Isaiah Berlin

British philosopher, Isaiah Berlin (born 1909), wrote widely on topics involving the history of ideas, political philosophy, and the relationship of the individual to society. He skillfully explored the history of ideas to find ways in which society can use large philosophical principles to secure individual conformity to social values.

Isaiah Berlin was born in Riga, Latvia, on June 9, 1909. The family moved often and eventually ended up in St. Petersburg. Even as a young child he witnessed some of the most profound events of the 20th century, when at the age of six he watched the Russian Revolution unfold in the streets below the family's apartment window. The family emigrated to Great Britain in March, 1920 when Berlin was eleven. By July of that same year, Berlin had won first prize for an essay in English. He was educated at St. Paul's School, London, and then attended Corpus Christi College, Oxford (B.A. in 1932, M.A. in 1935). He later was awarded many honorary degrees.

His early career was devoted to diplomatic work, and he served in the British embassies in Washington (1942-1945) and Moscow (1945-1946). At the British embassy in Washington, he was responsible for reporting on American public opinion during the war. He so impressed Prime Minister Winston Churchill with his reports that Churchill asked to meet "this man Berlin". Shortly thereafter, Churchill found himself entertaining the American composer Irving Berlin. This type of mix-up between the two happened often, including a time in 1932 when Berlin was elected the first Jewish Fellow at All Souls College in Oxford and the Chief Rabbi of England congratulated Irving Berlin for the honor in the Jewish Chronicle.

Isaiah Berlin was a lecturer at various colleges at Oxford after 1933 and was a visiting professor at scores of American colleges—most notably Harvard, Princeton, and The City College of New York. He was president of the British Academy from 1974 to 1978 and a member of the board of governors of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was knighted in 1957 and received The Order of Merit in 1971. Berlin married Aline Elizabeth Yvonne de Gunzburg in 1956.

As a young man Berlin became an avid Zionist. He felt that Zionism was the natural liberation movement of the Jewish people, who after two millennia in exile had a right to their own homeland. Berlin's family was integral to the establishment of the Hasidic dynasty of Lubavitch during the Napoleonic Wars. He was related to Rebbe Menacham Schneerson, a Lubavitcher whose followers believed he was the Messiah, and violinist Yehude Menuhin. Aline Berlin's family was also prestigious in the Russian Jewish community, where as the Barons De Ginsbourg, served as grand bankers in Russia and Paris and as renowned philanthropists. He viewed the Jewish community as an extended family and for Berlin, a "strong family feeling was one of the primary colors of human emotion." Throughout his career, Berlin retained a deep interest in human emotion and its effects on history and ideas.

Berlin was first and foremost a historian of ideas. He was most well known in America for his books Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (1939), Four Essays on Liberty (1969), and Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas (1976). At the heart of his philosophy of history is the conviction that the tools of science are the servants of historians rather than their masters. This means that science by itself cannot provide us with predictive explanations that account for social transformation. Natural selection may be able to explain the transformations among species but it cannot explain the more complex changes that take place within the interplay of ideas and political traditions. Furthermore, while the methods of science are indispensable for historical explanation, the historian cannot discover laws of historical development in the sense that the physicist can discover the laws of planetary motion. The historian must appeal to larger explanatory concepts than are to be found within a mechanistic science.

Two such concepts that often appear in Berlin's picture of history are the interrelated concepts of monism and pluralism. Monism represents the tendency on the part of human beings to see unity amidst diversity. More important, it involves a tendency to subordinate individual values to larger social values. Monism is, in many respects, utopian. Monists tend to picture humans as striving toward one ultimate end and individuals as servants of larger historical processes. For example, within psychology a monistic thinker would tend to see all behavior as deriving from a common source or a common principle. Sigmund Freud conceived of all human behavior as deriving from the fundamental desire of individuals to secure their own private pleasure; all human energy is libidinal and all human action is to be understood as the working out of this libidinal energy. Why is Shakespeare a great writer? The Freudian answer is monistic in the sense that Shakespeare's art was his way of sublimating sexual or libidinal energy.

Another kind of monistic thinker was Karl Marx, the 19th-century philosopher and economist whose ideas spawned 20th-century communism. Marx believed that all social behavior had a common root, namely, economics. For Marx, if one wished to explain any social or historical phenomenon, one merely had to discover economic factors that caused the phenomenon. For example, Marx believed that World War I was caused by capitalists in England, France, and Germany who were using their respective governments as a means of eliminating competitors. Both Freud and Marx were monists. Berlin suggested that monistic thinkers tend to see a common thread running through all human events.

