Isaiah Berlin (1909–1997), historian of ideas and political theorist, was born to Jewish parents in Riga, Latvia, on June 9, but spent most of his life after 1921 in Great Britain, studying and then holding various positions at Oxford University, where he served as professor of social and political theory (1957–1967) and founding president of Wolfson College (1966–1975). He also served as president of the British Academy (1974–1978), and was the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees, including a knighthood and the Order of Merit. After his biography of Karl Marx (1939), Berlin's published work consisted entirely of essays, one of which, "Two Concepts of Liberty" (1958) became one of the most influential expressions of liberal political theory of the latter half of the twentieth century.
Berlin saw scientific and technological advance as one of the dominant forces in the twentieth century. He followed developments in the philosophy of science, and was a close observer of the political domination of science in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) during the later years of Joseph Stalin's reign. Although he did not write explicitly about the philosophy or morality of science and technology, Berlin's work provides significant insights into their ethical implications.
Berlin was opposed to the application of a single, dominant model to all subjects, arguing instead that different approaches are appropriate to different facets of experience. He recognized the validity of the scientific method in studying the natural world, but suggested that its application to the understanding of human beings (beyond the discoveries of the medical and biological sciences) was often mistaken, an example of pseudo-scientific ideology rather than genuine scientific knowledge. Berlin warned against the application of scientific models to the humanities and social sciences, which he believed should aim at capturing the unique qualities of particular human experiences, rather than the development of general laws and formulae (which he took to be the goal of science).
Berlin sought to explain, and seemed to endorse, the view that science is concerned with empirically discoverable facts, and with processes and relationships that can be explained in terms of identifiable rules or laws, while moral philosophy and politics are concerned not with facts about the way things are, but with values, or human beliefs about the way things should be. However, Berlin also argued that values are objective, deriving their validity from the realities of a common, universal human nature. This common nature encompasses great variety, is expressed differently in different cultures, and cannot be reduced to simple formulae. But it does allow people to understand one another, and places limits on the goals they can intelligibly and rightfully pursue.
Berlin insisted that science cannot tell people what to be or do; this they must decide for themselves, from among the possible, and often conflicting, values to which as human beings, they feel drawn. While he believed that the acquisition of scientific knowledge should be pursued as a goal in itself, Berlin believed that it would not point the way to any conclusions about ethics. The only way in which science might change thinking about ethics would be by transforming the understanding of human nature in such a way as to force human beings to change their ideas about morality. For instance, if science were to reveal that human beings lack free will, humanity would have to abandon its notions of individual moral responsibility. But Berlin warned against jumping to conclusions based on insufficient or inconclusive evidence, and the tendency to use science, or pseudo-science, as an excuse for evading moral responsibility.
On a practical level, Berlin was sharply critical of what he identified as a managerial approach to political problems. He reacted strongly against the vision of a final resolution of human conflicts through the application to human life of techniques of conditioning and management. Berlin did not deny the tremendous good produced by the advance of technology; but his writings reflect an anxiety that the very success of technology could be morally blinding, leading to a view of human beings as material, to be molded in such a way as to be conducive to social harmony. This opposition to blind devotion to technological advancement, which excluded moral considerations and ignored the dignity of individuals as free and unique beings, was an important influence in the development of Berlin's political thought.
Berlin's work is significant as a warning against the dangers of intellectual and practical misapplications of science, a critique of reductive understanding of human nature and experience, and a defense of individual liberty and dignity against technocratic control.
JOSHUA L. CHERNISS
Berlin, Isaiah. (1991). The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy. London: John Murray.
Berlin, Isaiah. (1996). The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and their History, ed. Henry Hardy. London: Chatto and Windus.
Berlin, Isaiah. (1997). The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays, ed. Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer. London: Chatto and Windus. This volume contains Berlin's major contributions to philosophy and political theory, as well as a sampling of his writings on the history of ideas.
The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. Available from http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk//. Contains a full listing of Berlin's published and unpublished works, as well as an extensive list of writings about Berlin and links to some of these, as well as photographs and reminiscences of Berlin.