Home and Homeland: Isaiah Berlin’s Zionism

Home and Homeland: Isaiah Berlin’s Zionism

The idea of the nation-state is in a grip of two pictures: first, the nation as an extended family; and second, its territory as home. The nation as an extended family is a metaphor for an ethnic nation, whereas a civic nation is guided by a different picture, by the metaphor of contract. Isaiah Berlin’s own thoughts on nationalism, and in particular on Zionism, were, I contend, strongly influenced by the two pictures of family and home. More important, Berlin’s core idea of psychological freedom, as distinct from political liberty, is coupled with the idea of the homeland as home.

Home: Sense and Sensibility

Analytical philosophy is concerned with sense. History-based philosophy is concerned with sensibility. The analysis of concepts is in the realm of sense. Systematically connecting concepts to sentiments is the realm of sensibility.

Sentiments are sophisticated emotions: they are felt only by creatures with language. Thus, patriotism is a sentiment. Fear is an emotion. Humans can be patriotic; dogs can only be fearful.

Isaiah Berlin’s move from analytical philosophy to the history of ideas is well known, but not well understood. I don’t believe that he moved from philosophy to history. I believe that he moved from sense-centered philosophy to sensibility-centered philosophy. For him the sensibility of a concept (like freedom) comprises not just an account of its sense, be it negative or positive, but an appeal to such scenes as the end of Fidelio, when the prisoners sing “Hail to the Day,” and the minister, Don Fernando, announces an end to tyranny. For Berlin, if you are not moved in the right way by the prisoners’ song, then you miss the sensibility of freedom, even if you know everything about its sense.

Berlin had very little to do with Freudian explanations, yet I believe that he suspected that sense without sensibility is the kind of defense mechanism that Freud dubbed “intellectualization”—removing oneself from an emotionally charged situation by focusing on logic and facts.

Berlin played a well-documented role in the emergence of analytical philosophy in its Oxford “ordinary language” guise. He was more invested in this project than he later cared to admit, acknowledging only his ambivalence toward it. There is a story he liked to tell about Tolstoy’s visit to Germany on an educational tour. Tolstoy attended a class in which the teacher showed the students a picture of a fish. “What is it?” the teacher asked. “A fish,” answered the students. “No,” said the teacher. The students were baffled. The teacher became more insistent and kept repeating his question while pointing sternly to the picture of the fish. The students became more bewildered. Then the teacher said in a triumphant, Teutonic voice: “It is not a fish. It is a picture of a fish!” This display of silliness struck Tolstoy, and I hasten to add, Berlin, as an instan...