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Getting Isaiah Berlin Wrong

Cecil Beaton Studio Archive/Sotheby’s London
Isaiah Berlin, 1955

A marvelous raconteur famed for his opulent intellect and brilliant wit, Isaiah Berlin could easily give the impression of being an intellectual dilettante. He often endorsed such criticism self-mockingly; asked by his biographer about the source of his serene well-being, he replied that he was happy because he was superficial. In a letter to a close friend he presents a very different self-image:

The only truth which I have ever found out for myself is, I think, this one: of the unavoidability of conflicting ends…. The contrast between my cheerful and feckless façade, and unquiet constant perturbations and apprehension within, is too odd.

This truth became the basis of a liberalism deviating sharply from the Anglo-American tradition. What the philosopher John Gray has termed Berlin’s “tragic liberalism” inspired his seminal Four Essays on Liberty, directed against the faith (common to liberal and radical doctrines founded on European Enlightenment optimism) that all rational goals can ultimately be harmonized. To this monistic vision he opposed the notion of value pluralism: the necessity of difficult choices between ultimate ends equally good but incommensurable and often irreconcilable.

Writing in 1994, Gray argued that the full originality and subversiveness of this view had yet to be appreciated. The process continues even sixteen years after Berlin’s death. A 2011 symposium in Beijing on Berlin and contemporary China drew a mixture of speakers from East and West, including a generation of scholars not yet born when his essays on liberty were first published.

Arie Dubnov, an assistant professor of European Intellectual and Modern Jewish History at Stanford, belongs to this generation. His study begins with a sweeping rejection of previous attempts to define Berlin’s legacy, which, he claims, have turned him into “a sacred cow, revered by students and epigones, and gleefully butchered by foes.” Critics and worshipers alike are “missing a key point” by ignoring the unresolved tension in his thought between his defense of individual freedom and his recognition of humans’ need to belong to a larger whole.

Since philosophers such as Gray and Bernard Williams have identified precisely this feature of Berlin’s work as the source of its enduring interest, this is an astonishing claim, even if allowances are made for the hyperbole of a young scholar anxious to proclaim the originality of his biographical approach to Berlin’s thought up to the early 1950s, an approach aimed at reconstructing the intellectual journey leading to his essays on liberty. Berlin’s plural identity—Russian, Jewish, and English (“the three strands in my life,” he called them in an article published in the Jewish Quarterly)—is often cited in this regard. Centrally for his argument, Dubnov reduces the number to two, insisting repeatedly on a “dual perspective” for Berlin’s thought via British philosophy and Zionism.

Born in Riga in 1909, Berlin moved with his family to Petrograd in early 1916 and thence to London in 1921 to complete a traditional English middle-class education, followed by degrees at Oxford and a prestigious fellowship at All Souls College. His family background had given him a strong sense of Jewish identity, though not including attachment to the Jewish faith. His resistance at school to suggestions that he adopt a less foreign-sounding name (James, for instance) reflected his determination to retain his ethnic distinctiveness. Neither assimilated nor isolated, his public persona came to be based on erudition, wit, and what Dubnov calls a “certain ‘un-Englishness.’”

Dubnov’s reappraisal of Berlin’s philosophical position in his early Oxford years starts from “grave doubts” about his description of himself in an interview in 1992 as having been “a strict empirically minded analytical philosopher” (Dubnov’s words). Berlin’s actual words were that he was “a kind of realist”—not incompatible with Dubnov’s contention that he occupied a complex position “suspended” between British idealist thought as represented by such figures as F.H. Bradley and R.G. Collingwood, and its realist opponents such as A.J. Ayer. In his essay “My Intellectual Path,” Berlin records that with respect to the empiricism of his realist colleagues, he remained “a heretic, though a friendly one.”1 Empirical observation seemed too narrow a criterion of meaning, and he suspected that the search by philosophers for absolute certainties was an illusory quest.

This suspicion strengthened when, commissioned in 1933 to write a biography of Marx, he began to investigate Marx’s predecessors, especially the eighteenth-century philosophes. Without losing his admiration for the Enlightenment, Berlin came to reject the foundation of its certainties with their logical and social consequences. The critical empiricism he had imbibed as a student in philosophy (that each genuine question had one true answer, and that these, when discovered, must necessarily form a coherent whole) was shaken by his reading of Machiavelli’s distinction between political effectiveness and Christian virtue.

Vico’s Scienza nuova opened his eyes to something new: the notion of a succession of civilizations whose cultures were shaped by values that could not be combined in any synthesis. Vico led him to Johann Gottfried Herder and the insistence of the Counter-Enlightenment on the self-sufficient value of every national culture. In the same interwar period he discovered the writings of the Russian socialist Alexander Herzen. Berlin’s distinctive pluralism would draw on all these sources.

None of these four thinkers gets credit in Dubnov’s account of Berlin’s philosophical development in the 1930s. He squeezes Berlin’s book on Marx into his binary schema through a novel interpretation of its main thrust as the presentation of Marxism along with Hegelianism as being “fundamentally alien to ‘Englishness,’ which stood for commonsense, empiricism, pragmatism, and skepticism.” He dates Berlin’s discovery of Vico and Herder to the 1950s, likewise Berlin’s decision to abandon conventional philosophy and turn toward the history of ideas. The latter Dubnov presents as the result of “an enthusiastic postwar return” to English idealism via the “prism” of the Oxford philosopher R.G. Collingwood. The distinction between “negative” and “positive” freedom (freedom from interference versus freedom as self-mastery) in Berlin’s groundbreaking essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” is attributed to the same source. But that distinction (traceable at least back to John Locke, and taking recognizably modern form by the time of the nineteenth-century Oxford Hegelian T.H. Green) had become sufficiently internationalized by the 1920s to figure in the Italian historian and antifascist politician Guido de Ruggiero’s history of European liberalism.

