Some Remarks on Isaiah Berlin

Last year’s centennial of Isaiah Berlin’s birth saw yet another revival of interest in his life and thought. Thanks largely to the indefatigable Henry Hardy, his dedicated editor who recently introduced the world to a new collection of letters and a volume of commemorative essays, Berlin again became a subject of mostly admiring commentary and analysis. A reader will often find critics praising Berlin for his broad knowledge of the history of ideas, especially the vivid ways in which he brought to life overlooked figures like Hamann, Vico, and Maistre. It is also common to read about his levelheaded approach to political judgment, which took pluralism as fundamental to social life, thereby reinforcing a liberal suspicion of metaphysics and the politics based on such principles. In academia he is regarded as an important thinker on the meaning of political freedom, with his Two Concepts of Liberty now treated as required reading in undergraduate political philosophy classes. Even outside the scope of the literary and academic worlds, Berlin’s influence is manifested whenever a layman quips about all humans being either hedgehogs or foxes (The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing).

Over the years these accolades have firmly rooted Berlin as a key figure in the twentieth-century liberal tradition, one whose esteemed place in the field of intellectual history today mirrors that of John Rawls in political philosophy, Karl Popper in the philosophy of science, and John Maynard Keynes in economics. Despite this, and for all the posthumous admiration Berlin has enjoyed, his legacy should be looked at with a more critical eye. For one, even though he possessed an unquestionable breadth of knowledge, Berlin was always too much of a fox to put forward an extended and unified work that today can be taken as a definitive statement of his philosophy, instead preferring to use the essay form for conveying his ideas. In itself this is a minor complaint. Yet Berlin’s preference for fragmentary insight reflects his deeper aversion to overarching systems of thought that purport to constitute a single Truth. It is this same distrust of the hedgehogs of philosophy that also reveals his own shortcoming as a reader of intellectual traditions, for Berlin was at times a surprisingly superficial interpreter of those with whom he disagreed.

For an example it suffices to turn to his lectures on the six enemies of human liberty, first given as radio addresses in 1952. In these intellectual portraits, which were gathered and published by Hardy fifty years later in a single volume titled Freedom and its Betrayal, Berlin drew the line between the liberal and authoritarian uses of the idea of freedom, which he found fundamentally irreconcilable. This work allows us a glimpse into the deep dislike that he held for certain thinkers. Among others, we are told that Rousseau was actually one of the most sinister and most formidable enemies of liberty in the whole history of modern thought a man who communicated his ideas with the tone of a maniac who suddenly sees a cosmic solution vouchsafed to him alone; that the programmatic social commentaries of Helvétius and Saint-Simon were antithetical to the true freedoms inherited from the French and English liberal traditions; and that Hegel was little more than an opportunistic worshipper of pure power who disguised the individual’s need to obey certain higher laws as a form of freedom. The fact that these writings originated as radio lectures intended for a broad and non-scholarly audience somewhat qualifies the casual and sweeping way in which Berlin discusses the people mentioned. Yet when one comes across such generalizations consistently repeated in many of Berlin’s essays, it is difficult not to feel underwhelmed by the lack of insight.

At best, parts of Berlin’s reading of the Western intellectual tradition reflect a peculiar disinterest in the contemporary debates of his own times. At worst, they appear as an act of willful distortion. Whatever the faults of Heidegger’s examinations of being, they certainly warrant more than a mere dismissal as an absurd nostalgic delusion, as Berlin formulated the matter in his essay “On Political Judgment.” Similarly, Hannah Arendt (someone Berlin deeply, even personally, disliked) was said to have written in a stream of metaphysical associations with no arguments [and] no serious philosophical or historical thought a dubious and overly general criticism. And considering Berlin’s well-known aversion to Marx’s legacy, which he constantly denounced in its Soviet form (while saying little about Western crimes that he witnessed over the course of his long life), to my knowledge there is no record of his remarks on figures like Lukács, Gramsci, or Adorno, all of whom radically transformed the Marxist tradition well beyond the metaphysical optimism that Berlin caricatured in his essays.

Berlin’s dismissive attitude toward certain German and French thinkers was likely formed during his early years at Oxford in the 1920s and 30s. As he described at a much later point in life, the Oxford school of critical empiricism he came into contact with as a young student of analytic philosophy saw itself as continuing the Enlightenment project. It taught that there was a basic compatibility of various truths — a jigsaw puzzle was Berlin’s favorite metaphor for this approach — and optimistically believed that this accumulation of knowledge could lead to a progressive bettering of human society. It took his later turn away from pure philosophy and toward intellectual history for Berlin to more fully develop his own political liberalism, including his rejection of this compatibility of various truths, his distrust of epistemological monism, and his belief in the plurality of knowledge. Nevertheless, the deep-rooted suspicion he held against the much more socially conscious German and French philosophical traditions broadly mirrored the intellectual split between philosophy in the English-speaking world and on the European continent. Despite his drift to the history of ideas in an attempt to better understand the philosophical assumptions of the modern age, Berlin remained a casualty of this divide, largely shunning the task of social criticism from behind the screen of an anti-totalitarian commitment to pluralism.

Considering this, it is almost paradoxical that Berlin’s most engaging work remains Russian Thinkers, the collection of his essays on the nineteenth century Russian intelligentsia and the sociopolitical circumstances that shaped them as a unique and iconoclastic class during the country’s most intellectually fertile period. There he described how men like Alexander Herzen and Vissarion Belinsky, taken in by the wave of philosophical and political ideas emanating from France and Germany, forcefully intervened in the political debates of their times on the side of freedom against authoritarianism and the obscurantism of the Russian Orthodox Church. Despite this admiration for those who took up social and political criticism in the name of anti-authoritarian values, Berlin’s skepticism about far-reaching attempts at social transformation accompanied his implicit support of a socially elitist status quo, embodied in the Oxford environment he knew all his life. It is disappointing to know that a figure like Berlin, so revered by many in liberal circles and so confident in the transformative power of ideas, was himself more than comfortable living the role of a detached intellectual, curiously out of sync with his own times.

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