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.1

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 of the broadcast. The other essays had been delivered here and there as Berlin’s wit rose to various occasions—a colloquium on the centenary of the First International Working Men’s Association at Stanford University in 1964, the centenary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore commemorated in New Delhi in 1961, the bicentennial celebration at Columbia University in 1954.

They had lain about, in various drafts and forgotten drawers, for twenty, thirty, forty years, until Hardy sorted them out and put them into print. Capped by an anthology of Berlin’s most famous essays, published recently in London as The Proper Study of Mankind,2 the series brings a vast collection of Berlin’s thoughts on a wide variety of subjects within t he range of readers located far outside the dining and the lecture halls of Oxford. It is a service to civilization; and Hardy is to be congratulated, for he has done a masterly job of editing. But the most recent of the essays dates from 1972. Are they museum pieces, recordings of a voice from the past and of nothing more than antiquarian interest, even though Berlin’s table talk continues to enliven Oxford?

Certainly not, as anyone can see from a glance at the essays. But why should these occasional pieces, written so long ago, still have force today? Part of their staying power, I believe, has to do with the mysterious quality known as voice. Berlin speaks to us, his readers, without a hint of condescension. He draws us into the discussion and infects us with his energy. He has been everywhere, met everyone, read everything. He can tell us what it is like to talk with Churchill, Roosevelt, Virginia Woolf, and, best of all, Anna Akhmatova, in Leningrad in 1945, from nine in the evening until eleven in the morning:

We talked about literature and life and our friends before the revolution. I was the first foreigner from the West to meet her since 1917. This was in 1945. She said, “Is Stravinsky alive? Is his wife alive?” We talked about everything, about life, about love. She recited her poems, her prose, she recited Byron, not one word of which I understood—her English pronunciation was non-existent. That’s when I learnt that people who read Aeschylus without knowing how it was pronounced will still derive a great deal from it.3

Berlin’s method, if you can call it that, comes close to the German notion of Hineinfühlung: instead of weighing down his argument with textual analysis and elaborate citations, he tries to get inside an alien way of thinking, to capture its texture and its tone as well as its general drift, and to bring it to life by means of sympathetic synopsis. Berlin may be erudite, but he is not academic. He addresses his essays to the general reader, and he speaks with such infectious energy that he sweeps us up and carries us with him into territory that had seemed inaccessible. He becomes everyman’s guide to everything exciting in the history of ideas, whether in Aristotelian Athens, in Machiavellian Florence, in Kantian Königsberg, or in prerevolutionary Petrograd.

He also was the Foreign Office’s man in wartime Washington. His weekly reports on the inner workings of the American government so impressed Churchill that in the spring of 1944 Berlin was invited to lunch at 10 Downing Street. But lunch turned into a wonderful fiasco, which has provided merriment for generations of listeners, as our man in Oxford tells the story:

I cannot think how Churchill ever heard of me. I imagine Churchill probably said to Eden, “Halifax’s dispatch was quite interesting.” “Halifax!” said Eden, who loathed Halifax, “It’s by a hack called Berlin, I’m told.” So then, suddenly in the spring of 1944, his wife said to him, “Irving Berlin is in London, do be nice to him, because he’s made quite a big contribution to one of our charitable funds.” He said, “He’s in London is he, I want him to come to lunch, there’s something I want to ask him about.” So Irving was asked to lunch. Winston said, “Berlin, what do you think is your most important piece you’ve done for us lately?” He said rather hesitantly, “White Christmas.”4

This lunch has all the ingredients of the Berlin style in storytelling. It takes us to the heart of things—inside 10 Downing Street, offstage talk between the prime minister and the foreign minister, domestic chat between Churchill and his wife—and it exposes the human comedy for what it is: comic and human, although it also can be tragic, heroic, bitter, and bizarre.

Many raconteurs contrive to tell a tale in a way that makes themselves come out in the end as the hero. Not Berlin. Unless the manner of his writings belies the man, he is genuinely modest and deeply democratic. The effect on the reader is to reinforce the sense of participation in a common adventure: we let ourselves be carried away by Berlin’s enthusiasm for his subject.


Although Berlin’s rhetoric still works its magic today, it had a particular task to perform in the 1950s and 1960s. Berlin became an intellectual hero in England throughout the cold war. Born abroad (in Riga in 1909, to a Jewish family which moved to Petrograd in time for him to witness the first phases of the Russian Revolution) but raised at home (in 1919 the family moved to England, where he was educated at St. Paul’s School and Oxford), he was seen as someone who could take on the double menace overshadowing the continent, fascism and communism.