The factual basis for Dubnov’s insistence on Collingwood’s “crucial” influence on Berlin amounts to an inference from his attendance at Collingwood’s lectures on the history of philosophy and his invitation (refused) to Collingwood to attend informal philosophical meetings in his college rooms. Dubnov also maintains that Berlin once admitted explicitly to finding much inspiration in Collingwood as a historian of ideas. His source (Berlin’s contribution to a philosophical debate at the Hebrew University) refers to Collingwood in the context of intellectual history but contains no such admission.

This imaginative use of sources by Dubnov fails to convince the reader that what Berlin once described as Collingwood’s “peculiar” idealism had any crucial influence on his thought, except in one respect that Dubnov fails to mention. It was Collingwood who introduced Berlin in the mid-1930s to Benedetto Croce’s book on Vico—a thinker of whom, Berlin recalls, “scarcely anyone in Oxford had then heard”—thereby activating the process of germination from which his value pluralism would emerge.

Equally unconvincing is Dubnov’s belief in Winston Churchill’s responsibility for inspiring Berlin to rethink the notion of liberty. His source is a letter of 1949 enthusing on the great man’s contribution to a dinner party discussion on world politics: “Winston was splendid on the subject that what we need is greater multiplicity of choices—choices which may many of them be bad, but choices nevertheless.” Berlin, Dubnov claims, borrowed “this exact idea” from Churchill, making it “his philosophical trademark.” But it is safe to assume that Churchill’s oratorical gift, rather than his originality, was what impressed Berlin on that occasion. It would be surprising if he had not already encountered the same idea in the works of a somewhat earlier Englishman not mentioned by Dubnov: John Stuart Mill. As Berlin wrote elsewhere, “What Mill seems really to be asking for is diversity of opinion for its own sake.”

In connecting Berlin’s Zionism with his distinctive liberalism Dubnov is on solid ground, although this is scarcely a novel insight. Berlin’s own essay of 1951, “Jewish Slavery and Emancipation,” anticipates his notion of “negative liberty.” In that essay, he rejected the teleological interpretation of the state of Israel as the promised land to which all who saw themselves as Jews were morally bound to migrate. He argued that the creation of Israel had restored to Jews “the basic freedom of choice, the right to…go to the good or the bad in one’s own way, without which life is a form of slavery.”

Dubnov contends that on the rare occasions when Berlin’s Zionism is mentioned in connection with his liberalism, the standard view, expressed by the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit, is that these belonged to “different layers in [Berlin’s] soul.” But this is not a standard interpretation. Margalit’s viewpoint was one of several in a panel on Berlin’s Zionism in the conference on his legacy sponsored in 1998 by The New York Review. There the political philosopher Michael Walzer forcefully put the contrary case: that his pluralism cannot be separated from his personal position as a liberal nationalist.

Berlin first visited Palestine in 1934, summarizing his impressions to a friend: “I do think that the Palestine Jews are the happiest & securest people I have ever met. I don’t feel absolute kinship, alas, but if I lived there for a bit I am sure I should.” He continued to maintain a strong emotional tie with the Zionist political project as providing a haven for the persecuted Jewish masses. He became an ardent admirer and close friend of Chaim Weizmann, with whom he kept in regular touch during the war years while working as a temporary official attached to the British embassy in Washington and responsible for writing the first drafts of many of the weekly dispatches sent to London by the British ambassador.

Dubnov sees his behavior in this post as casting a shadow over his legacy. In view of Britain’s unwillingness to alter its policy of restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine as persecution of European Jews intensified, it seems to him remarkable that Berlin apparently did not take account of a shift in American Zionism toward David Ben-Gurion’s intransigent defiance of the British. He also finds it remarkable that Berlin remained faithful to Weizmann’s policy of moderation and cooperation in negotiations with Britain over an eventual Jewish homeland. According to Dubnov, Berlin excluded Jewish issues from his dispatches as far as possible in order to downplay Jewish criticism of the British position and persuade his superiors that he was not influenced by “Zionist agitation.”

Dubnov puts great emphasis on the importance of context in intellectual history: “If we want to understand the…tension in Berlin, we must read him historically.” Sadly, he neglects to follow his own advice. There was nothing remarkable or morally reprehensible about Berlin’s position. As is clear from his introduction to a volume of his wartime dispatches, what he wrote was the consequence of his role as a junior official employed to draft his embassy’s weekly political summaries of American political, administrative, and public opinion for the benefit of British government officials.

Norman Parkinson Ltd./Norman Parkinson Archive
Isaiah Berlin and David Cecil, Oxford, December 1949

Zionist activities, as Berlin’s biographer Michael Ignatieff has written, occupied a minute place in these reports. This was a fair reflection of their degree of interest to the British Foreign Office. Only in private conversations with his colleagues and superiors, he recalled, could he put a case for opposition to British policy on Jewish immigration to Palestine and remark on the difference between the position of the most moderate American Zionists and the stonewalling tactics of the British government, “which all of us in the Embassy were obliged to reflect, and the Diplomatic Mission to implement.”

Yet this was not the last word on Berlin’s Washington activity. In August 1943 an Anglo-American understanding to produce a joint policy announcement deferring any movement on the status of Palestine until after the war was dropped when news of the plan was leaked to American Zionist circles. Late in life Berlin admitted (as Ignatieff records) that the leak, made in that expectation, was his. Dubnov mentions the event only briefly and in passing, with nothing about how it fits or fails to fit his moral strictures elsewhere in the same chapter. Perhaps one should not be surprised.

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    Published as “ The First and the Last ” in these pages, May 14, 1998. 

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