Berlin was skeptical of all monisms. He held that the development of ideas and traditions is far more diverse than monists care to admit. Furthermore, there is no utopian ideal that history is moving toward. This view of history colors all of Berlin's other work. To illustrate this skepticism regarding monism we can examine Berlin's views on moral theory. Monism, he argued, has exerted a powerful influence within moral theory. Monistic moral opinions are rooted in the belief that all our moral views must be derivable from a single moral axiom, such as the utilitarian ideal of maximizing social welfare. This moral ideal is monistic in the sense that it is pictured as basic or fundamental and therefore deserving of priority in all moral reasoning. Consequently, any moral opinion or principle that conflicts with this basic rule must be rejected. But this monistic picture of moral priority often comes into conflict with other basic intuitions such as the desire to protect individuals whose legitimate, autonomous behavior seems at odds with social welfare. For Berlin, monism fails precisely because no moral principle has universal priority. Rather, our moral lives are made up of fundamental compromises between competing principles, and there may be no ideal vantage point from which to determine what are the legitimate compromises.

Another example of this conflict between monism and pluralism within our moral lives involves the conflicting duty to respect the individual's right to be left alone (Berlin calls this negative freedom) and the corresponding duty to prevent others from becoming slaves of self-destructive desires such as drugs or alcohol or blatant ignorance. One is positively free when one is governed by "rational motives" and not controlled by irrational desires. Our duty to secure positive freedom may come into conflict with the individual's negative freedom, i.e., his or her right to be left alone. Berlin represents negative freedom as fundamental.

Berlin's pluralism can best be explained by a utopian or monistic critique. Berlin's support for the primacy of negative freedom was grounded largely on his experience with the Cold War and the tendency on the part of communists to use positive freedom as a means of enslaving millions. The communists argued that one can only be rationally free if one lives in a classless society devoid of economic differences. Furthermore, the Stalinist version of communism that controlled the former Soviet Union acted as if any violation of individual rights was permitted as long as it would contribute to the utopian ideal of a classless society. But surely monists need not be identified with Stalinist repression. One can still accept that there are modest versions of monism and utopianism which include both respect for the rights of individuals and modest concern for the public good.

Berlin's short work titled The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953) is a masterpiece of literary and interpretative philosophy which contains his description of Leo Tolstoy's philosophical views on history. Tolstoy, like Berlin, was profoundly skeptical that individuals, even powerful individuals such as Napoleon, understand and control the events within history. To see Napoleon as controlling history is similar to assuming that a drop of water can control the direction of the Mississippi River. For Tolstoy there was a pattern to history just as there is a direction to the Mississippi but we are unable to see this pattern just as the fish is unable to see the direction of the Mississippi. Tolstoy accepted that history is determined, but he was very skeptical that the materialistic philosophies of Marx or the spiritualistic philosophies of the German idealists could discern the pattern of human history. Finally, in Berlin's essay entitled "From Hope and Fear Set Free" he tackled the grand assumption of the West; namely, that the growth of knowledge will liberate individuals. His arguments against this view indicate the profound influence that Tolstoy had on his thought.

When asked to write an autobiography, Berlin refused and referred interested persons to the 1981 book, Personal Impressions as his reflections on the important figures whose ideas became visions that shaped their lives. Coupled with his books, Against the Current a book of essays on the history of ideas, Russian Thinkers, Concepts and Categories these philosophical writings provide the interested public with a comprehensive collection of his reflections and ideas. A collection of nine additional essays were released in 1997, based on lectures given between 1950 and 1972, and confirmed again the enormous breadth and erudition of Berlin's scholarship and intellect.

Further Reading on Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin was a clear writer whose literary elegance is marked by a simplicity and clarity that may be unequaled among 20th-century British philosophers. Perhaps his most well-known book is Four Essays on Liberty (1969), which contains his essay "Two Concepts of Liberty." Here he spells out his views on positive and negative freedom. See other Berlin writings discussed in the text. For views on Berlin by contemporaries see Henry Hardy, ed., Personal Impressions: Isaiah Berlin, with an introduction by Noel Annan (1980). Although no autobiography exists, Berlin's views and reflections can be found in all of his works. Additional sources for insights into Berlin include: "The Philosopher of Sympathy: Isaiah Berlin and the Fate of Humanism," New Republic (February 20, 1995); The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and their History: Isaiah Berlin (1997).

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