On Isaiah Berlin: Explorer

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Dominique Nabokov
Isaiah Berlin, Oxford, 1969

Sir Isaiah Berlin is not a recondite writer. Rather, he is eminently useful in understanding the kinds of moral conundrums that regularly perplex anyone too sensible to be an ideologue. No one surpasses Berlin as a guide through the tangled terrain of the twenty-first century.

He is unusual among great philosophers because he denied that he was one. Early in his career he had a life- altering conversation with a Harvard logician, H.M. Sheffer, who argued that philosophers bat around the same ideas for millennia and don’t actually add much to the sum of human knowledge. The argument rang true for Berlin. It was that lack of progress, he told me and others—mournfully and perhaps wistfully—that led him to move away from philosophy to become a historian of ideas.

Berlin was a masterful historian and critic. He is widely known today for his brilliant essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” explicating the deep contradictions in Tolstoy’s genius, and he also breathed new life into many other great thinkers, from Machiavelli to Alexander Herzen. In particular, Berlin liked to explore the dark side—those philosophers who challenged the assumptions of the Enlightenment and, in some cases, laid the groundwork for modern totalitarian impulses.

Many people also remember Berlin for his wit, charm, and acute insights into famous people. Sir Winston Churchill, dazzled by his effervescent writings from Washington—where he worked at the British embassy during the war—wanted to meet him but mistakenly invited Irving Berlin to lunch instead, leading to mutual puzzlement when the discussion came around to Berlin’s work. A new book of his letters has just been published, and they are so lively and occasionally pointed that they have generated a literary tempest in Britain.

Then there was Berlin’s generosity, often directed toward young people. When I was a law student at Oxford, inevitably bored by contracts and conveyances, I sought him out. He was one of Europe’s most eminent scholars, yet made time for me and my friends and cheerfully talked to us about the questions we raised. As Leon Wieseltier once wrote, he made readers appreciate “the charisma of the intellect.”

Yet on the one-hundredth anniversary of Berlin’s birth (he died in 1997), it seems to me that his greatest legacy lies in his contributions to the field he claimed to have abandoned, philosophy. In fact, of course, his renunciation was a false claim. As Bernard Williams, himself a great British philosopher, is recorded as saying in a new one-hundredth-anniversary tribute, The Book of Isaiah: “I do not think he ever did leave philosophy. He merely left what he took philosophy to be.” When Berlin was coming of age, philosophy was, for the most part, considered respectable only if it dealt analytically with abstract questions, and he was too absorbed by politics and humanity’s tribulations to spend his life in a corner of academia. So he abandoned …

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Letters

Skeptical Isaiah Berlin April 8, 2010