Are There Limits to Liberalism?

Isaiah Berlin

by John Gray
HarperCollins (to be published by Princeton University Press next spring), 183 pp., £18.00


In his famous essay on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Isaiah Berlin divides writers about human affairs—philosophers, historians, social theorists, novelists, and poets—into two categories that he names, engagingly, hedgehogs and foxes, making his own a line from the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Archilochus sounds sympathetic to the hedgehogs, who are committed, Berlin writes, to “a single central vision, one system…, a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance.” Berlin himself, however, runs with the foxes, who “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory,” whose thought moves “on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without… seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing…unitary inner vision.”

These last lines seem to fit perfectly Berlin’s own work as an intellectual historian: he has written brilliantly about an extraordinary variety of people with very different lives, relationships, opinions, and he has always aimed to give an account of “what they are in themselves.” And yet, the fox’s commitment to multiplicity is still…a commitment, and, as Sidney Morgenbesser and Jonathan Lieberson suggested in these pages years ago, it lends itself, willy nilly, to a hedgehogian interpretation. Berlin in fact knows “one big thing,” which is, they write, “that questions such as ‘What is the goal of life?’ or ‘What is the meaning of history?’ or ‘What is the best way to live?’ can receive no general answer”—indeed, given the italicized article, can’t be answered at all.1

Now John Gray has written a book that systematically works out this hedgehogian interpretation. Berlin’s entire corpus, he argues, is animated and informed by a single “master idea”—and this master idea is pluralism, according to which there is no single master idea. Is this a paradox? Or is it just in the nature of things that if you manage to slow down the running fox, he turns out, on close inspection, to be one more, slightly unconventional, hedgehog?

Gray’s book is as much a reconstruction as a presentation of Berlin’s thought. He is careful to tell us what Berlin has said and what he probably believes about the crucial questions in which he (Gray) is most interested, but he also tells us what Berlin ought to say and believe if his thought is to be taken as a consistent whole, a single coherent system. But “the fox knows many things,” and Berlin has argued again and again that these many things don’t necessarily cohere in a systematic way (or in any way). Certainly, he has never presented himself as a system maker or as a writer in possession of, or in the grip of, a master idea. He doesn’t write expository treatises or even formal academic articles; he is a wonderful essayist, perhaps the best we have. His longest works are extended essays—philosophical-historical versions of…

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