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Isaiah Berlin Against the Current

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Dominique Nabokov
Isaiah Berlin (center) with his friends Stuart Hampshire and Nicolas Nabokov, Oxford, England, 1969
To one who thinks philosophically, no story is a matter of indifference, even if it were the natural history of the apes.
—H. M. G. Koster

It was an anecdote he liked to tell. In 1944, while working at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., Isaiah Berlin was called back to London on short notice, and it happened that the only plane available to take him was a loud, uncomfortable military bomber. Because the cabin wasn’t pressurized he had to wear an oxygen mask that kept him from speaking. And there were no lights, either, so he couldn’t read. It was a long flight. He joked afterward, “one was therefore reduced to a most terrible thing—to having to think.”

While airborne, the story went, he had a small epiphany. In the 1930s he had taught philosophy at Oxford, happily, with his likeminded friends Stuart Hampshire, J.L. Austin, and A.J. Ayer. Logical positivism had just come into its own in Britain and Wittgenstein was already developing ideas about language that would challenge it. Something seemed to be happening. But as the war dragged on Berlin wondered whether this style of philosophy was really for him. History had intruded into his life a second time (the first was when he witnessed the Russian Revolution as a young boy in Petrogad) and he had just spent several years in the United States writing influential reports to the British government about the American war effort.

What did his early writings on verification and logical translation have to do with any of this? How did they address the pressing issues of the day? He found himself more and more drawn to engaged nineteenth-century Russian writers like Ivan Turgenev and Alexander Herzen, whose questions, he was discovering, were closer to his own. Thinking all this through in the darkness of the bomber he reached the conclusion, as he later put it, “that what I really wanted was to know more at the end of my life than I knew at the beginning.” When the war was over he gave up his philosophy fellowship and started calling himself a historian of ideas.

It was a witty, self-deprecating story. I’ve often wished, though, that he hadn’t told it. Berlin’s decision baffled his friends and colleagues back at Oxford, and left the impression, reinforced by this story, that he had taken a step down the intellectual ladder. It occurred to no one at the time that moving to the history of ideas might actually represent a step up. Philosophy was philosophy, history was history, and that was that. No one in Britain called himself a historian of ideas, and no one wrote the kind of wide-ranging, labyrinthine essays connecting thinkers over many centuries that Berlin perfected. The dons could make nothing of them and considered him a dilettante. Berlin was too urbane to defend himself or engage in dull debates about methodology, and bore their contempt with the irony of a gentleman. (At least in public. In conversation and letters he gave as good as he got.)

Rereading Against the Current, his first collection of essays and portraits in the history of ideas, published over thirty years ago, it’s hard to understand how so many missed what is obvious on every page: that Isaiah Berlin never abandoned philosophy. The questions he addressed in the book are questions philosophers have occupied themselves with for millennia: the extent and limits of reason, the nature of language, the role of the imagination, the foundation of morality, the concept of justice, the conflicting claims of citizenship and community, the meaning of history.

But he reasoned about them in a manner adapted to his particular interests and abilities. When analytic philosophers look to past thinkers at all, they try to extract “arguments” they can express in terms they typically use. Their assumption is that philosophy can only happen once ideas sprout wings and escape the body, like the souls in Plato’s Phaedrus. This was not Berlin’s assumption. His instinct told him that you learn more about an idea as an idea when you know something about its genesis and understand why certain people found it compelling and were spurred to action by it. Then the real thinking begins.

Intellectual portraiture once had an important place in philosophy. Plato’s dialogues, when read singly, appear to be straightforward investigations into discrete philosophical questions like “What is love?” or “Can virtue be taught?” But read together they become the portrait of Socrates, whose lesson was that philosophy is a way of life, not just a set of arguments or doctrines. The same can be said of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives or Tacitus’ Annals and Histories, which explore human psychology and morality through profiles of philosophers and statesmen and despots. Renaissance and early-modern philosophers relied heavily on these stories to illustrate their own ideas, or to mask them, as Machiavelli and his followers did with Tacitus. Montaigne leaned more on Plutarch, who also provided a model for his own venture in philosophical biography, the essay “Of Friendship,” which evokes the life and ideas of his friend Étienne de la Boétie.

Berlin did something similar in his essays. Though he wrote well-regarded profiles of exemplary figures like Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Marx, he was much more drawn to marginal thinkers he could make exemplary and use to highlight the questions that interested him. He had a weakness for underdogs, especially if he initially found their views uncongenial. It didn’t matter if the writing was obscure or the reasoning sometimes opaque. Berlin had learned that if you studied them with philosophical intent, certain second-rate minds grappling with first-rate problems could teach you more than first-rate minds lost in the shrubbery. (Another reason, perhaps, that he abandoned analytic philosophy.)

