublished lectures and essays. Berlin's will certainly turn out to be one of the most important philosophical voices of the twentieth century.

Berlin never wrote a systematic treatise on political philosophy. With the exception of an early biography of Karl Marx (1818–1883) written in the 1930s, he never in the strict sense of the term wrote another book. In place of the formal treatise, he wrote on a range of different topics employing a variety of literary genres from the history of ideas to philosophical analysis, to a series of wonderful intellectual portraits—éloges he called them—of well-known friends and contemporaries. He was capable of using a broad canvas as well as painting in miniature. Among philosophical writers of the last century, he is rivaled only by Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990) as a master of English prose. Berlin once described himself not as a philosopher but as a historian of ideas. This is only partially true. While he trafficked in the history of ideas, writing essays and monographs on thinkers and statesmen like Niccolò Machiavelli, Giambattista Vico, Johann Gottfried von Herder, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Disraeli, Chaim Weizmann, and Winston Churchill, these essays and other writings convey a deep philosophical teaching about the place of freedom in the overall economy of human life.

Berlin's most famous work was his essay entitled "Two Concepts of Liberty," delivered originally as an inaugural address as the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford in 1958. The core of the essay turns on two different kinds of liberty that he refers to as negative and positive liberty, respectively. Negative liberty means freedom from external impediments or controls. We are free when we are left alone or unattended; that is, when other persons, institutions, or agencies do not interfere with us. Negative liberty concerns itself with the space within which persons are free to act without being coerced by others. Negative liberty presupposes that persons are malleable and underdetermined, that we not only choose between values and ways of life, but that we are also the active makers and shapers of these values and ways of life.

The theory of positive liberty, on the other hand, is ultimately less about will and choice than about human rationality. On the positive theory of liberty, we are said to be free only when we exercise control over our choices. The classic theorists of positive liberty understood that our choices may be constrained by a range of variables—upbringing, education, social conditioning, and the like. We are not free unless and until we exercise control over those determinants that condition our choices. Berlin associates this kind of liberty with a conception of self-mastery.

The distinction between negative and positive liberty may sound innocuous, but it is said to carry major political consequences. Berlin associates negative liberty with the tradition of political liberalism whose great heroes were thinkers like Montesquieu, the Federalist authors, Benjamin Constant, and Mill. By contrast, it was the tradition of positive liberty championed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his epigones (Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Marx) who were responsible for the creation of some of the worst experiments in social control known to history. In its effort to make humans more rational, enlightened, or virtuous, proponents of positive liberty are bound to violate the autonomy of the individual. Positive libertarians are necessarily led to treat individuals as means to the promotion of their goals, however worthy those goals might be. And when such people feel called upon to use the state or other institutional means of coercion and control to achieve those ends, the result can only be despotism masquerading as freedom. The paradox that Berlin never ceased to explore is how political ideas that aimed to liberate people from tyranny could be at the root of even more extensive forms of tyranny, all in the name of political freedom. One reader not inaccurately described "Two Concepts of Liberty" as the "anti-communist manifesto."

Berlin's defense of negative liberty is, however, only one aspect of his teaching and in a curious way perhaps not even the most important aspect. Underlying Berlin's account of both positive and negative liberty is a set of assumptions about human nature and the limits of knowledge that make his views more complex and controversial than would at first sight appear. At the core of Berlinian liberalism is not just a teaching of negative liberty, but a defense of what he calls value pluralism. It is his view that values—the ideals and aspirations that we care most deeply about—are in a condition of permanent and ineradicable conflict. The belief that it is not a peaceful convergence of ultimate ends, but rather a spirited struggle between these ends, that gives Berlinian liberalism a tragic, even heroic, dimension.

Berlin developed his understanding of value pluralism in a number of historical studies beginning in the 1970s, beginning with Vico and Herder and Against the Current. These studies traced the appreciation of a fundamental conflict of values back to the tradition of what Berlin called the European Counter-Enlightenment. It was this tradition of European Romanticism that most deeply appealed to Berlin's Russian sensibilities. In particular, the Counter-Enlightenment appreciated not only the difference between individual values and choices, but between different cultures and ways of life. Cultures and nations follow no overall pattern of development, whether cyclical or progressive, but constitute unique and irreducible ways of life that can only be understood from with in by an act of intellectual and imaginative sympathy.

It was Berlin's later emphasis on the diversity and conflict between ends that led some readers like Leo Strauss and Arnaldo Momigliano to associate the doctrine of value pluralism with a kind of cultural relativism. If values and cultures are unalterably plural, how are people to resolve conflicts between them? Is there any way of ranking cultures or ways of life, or are they simply incommensurable? Berlin's question is how can people (and peoples) with vastly different scales of values live together in a way that does justice to the plurality of ends and yet recognize their common humanity? If the "Platonic" idea of a harmonious reconciliation of interests and beliefs is not just impractical but incoherent because basic values will always collide, what kind of political order is best?

Berlin struggled mightily with this problem, although he came up with no satisfactory answer. This was due in part to his skepticism toward all theoretical solutions to moral and political life. Berlin valued freedom not by offering grand theories or abstract models but by showing how ideas interact with life, by showing the complex ways in which good ideas taken to the extreme can have bad consequences, and how even the love of freedom, if taken in abstraction from all the other goods that human beings can pursue, can end up turning into its opposite. At the core of Berlin's thought is his recognition of a conflict between the claims of moral diversity, pluralism, and openness and the need for order, permanence, and stability. How to achieve some kind of balance between competing goods? He offers no formula for arriving at an answer, but only an awareness that not all good things are compatible and that life is more often a conflict not between good and bad but between competing sets of goods. It is this awareness that life is choice and that not all ends are compatible that forms the basis of Isaiah Berlin's liberal legacy.

See alsoLiberalism.


Berlin, Isaiah. The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays. Edited by Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer. London, 1998.

Ignatieff, Michael. Isaiah Berlin: A Life. New York, 1998.

Mali, Joseph, and Robert Wokler, eds. Isaiah Berlin's Counter-Enlightenment. Philadelphia, 2003.

Steven B. Smith