Not that he volunteered for ideological warfare. On the contrary, he participated in the birth of the Oxford style of analytical or ordinary-language philosophy. In a way he was its midwife. J.L. Austin, A.J. Ayer, and other young dons first debated the “meaning of meaning” in his rooms in New College, Oxford, during the 1930s. But the Warden of New College, H.A.L. Fisher, persuaded Berlin to write a book on Marx. It is the only full-scale book, as opposed to collections of essays, that Berlin has published; and to prepare it, he made a trek through the philosophers of the French Enlightenment and German idealism. In the end, he became a historian of ideas.

The ideas that he pursued led in many directions, but they emanated from a central concern, which he defined in the most famous of his essays, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford in 1958. Berlin distinguished “negative liberty,” the ability to do what one wants without interference from others, from “positive liberty,” which comes in two varieties, each involving obedience to a self-imposed law and each potentially dangerous: on the one hand, withdrawal into an inner realm of conscience and contemplation, leading to political quietism; on the other, an attempt to stamp one’s will on the outer world, despite its heterogeneity, opening the way to totalitarianism.

How such a philosophical position could produce such consequences can be seen from the essays in The Sense of Reality. “Philosophy and Government Repression,” written in 1954, provides a ringing defense of freedom of thought, especially negative freedom, or “the existence of a minimum area of civil liberty within which an individual may think and do what he pleases because he pleases it.” In contrast to this unconstrained intellectual activity, Berlin warns us against positive varieties of rationalism which philosophers construct to impose order on experience, no matter how much it resists. Philosophers build systems, but they also tear them down. Their inherent tendency to undercut orthodoxy, even when it assumes the form of the noblest utopias, provides humanity with the best possible defense against oppression; for those who propound final truths clear a path for “final solutions.” Berlin uses that term three times on one page. Although he rarely refers to the Holocaust, his meaning is clear: philosophy is dangerous, and it also is necessary, our surest weapon in the endless struggle against enslavement.

The nature of this danger is explored in two other essays, “Kant as an Unfamiliar Source of Nationalism” (1972) and “The Romantic Revolution” (1960). How could Kant, the mildest, the most humane, the most enlightened of philosophers, have lit the fire for the most destructive passions in the last two centuries? Berlin avoids all simple and direct lines of causality. But he treats Kant’s philosophy—the ethics of The Critique of Practical Reason rather than the epistemology of The Critique of Pure Reason—as the great “turning point” in the modern outlook on the world. It is the beginning of Innerlichkeit, that German propensity to withdraw from the empirical world into the inner realm of spirit and there to forge a new world order by an act of will. By insisting on the autonomy of the conscience, Kant identified freedom with willfulness, the imposition of a moral law on the recalcitrant realm of the flesh. Innocent enough in its beginnings, the imperative in this categorical imperative turned into an attempt to straighten “the crooked timber of humanity,” to use one of Berlin’s favorite phrases, which he borrowed from Kant.

The next dangerous steps came with Fichte, who identified Innerlichkeit with the collective spirit of a people, and with Hegel, who linked that spirit to the state and set it loose in history, marching triumphantly toward the Third Reich. That pattern will look familiar to readers of later works like Leonard Krieger’s The German Idea of Freedom (1972), but it was fresh when Berlin detected it, and he did not attribute everything to an implicit philosophical logic in events. He insists on the influence of the Reformation and of Pietism, and he often invokes concrete circumstances: Germany’s devastation in the Thirty Years War and its humiliation before the supremacy of France from Richelieu to Napoleon. The philosophers shaped the peculiar character of nationalism in Germany; they did not cause it.

And communism? Two of the essays, “Socialism and Socialist Theories” (1950, revised in 1966) and “Marxism and the International in the Nineteenth Century” (1964), trace its inspiration to a similar strain of thought: scientism, or the attempt to find some Archimedean point from which the mind can penetrate the rationality inherent in all phenomena. In that respect, according to Berlin, Marx continued a line of thought derived from the radical Enlightenment of Helvétius, Holbach, and Condorcet. But he, too, shared some common ground with Kant and Fichte, because Kant’s insistence on the moral autonomy of the individual and Fichte’s notion of the nation as a collective moral entity opened the way for any “great collective whole,” a class as well as a nation, to become the agent of reason and enlightenment. Berlin emphasizes the metaphysical side of Marx, associating his thought with monism, the doctrine that everything can be explained by a single principle expressed in discoverable laws. And he sees terrible implications in that position: a warrant for what he calls the “vivisection of societies,” a blank check for social engineers to spend unlimited amounts of blood in order to cut and shape human material into whatever form that they deem to be required by the logic of history.