He clearly enjoyed picking up the crumbling collected works of a half-forgotten thinker, or one considered beyond the pale, and finding high philosophical drama in them. His approach was the exact contrary of that taken by today’s intellectual historians, who seem determined to place thinkers into such narrow social contexts that the wider significance of their ideas disappears. There’s a deflationary impulse behind their work that is difficult to fathom. Berlin had no interest in taking thinkers down a peg. If anything, he could be accused of exaggerating their importance if he thought doing so helped to vivify an important philosophical problem.

Anyone who has tried writing philosophical portraits knows how easy it is to fail. It requires patience. Rather than pounce on arguments that leap off the page, you must initially suspend critical judgment and surrender to the author—reculer pour mieux sauter, as the French phrase goes. Berlin described it as a kind of “feeling-oneself-into” the mind of someone grappling with a set of ideas, the same kind of sympathy Herder thought necessary to understand an alien culture. In Contre Sainte-Beuve, Proust offered a musical metaphor to describe how he used to read as a young man:

As soon as I read an author, I quickly made out beneath the words a kind of tune that in each author is different from that of others, and without realizing it I began to “sing along,” speeding or slowing or interrupting the notes as I read, marking their measures and returns as one does when singing, and waiting a certain time, depending on the song’s pace, before finally uttering the end of a word…. And I think that the boy in me who amused himself this way must be the same one who has a sensitive and accurate ear for hearing the subtle harmony that others don’t hear between two impressions or ideas.

Berlin had this very same gift. He not only heard affinities among seemingly unrelated arguments in a single work, he picked up common intellectual motifs that appeared in thinkers writing in very different times and places. Like melodic phrases that imperceptibly migrate from folk songs to symphonies, where their musical potential gets released, these motifs reflect problems that thinkers have tried to articulate, with only partial success. They are clues. And if you follow them, as Berlin did, you discover where the deeper philosophical difficulties are.

The rewards of this kind of inquiry can be seen in Berlin’s influential writings on the Counter-Enlightenment. Strictly speaking, there was no such thing as a Counter-Enlightenment, no club to join or set of doctrines to profess. It was a term Berlin used to identify a group of dissident modern thinkers dismayed by the dominant trends in European thought since the seventeenth century, which they found mistaken and potentially destructive. Giambattista Vico, writing in provincial Naples in the early eighteenth century, expressed himself very differently from Hamann and Herder in Frederick the Great’s Prussia, or Bonald and Joseph de Maistre in exile after the French Revolution. But their common conviction that something had gone terribly wrong in philosophy inspired them to advance related and quite serious challenges to the reigning Enlightenment outlook. Thanks in part to Berlin, they are being read today by people interested in philosophical problems of mind, language, science, epistemology, culture, history, and political authority. But Berlin’s own writings on them point to deeper issues still.

By reading widely and sympathetically in their writings, Berlin began to understand that what was ultimately at stake for them was not language or epistemology, or even politics in the narrow sense. It was the human good, broadly conceived. What the Counter-Enlightenment saw in the works of Bacon and Descartes, Hobbes and Locke, Kant and Lessing, Voltaire and the editors of the Encyclopédie, was a blind act of human self-assertion whose consequences no one had bothered to calculate (except perhaps Rousseau).

Even if one were to grant that their works established solid foundations for human knowledge and scientific advance, much more fundamental questions remained. What are knowledge and science good for? What role should they play in the lives of the beings we actually are, not the creatures we imagine ourselves to be? What do people convinced of having certain knowledge do to themselves and others? What kind of cost, psychological and social, does the overturning of settled beliefs entail? Can the skeptic live his skepticism? Can whole societies—which must unite different sorts of people (including the young and uneducated) for common purposes, sending some of them off to die—live with uncertainty about ultimate matters?

Early-modern philosophers who faced the resistance of religious authority were forced to think about these questions. Most, figuring that la verité vaut bien une messe, genuflected publicly while continuing their revolutionary work in private; a few, like the bold Bacon, laid out the moral and political case for the advancement of learning with military precision. But as the Enlightenment gained adherents over subsequent centuries and the wider public saw the benefits of free inquiry, pressure on the new philosophers and scientists to address the wider implications of their work eased, leaving those who challenged them looking like irrational, anti-philosophical reactionaries. By making the question What can we know? paramount, they suppressed the more unsettling one, Why and what should we want to know?

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