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On Political Judgment

For more information about Isaiah Berlin, see the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. For permission to reprint any material by Isaiah Berlin, contact Curtis Brown Group Ltd.

What is it to have good judgment in politics? What is it to be politically wise, or gifted, to be a political genius, or even to be no more than politically competent, to know how to get things done? Perhaps one way of looking for the answer is by considering what we are saying when we denounce statesmen, or pity them, for not possessing these qualities. We sometimes complain that they are blinded by prejudice or passion, but blinded to what? We say that they don’t understand the times they live in, or that they are resisting something called “the logic of the facts,” or are “trying to put the clock back,” or that “history is against them,” or that they are ignorant or incapable of learning, or else unpractical idealists, visionaries, Utopians, hypnotized by the dream of some fabulous past or some unrealizable future.

All such expressions and metaphors seem to presuppose that there is something to know (of which the critic has some notion) which these unfortunate persons have somehow not managed to grasp, whether it is the inexorable movement of some cosmic clock which no man can alter, or some pattern of things in time or space, or in some more mysterious medium—“the realm of the Spirit” or “ultimate reality”—which one must first understand if one is to avoid frustration.

But what is this knowledge? Is it knowledge of a science? Are there really laws to be discovered, rules to be learned? Can statesmen be taught something called political science—the science of the relationships of human beings to each other and to their environment—which consists, like other sciences, of systems of verified hypotheses, organized under laws, that enable one, by the use of further experiment and observation, to discover other facts, and to verify newhypotheses?

Certainly that was the notion, either concealed or open, of both Hobbes and Spinoza, each in his own fashion, and of their followers—a notion that grew more and more powerful in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the natural sciences acquired enormous prestige, and attempts were made to maintain that anything not capable of being reduced to a natural science could not properly be called knowledge at all. The more ambitious and extreme scientific determinists, such as Holbach, Helvétius, and La Mettrie, used to think that, given enough knowledge of universal human nature and of the laws of social behavior, and enough knowledge of the state of given human beings at a given time, one could scientifically calculate how these human beings, or at any rate large groups of them—entire societies or classes—would behave under some other given set of circumstances. It was argued, and this seemed reasonable enough at the time, that just as knowledge of mechanics was indispensable to engineers or architects or inventors, so knowledge of social mechanics was necessary for anyone—statesmen, for example—who wished to get large bodies of men to do this or that. For without it, what had they to rely on but casual impressions, half-remembered, unverified recollections, guesswork, mere rules of thumb, unscientific hypotheses? One must, no doubt, make do with these if one has no proper scientific method at one’s disposal; but one should realize that this is no better than unorganized conjectures about nature made by primitive peoples, or by the inhabitants of Europe during the Dark Ages—grotesquely inadequate tools superseded by the earliest advances of true science. And there are those (in institutions of higher learning) who have thought this, and think this still, in our own times.

Less ambitious thinkers, influenced by the fathers of the life sciences at the turn of the eighteenth century, conceived of the science of society as being rather more like a kind of social anatomy. To be a good doctor it is necessary, but not sufficient, to know anatomical theory. For one must also know how to apply it to specific cases—to particular patients, suffering from particular forms of a particular disease. This cannot be wholly learned from books or professors, it requires considerable personal experience and natural aptitude. Nevertheless, neither experience nor natural gifts can ever be a complete substitute for knowledge of a developed science—pathology, say, or anatomy. To know only the theory might not be enough to enable one to heal the sick, but to be ignorant of it is fatal. By analogy with medicine, such faults as bad political judgment, lack of realism, Utopianism, attempts to arrest progress, and so on were duly conceived as deriving from ignorance or defiance of the laws of social development—laws of social biology (which conceives of society as an organism rather than a mechanism), or of the corresponding science of politics.

The scientifically inclined philosophers of the eighteenth century believed passionately in just such laws, and tried to account for human behavior wholly in terms of the identifi-able effects of education, of natural environment, and of the calculable results of the play of appetites and passions. However, this approach turned out to explain so small a part of the actual behavior of human beings at times when it seemed most in need of explanation—during and after the Jacobin Terror—and failed so conspicuously to predict or analyze such major phenomena as the growth and violence of nationalism, the uniqueness of, and the conflicts between, various cultures, and the events leading to wars and revolutions, and displayed so little understanding of what may broadly be called spiritual or emotional life (whether of individuals or of whole peoples), and the unpredictable play of irrational factors, that new hypotheses inevitably entered the field, each claiming to overthrow all the others, and to be the last and definitive word on the subject.

