Berlin, Sir Isaiah

views updated Jun 27 2018


BERLIN, SIR ISAIAH (1909–1997), English philosopher and political scientist. Born in Latvia, Berlin was taken to England as a boy. He later studied at Oxford, where he lectured in philosophy from 1932 and became the first Jewish Fellow of All Souls College in 1938. During and after World War ii he served with the British Information Services in New York and with the British embassies in Washington and Moscow. From 1957 Berlin was professor of social and political theory at Oxford, and in 1966 he was appointed the first president of the newly founded Wolfson College in Oxford. Berlin was awarded the Order of Merit in 1971. In 1974 he was elected president of the British Academy, of which he had been vice president from 1959 to 1961, the first Jew to be appointed to this office. In November 1978 he was awarded the Jerusalem Prize.

His work was characterized by a strongly liberal attitude to social and political questions. His Karl Marx (1939) examines Marx's thought within the context of the intellectual atmosphere of the 19th century. In his The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953), Berlin considers Tolstoy as a writer who vainly sought some unifying thread in history. In Historical Inevitability (in: Auguste Conte Memorial Lectures 195362, 1964) he opposes the notion that events are inevitable and therefore predictable, and that political conditions are not capable of being changed by individuals. In Two Concepts of Liberty (1958), Berlin distinguishes between those thinkers who have sought to found liberty within a framework of mutual restraints while at the same time recognizing the diversity of human needs and behavior, and those who, espousing one all-embracing and dogmatic notion of liberty, seek to "force men to be free" and thus end by enslaving them. Among his other writings are The Age of Enlightenment (1956), The Life and Opinions of Moses Hess (1959), Four Essays on Liberty (1969), and numerous essays. Berlin earned a considerable reputation as a scholar, teacher, and conversationalist, and influenced generations of students in Britain and in the United States, where he was visiting professor at several universities. His long-standing ties with Israel and Zionism were distinguished by personal friendships with a number of Zionist leaders including Chaim *Weizmann. He was a member of the editorial board publishing the Weizmann letters and was a governor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Berlin also served as president of the Jewish Historical Society of England and was the first president of Wolfson College, Oxford. He was certainly one of the most famous public intellectuals in the English-speaking world at the time of his death. In 1998 he published his reminiscences of 17 famous people, Personal Impressions.

add. bibliography:

J. Cray, Isaiah Berlin (1996); M. Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (1998); H. Hardy, Flourishing: Letters 19281946 (2004); M. Lilla (ed.), The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin (2001); odnb online.

[Brian Knei-Paz (Knapheis)]

Berlin, Sir Isaiah

views updated May 21 2018

Berlin, Sir Isaiah (1909–97) British philosopher and historian of ideas, b. Latvia. Berlin and A. J. Ayer introduced logical positivism into British philosophy. He was a staunch defender of pluralism and liberalism. Two Concepts of Liberty was his influential, inaugural lecture as Chichele professor (1957–67) of social and political theory, Oxford. Berlin's essay on Tolstoy, The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953), is a classic historical study.

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Sir Isaiah Berlin

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