Positive liberty therefore had hideously negative consequences. Berlin’s account of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made sense of the twin catastrophes of the twentieth century: fascism and communism. It also pointed to the validity of an alternative tradition: empiricism and liberalism. In place of Kant-Fichte-Hegel, the Anglo-American world could draw on its own heritage, Locke-Hume-Mill. “Two Concepts of Liberty” performed the same service for Britain after World War II as Mill’s “On Liberty” had done after the Napoleonic Wars. No wonder that postwar Britain showered honors on Berlin and put him on a pedestal. But pedestals are awkward. They provide a perfect angle for perceiving clay feet. Does Berlin’s position look weak when seen from a post-cold war perspective?


The answer is resolutely no. Not that Berlin ever disguised his commitment to liberalism and his opposition to Communist oppression. But he showed too much sympathy for too many schools of thought to be appropriated as an official spokesman for the NATO camp in the cold war. In fact, Berlin makes his way through the history of ideas by empathetic reconstruction of incompatible arguments, and he often argues the non-liberal side so successfully as to disconcert any contented reader from the center-left or center-right. As to the center itself, it is hardly to be found in Berlin’s philosophizing, where arguments swing from the one hand to the other with dizzying speed. The metaphor that Berlin prefers is shifting weight. He concludes “The Romantic Revolution” by observing that most of us subscribe to ideas and values that we inherited from the two main sources of modernity, the Enlightenment and Romanticism. They contradict each other on nearly every count, but we muddle through: “The majority of the civilised members of Western soci-eties continue in attitudes that cause more logical than moral discomfort: we shift uneasily from one foot to the other.”

The philosophical version of this dilemma is Berlin’s famous notion of pluralism—the idea that we hold many values that are mutually incompatible and that conflicts between them cannot be resolved by recourse to any graduated scale of ethical standards or any rationality built into the nature of things. Things, facts, reality exist—and Berlin does not hesitate to use such words—but our attempts to make sense of them embroil us in hopeless conflicts. Philosophy does not straighten things out; it calls them into question.

The force and originality of this approach can best be appreciated from “Artistic Commitment” (early 1960s), in my opinion the finest essay in The Sense of Reality. By wonderfully sympathetic synopses of opposed schools of thought—art as engagement in social and political issues versus art for art’s sake—Berlin shows how a major concern in Western Europe became intensified and transformed in nineteenth-century Russia. He concentrates on Vissarion Belinsky, a relatively obscure literary critic who exerted a decisive influence on Turgenev and Tolstoy. In a characteristic passage, showing his gift for the telling quotation, he sums up the position that Belinsky arrived at in the 1840s:

Belinsky’s position is crystal clear: “No matter how beautiful the ideas in a poem, how powerfully it echoes the problems of the hour, if it lacks poetry, there can be no beautiful thought in it, and no problems either, and all that one may say about it is that it is a fine intention badly executed.” This is so because the artist’s commitment “must be not only in the head, but above all in the heart, in the blood of the writer…. An idea…which has not passed through one’s own nature, has not received the stamp of one’s personality, is dead capital not only for poetry, but for any literary activity.” But he cannot rest in this. We have already noted his declaration in his essay of 1844 on Pushkin: “every intelligent man has the right to demand that a poet’s poetry either give him answers to the questions of the time or at least be filled with the sorrow of these weighty, insoluble questions.” This is only a little less extreme than the notorious verdict of 1845: “In our age art is not a master, but a slave. It serves interests outside itself.” Even though he adds that this applies only to “critical” ages—the Saint-Simonian name for transitional periods when the old is grown intolerable, and is undermined and doomed, and the new is not yet—it is nevertheless a genuine cri de coeur. It is only a violent version of his words in 1843: “our time craves for convictions, it is tormented by hunger for the truth” and “our age is all questioning, all questing, all a search and yearning for the truth.”

This is the earliest and most poignant formulation of the disquiet and, at times, agonised self-questioning that tormented the Russian intelligentsia for ever after.