Messianic preachers—prophets—such as Saint-Simon, Fourier, Comte, dogmatic thinkers such as Hegel, Marx, Spengler, historically-minded theological thinkers from Bossuet to Toynbee, the popularizers of Darwin, the adaptors of this or that dominant school of sociology or psychology—all have attempted to step into the breach caused by the failure of the eighteenth-century philosophers to construct a proper, successful science of society. Each of these new nineteenth-century apostles laid some claim to exclusive possession of the truth. What they all have in common is the belief that there is one great universal pattern, and one unique method of apprehending it, knowledge of which would have saved statesmen many an error, and humanity many a hideous tragedy.

It was not exactly denied that such statesmen as Colbert, or Richelieu, or Washington, or Pitt, or Bismarck, seem to have done well enough without this knowledge, just as bridges had obviously been built before the principles of mechanics were discovered, and diseases had been cured by men who appeared to know no anatomy. It was admitted that much could be—and had been—achieved by the inspired guesses of individual men of genius, and by their instinctive skills; but, so it was argued, particularly toward the end of the nineteenth century, there was no need to look to so precarious a source of light. The principles upon which these great men acted, even though they may not have known it, so some optimistic sociologists have maintained, can be extracted and reduced to an accurate science, very much as the principles of biology or mechanics must once have been established.

According to this view, political judgment need never again be a matter of instinct and flair and sudden illuminations and strokes of unanalyzable genius; rather it should henceforth be built upon the foundations of indubitable knowledge. Opinions might differ about whether this new knowledge was empirical or a priori, whether it derived its authority from the methods of natural science or from metaphysics; but in either form it amounted to what Herbert Spencer called the sciences of social statics and social dynamics. Those who applied it were social engineers; the mysterious art of government was to be mysterious no longer: it could be taught, learned, applied; it was a matter of professional competence and specialization.

This thesis would be more plausible if the newly discovered laws did not, as a rule, turn out either to be ancient truisms—such as that most revolutions are followed by reaction (which amounts to not much more than the virtual tautology that most movements come to an end at some time, and are then followed by something else, often in some opposite direction)—or else to be constantly upset, and violently upset, by events, leaving the theoretical systems in ruins. Perhaps nobody did so much to undermine confidence in a dependable science of human relations as the great tyrants of our day—Lenin, Stalin, Hitler. If belief in the laws of history and “scientific socialism” really did help Lenin or Stalin, it helped them not so much as a form of knowledge, but in the way that a fanatical faith in almost any dogma can be of help to determined men, by justifying ruthless acts and suppressing doubts and scruples.

Between them, Stalin and Hitler left scarcely stone upon stone of the once splendid edifice of the inexorable laws of history. Hitler, after all, almost succeeded in his professed aim of undoing the results of the French Revolution. The Russian Revolution violently twisted the whole of Western society out of what, until that time, seemed to most observers a fairly orderly course—twisted it into an irregular movement, followed by a dramatic collapse, foretold as little by Marxist as by any other “scientific” prophets. It is easy enough to arrange the past in a symmetrical way—Voltaire’s famous cynical epigram to the effect that history is so many tricks played upon the dead is not as superficial as it seems.1 A true science, though, must be able not merely to rearrange the past but to predict the future. To classify facts, to order them in neat patterns, is not quite yet a science.

We are told that the great earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in the mid-eighteenth century shook Voltaire’s faith in inevitable human progress. Similarly the great destructive political upheavals of our own time have instilled terrible doubts about the feasibility of a reliable science of human behavior for the guidance of men of action—be they industrialists or social-welfare officers or statesmen. The subject evidently had to be re-examined afresh: the assumption that an exact science of social behavior was merely a matter of time and ingenuity no longer seemed quite so self-evident. What method should this science pursue? Clearly not deductive: there existed no accepted axioms from which the whole of human behavior could be deduced by means of agreed logical rules. Not even the most dogmatic theologian would claim as much as that. Inductive, then? Laws based on the survey of a large collection of empirical data? Or on hypothetical-deductive methods not very easily applicable to the complexities of human affairs?

In theory, no doubt, such laws should have been discoverable, but in practice this looked less promising. If I am a statesman faced with an agonizing choice of possible courses of action in a critical situation, will I really find it useful—even if I can afford to wait that long for the answer—to employ a team of specialists in political science to assemble for me from past history all kinds of cases analogous to my situation, from which I or they must then abstract what these cases have in common, deriving from this exercise relevant laws of human behavior? The instances for such induction—or for the construction of hypotheses intended to systematize historical knowledge—would, because human experience is so various, not be numerous; and the dismissal even from these instances of all that is unique to each, and the retention only of that which is common, would produce a very thin, generalized residue, and one far too unspecific to be of much help in a practical dilemma.

  1. 1

    Un historien est un babillard qui fait des tracasseries aux morts.” The Complete Works of Voltaire, Volume 82 (University of Toronto Press, 1968), p. 452.

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