Free Spirit

The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History

by Sir Isaiah Berlin, edited by Henry Hardy, with an introduction by Patrick Gardiner
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 278 pp., $25.00

Of all the lost arts—the stained glass of Chartres, the tiles of Delft, the ink of Gutenberg, the memory system of the Renaissance, the singing of the castrati, the speech of the ancient Romans, the poetry of the minnesingers, illuminated manuscripts, Gobelin tapestry, real tennis, old ale, oral epics, public hangings, penmanship, motherhood, savoir faire, and dolce far niente—the most lamented is the art of conversation. Where is the despot of the breakfast table today? Where the after-dinner raconteurs? The salon lions? The philosophers, strolling in gardens and ordering the world through talk?

Fortunately Sir Isaiah Berlin, the last of the line and perhaps the greatest of them all, is still to be heard in Oxford. He enjoys an unrivaled reputation as a conversationalist. The height and range of his wit have delighted students and dinner companions for decades. Once tuned to his heavily accented basso profundo, they have learned to watch him as if he were a trapeze artist, soaring through every imaginable subject, spinning, flipping, hanging by his heels—and without a touch of showmanship. After bouncing from the net, Berlin sometimes shakes with levity and slaps his left hand with his right, as if he were applauding, not himself, but the game, the sheer pleasure of talk.

Was ever there before such a conversationalist? Yes: Diderot. Here is Diderot talking, as described by one of his companions:

Diderot’s conversation…had great power and great charm. His talk was enlivened by absolute sincerity, subtle without obscurity, varied in its forms, dazzling in its flights of imagination, fertile in ideas and in its capacity to inspire ideas in others. One let oneself drift along with it for hours at a time, as if one were gliding down a fresh and limpid river, whose banks were adorned with rich estates and beautiful houses.

Conversation for Diderot was an end in itself, something done pour le sport, but it issued in philosophy. Like Plato, Diderot philosophized through dialogue. His greatest works—Rameau’s Nephew, Jacques the Fatalist, D’Alembert’s Dream—worry philosophic problems by putting them in the mouths of interlocutors and talking them out. Isaiah Berlin does the same, using a related genre, the essay. Unlike a treatise or a monograph, an essay, in Berlin’s sense of it, essays a subject, testing it, running it through an exposition and objections, as one would do in the give-and-take of talk. Such essays do not prove cases. They explore subjects, informally, sometimes playfully, and leave the reader to draw his own conclusions. In the hands of a master like Berlin, they are written conversations.

The Sense of Reality is the seventh and last volume in the series of Berlin’s essays edited by Henry Hardy. Only one of the nine essays in this volume had been previously published—and that was in 1950. “Political Judgment,” a philosophic fireside chat, was delivered on the BBC in 1957 and had to be reconstructed from notes and a recording …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.