But Berlin fixes his aim on a larger target: not just a debate around which much of Russian literary history turned, but socialist realism and its origins. The nineteenth-century apologists for engagement felt powerfully attracted to the irreduceably aesthetic elements in art. They lived through the conflict more passionately than Flaubert or Zola in France, and out of their passion they forged an original literature, which re-entered Western culture as a new force and remained in Russia in defiance of Leninism and Stalinism: thus Doctor Zhivago.

For a related analysis of how aesthetic issues cut to the bone, one can consult the title essay of the book, “The Sense of Reality” (1953), and its pendant, “Political Judgment” (1957), published not long ago in these pages.5 Here Berlin argues that below the regular phenomena of public life, which provide grist for the mills of social scientists, there exists a “lower level” of reality, which is apprehended best by novelists, historians, and statesmen. Those unlikely allies have one thing in common: an appreciation of the particular, the concrete, and the ineffable. At their best, they work with a sense of tact about unprecedented situations. They know how to capture the character of an event and to feel the texture of a culture. By a kind of intuition, which cannot be defined, they get at the bedrock of experience, which cannot be reduced to laws. They work aesthetically, with the je ne sais quoi of life.

This may sound like mysticism. For Berlin it is reality. We have all experienced it, he insists; we can recognize it when we encounter it in ordinary life and in the pages of great literature. It is a kind of knowledge, but not the kind that lends itself to general propositions, because it exists at the “level of half-articulate habits, unexamined assumptions and ways of thought, semi-instinctive reactions, models of life so deeply embedded as not to be felt consciously at all.”

I suspect that this is the Berlin who has most to say to readers of the 1990s. Does his rejection of coherent, covering laws put him in the camp of the postmodernists? Once again, the answer must be no. Berlin knows too much of suffering to reduce reality to linguistic games. What hurts when cancer bites is cancer, not the discourse on cancer, though you may call the cancer by any other name. Facts are facts, despite the fact that they cannot be separated clearly from interpretation:

These perspectives and perspectives of perspectives [the Renaissance view of the world and the Enlightenment view of the Renaissance] are there, and it is just as idle to ask which are true and which false as it is to ask which view of the Alps is the true view and which false. But there is a sense in which “facts,” what can be demonstrated by the evidence, as opposed to interpretations, theories, hypotheses, perspectives, must remain the same for all these changing outlooks, otherwise we should have no historical truth at all. And blurred though the frontier may be between fact on the one hand and attitudes and interpretations on the other, yet it exists.

Berlin’s sense of reality does not lead to relativism, because he insists that things “are what they are”—the bad as well as the good. Slavery is slavery; liberty, liberty. We deplore them or revere them for what they are. But one thing they are not is compatible. In denying the ultimate convergence of beauty, truth, and goodness, in insisting on the incommensurability of all values, whether positive or negative, Berlin may lend himself to appropriation by self-proclaimed prophets of postmodernism.6 But he is not a man of “isms.”

Is he then a man of our times? Essays written nearly a half century ago are not likely to abound in references to Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Derrida, Ricoeur, Habermas, Bourdieu, Chomsky, Rorty, Goodman, Goffman, Canguilhème, Geertz, Kuhn, Barthes, Pocock, Koselleck…. The list could go on and on, and be revised endlessly, according to whatever shade of contemporary thought that one prefers. It would be absurd to claim that Berlin could not have benefited from what other modern masters had to say about his own subjects—Juri Lottman’s account of the semiotics of daily life in nineteenth-century Russia, for example, or Mikhail Bakhtin’s version of the “lower level” of experience.

But we must be grateful for what we get, the Berlin whose reflections cover most of the century and whose collected works now fill a shelf; a voice from the past that speaks to the present; a philosopher who makes ideas come alive; a historian who knows how to put himself in other people’s shoes; and a free spirit who stands high, not on a pedestal, but on his own two feet and keeps his balance, however precariously, by shifting from one to the other.

  1. 1

    André Morellet, Mémoires inédits de l’abbé Morellet (Paris: Ladvocat, 1822), Volume 1, p. 28.

  2. 2

    The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays edited by Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer (Chatto & Windus, 1997). To be published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1998.

  3. 3

    Jonathan Glover spends an afternoon in conversation with Sir Isaiah Berlin,” New College News, no. 10 (December 1996), p. 7.

  4. 4

    New College News, p. 8.

  5. 5

    See The New York Review, October 3, 1996.

  6. 6

    See John Gray, Isaiah Berlin (Princeton University Press, 1996).