Inside the Clockwork

In his classic essay “Does Political Theory Still Exist?” Isaiah Berlin observed that

save to those who understand and even feel what a philosophical question is, how it differs from an empirical or formal question…, the answers—in this case the main political doctrines of the West—may well seem intellectual fancies, detached philosophical speculations and constructions without much relation to acts or events.

Only those who can to some degree re-enact within themselves the states of mind of men tormented by questions to which those theories claim to be solutions, or at any rate the states of mind of those who may accept the solutions uncritically but would, without them, fall into a state of insecurity and anxiety—only these are capable of grasping what part philosophical views, and especially political doctrines, have played in history, at any rate in the West.

Berlin was himself a master of intellectual reenactment. In his writings on politics his guiding assumption was that its fundamental concepts—liberty, equality, authority, war, rights, citizenship, toleration, community—could not be grasped if treated in merely formal relation to one another, that truly to understand them as concepts we had to experience what they refer to, either directly in political life or indirectly in history and biography. Though I cannot experience an irrational number I can understand its concept. But if I try to comprehend the meaning of political concepts without having a deep sense of the conditions under which they become actual for human beings—the rise and fall of states, abuses of authority, the loss of self-determination, the indignities of privation and slavery, wars of religion, the birth of a redemptive ideology—I will necessarily have an impoverished understanding of them. What Berlin admired in his intellectual hero Herder was a virtue he himself possessed to a high degree: Einfühlung, the sympathetic ability to place oneself within the perspective of an alien culture or period or intellectual system. In reading him we learn that this anthropological virtue is also a philosophical one.

Berlin’s commitment to Einfühlung is what makes his writings so hard to classify. Academic political philosophers have at times expressed frustration with having to cut through the underbrush of his digressions on figures in the history of ideas they deem obscure, and vainly search for a sentence that begins, “In the following paper I shall argue that….” Intellectual historians lodge a different complaint, that his history of ideas is impressionistic and lacking in material context. To readers like these Berlin will remain little more than an Oxford curiosity, a gentlemanly essayist and portraitist but not a productive thinker.

As we learn from Michael Ignatieff’s absorbing biography, Isaiah Berlin: A Life, Berlin often leveled this same charge against himself. It is a pity he never made a more explicit defense of his intellectual labors, the sort implied in the sentences I quoted above. For the case could be made that serious reflection about the fundamental political questions of our age could …

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