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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 the novella—about writers like Tolstoy, Herder, the exotic Hamann, and Giambattista Vico.

Characteristically, Berlin’s essays have been scattered to the winds, appearing in so many, often obscure, places that few readers had any idea of their number or range until, in recent years, they have been collected in a series of volumes by friends and colleagues. Read together, they invite the question, though they never pose the question: Do these “many things,” this remarkable assortment of historical insight, philosophical reflection, and common-sense argument, add up to a position?

I am not sure that Berlin would want to be “added up” in this way. He might well prefer that we generalize his own favorite genre and write essays about him rather than books like Gray’s. (See, for example, Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration, edited by Edna and Avishai Margalit, a fine collection of essays in which a few of the authors seem sometimes to be imitating Berlin’s breathless, run-on prose.)2 But Gray’s reconstruction is, nonetheless, impressive and revealing. It points persuasively to both the overall coherence and the internal tensions of Berlin’s thought. Here, one feels, is what Isaiah Berlin would have said, and how he would have said it, had he been someone else with Isaiah Berlin’s opinions.


Berlin’s master idea, according to Gray, is “value pluralism.” This is a phrase with far-reaching meaning—not only that there are many different goods in the world, many different versions of a good life and a good society, but also that these goods are often, or at least sometimes, incommensurable and incompatible. Gray starts his analysis of the first of these descriptive terms with an argument that comes from the Oxford philosopher Joseph Raz: “To say of two values that they are incommensurable is to say that they cannot be the subject of comparison.” But this claim must follow from a nonstandard view of comparison, which is, according to my dictionary, “a discovery of resemblances or differences.” Berlin is a remarkably adventurous discoverer of differences, hence, clearly, engaged in a comparison of values. What he means when he says that values are (sometimes) incommensurable, and what Raz and Gray also mean, is that they can’t be ranked on a single scale. No such scale exists, in Berlin’s view, and so there is no universal measure of degrees of goodness.

Values are also, often or sometimes, incompatible with one another so that, even if they could be ranked and we could recognize and then try to live by the top-ranked set, the project would be impossible. The goods realized in, say, the lives of a “great-souled” Greek hero, and a Christian saint, and a modern analytic philosopher cannot be combined into a single good life that, because of the combination, is better than any of the others. These goods are not only different and unrankable; they are also radically inconsistent. One can’t take hold of them all; one can’t live by them all, not simultaneously, at any rate. They might, of course, be realized serially. I can imagine a Greek hero converting to Christianity, then losing, or modifying, his faith and becoming an analytic philosopher. But this life story would not make a Bildungsroman; it’s not about “coming of age” or reaching maturity.

Two conclusions follow from Berlin’s account of value pluralism, and much of Gray’s book is devoted to presenting the two in a version designed to maximize the unease they will anyway produce among Anglo-American philosophers (and also among a lot of ordinary men and women, nonprofessional philosophers-of-everyday-life). It follows first that there is no single universal right or true or even useful account of the good person, the good life, or the good society. Here Berlin sets himself in opposition to what he recognizes, rightly, as “the central stream of the Western tradition.” “One assumption was common,” he writes about the tradition as it stood before Herder and the Romantics:

It was, at any rate in principle, possible to draw some outline of the perfect society or the perfect man, if only to define how far a given society or a given individual fell short of the ideal…. Problems of value were in principle soluble, and soluble with finality.

Since many people still believe this, despite repeated failures to achieve finality. Berlin’s opposition remains today what Herder’s was in his time: a provocation and a call to intellectual battle.

The second Berlinian conclusion is even more provocative, though I think that Gray overstates Berlin’s actual argument when he first presents it (he later gives a more balanced account). Men and women, both in their private lives and as members or leaders of movements, parties, and states, face choices for which there are no rational criteria—hence they must make radical choices, groundless decisions, leaps in the dark. We all know Jean-Paul Sartre’s example of this sort of dilemma: he describes a young man in the early 1940s who must choose between staying with his aging and sick mother and joining the Resistance. The young man, desperate, asks the philosopher for advice. There are no arguments to make one way or the other, Sartre tells him; he must simply choose.

Berlin sometimes writes in this existentialist vein, but it’s not quite his style, and I don’t think that he would accept Gray’s stark opposition between “knowledge of the right,” on the one hand, and “groundless decision,” on the other. No doubt, Berlin’s pluralism is radical, but he is himself a man ready to look for middle ways and to seize upon common-sensical arrangements. He knows that we sometimes face tragic choices when we must turn away from a good (because it is inconsistent with some other good) or embrace an evil (to avoid another evil), but we don’t face such choices all the time, and even when we do we don’t just choose. It makes no sense to say that unless I am standing on bedrock, with certain knowledge of the right thing to do, all my decisions are groundless. I can have good reasons for choosing this way or that without having conclusive, knockdown reasons. Given the concrete circumstances of my own life as I understand them or as my friends interpret them for me, one choice often makes better sense than another. But this doesn’t mean, and doesn’t have to mean, that it is decisively warranted by the one true theory of the good life (nor is that what my friends, even my philosophical friends, are likely to tell me).

Gray makes value pluralism seem harder to live with than it actually is—as if pluralists were always heroes, choosing to get along without the “metaphysical consolation” of doctrinal certainty. But of all the comforts of everyday life, metaphysical consolation is probably the easiest to do without. I don’t mean to associate Isaiah Berlin with this philistine statement, and I certainly acknowledge that for some men and women the surrender of certainty is enormously stressful, even agonizing (the greater the agony, however, the briefer the surrender). But most people, as soon as they find some plausible ground for their plans and decisions, will settle down for a long stay. And they don’t have to believe, and often in fact don’t believe (ask them!), that it would have been definitively wrong, wrong in the eyes of God, to have settled anywhere else. They cast an eye over the other choices they might have made and decide that, all things considered, it is probably best to stay where they are.

But the plural possibilities of political choice are much harder to acknowledge. Party leaders, struggling to inspire and mobilize their supporters and to win the allegiance of uncommitted men and women, are quick to seize upon absolute principles. They don’t offer metaphysical consolation but only the correct ideological position (a lesser version, perhaps, of the same thing). In any case, they are commonly enemies of value pluralism. They rarely believe that their own beliefs about political arrangements and purposes might have been other than they are or that their political opponents are anything less than definitively wrong. And it is here, thinking of this feature of political life, that Gray begins his logical but subversive questions about the consistency of Berlin’s philosophical views. The questions go like this: Isn’t liberalism, Berlin’s own politics, itself one of the beliefs that is believed or at least described in this definitive way? How many liberals think of their politics as only one legitimate way among many? Isn’t the liberty that liberalism aims to guarantee an absolute value, without competitors, and therefore a non-pluralist value? And isn’t Berlin’s defense of liberty and liberalism inconsistent with his own “master idea,” according to which values can’t be ranked and choices are groundless?

  1. 1

    The Questions of Isaiah Berlin” and “The Choices of Isaiah Berlin,” The New York Review, March 6 and 20, 1980.

  2. 2

    London: Hogarth Press, 1991.

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