Johann Herder
Johann Herder; drawing by David Levine


At the center of the thought of the philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin is a conception of man as a free and never wholly predictable agent, expressing his interests through diverse values, cultural settings, ways of thinking, acting, feeling. In the previous issue, we described Berlin’s views on the ancestry of this conception in Machiavelli, Vico, and the “Counter-Enlightenment” thinkers. But we left unanswered the important question of Berlin’s view of the political arrangements that should govern men if they indeed conform to this conception.

Berlin’s views on pluralism, the necessity of radical choice, and on human nature interlock in his well-known writings in defense of liberalism, not merely in the essays on nationalism, on Georges Sorel, and on Alexander Herzen in Against the Current, but also and more fully, in his Four Essays on Liberty,1 which is the main subject of The Idea of Freedom, a collection of essays by distinguished scholars in honor of Sir Isaiah’s seventieth birthday.

As Berlin noted long ago, political ideas always rest on a conception of what man is and can be; the philosophical ideas behind liberal doctrine and practice were, along with more arcane matters, a ground of battle between the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment—the battle between such philosophers as Voltaire and Condorcet, who believed that human nature was fundamentally the same everywhere and open to improvement by science, and those like Herder and Hamann, who emphasized the diversity of cultures and were skeptical of science as applied to social and moral experience and of “progress” in history.

“European liberalism,” he wrote, “wears the appearance of a single coherent movement, little altered during almost three centuries, founded upon relatively simple foundations, laid by Locke or Grotius or even Spinoza; stretching back to Erasmus and Montaigne, the Italian Renaissance, Seneca and the Greeks.”2 The demands for tolerance, freedom of speech and thought and assembly, for a minimum amount of liberty to be granted each individual, for the cultivation of choices available to men (as opposed to the coercion of choice), for the divorce of the content of justice from any specific doctrine of goodness, the Right from the Good—these were the characteristic demands of liberty.

Liberals often also added theories about “natural rights” which were not obviously compatible with the “tentative empiricism,” as Berlin puts it, that usually characterized their views. Rational morality, they thought, would secure universal truths and, when combined with acceptable economic theories, would encourage freedom, happiness, economic growth, and the decline of economic misery.

But, as Berlin continues this narrative, the nineteenth century saw disturbing developments which led thinkers as different as J.S. Mill and Nietzsche to rethink or modify or reject the simple philosophical underpinnings of liberalism inherited from Condorcet and Helvetius. Such developments included unbridled private enterprise, the awesome rise of industrialization, the appearance of unexpected forms of concentrated political and economic power, the failure of education and legislation to ensure a just social order, the conformism and monotony of modern life. However, as Berlin adds, one anti-liberal development “dominated much of the nineteenth century in Europe and was so pervasive, so familiar, that it is only by a conscious effort of the imagination that one can conceive a world in which it played no part.” This movement is nationalism, and none of the aforementioned prophets—or their fellow futurologists Tocqueville, Weber, Jakob Burckhardt, Marx, Durkheim—“predicted for it a future in which it would play an even more dominant role” (“Nationalism”).

The great German Counter-Enlightenment philosopher Herder, to whose ideas Berlin has devoted much attention, apparently coined the word “nationalism” and originated the notion that “men, if they are to exercise their faculties fully, and so develop into all that they can be, need to belong to identifiable communal groups, each with its own outlook, style, traditions, historical memories, and language.”3 Like Vico (and, as Berlin’s essay in Against the Current shows, like Vico’s famous French contemporary, Montesquieu, who dimly perceived the point) Herder argued against the Enlightenment belief in the unity of man. What Machiavelli had noticed about warring moralities, he said of cultures: they are “comparable but incommensurable,” incapable of being arranged on a single scale of progress or retrogression, each having its own style of art, law, music, dance, gesture, handwriting. Men, he added, need to belong to such a culture just as much as they need to eat or sleep.

The groups Herder spoke of were not groups men form by focusing on attractive features of the world and then inviting others to join in preserving or contemplating them—like a film club or the hypothetical groups we find in some simple theories of social contract. They resemble more a family, a clan, a tribe: Jews, Kurds, Turkomans owe their very sense of identity, on this view, to their membership in their race or tribe; they do not choose to belong to them any more than they choose to love or identify with their parents. Their group values, according to Herder, are neither portable nor exchangeable, but unique, historical, irreplaceable. This is why Herder thought imitation or transplantation of alien standards harmful and why he thought nothing more false than the idea—espoused by enlightened and zealous reformers of every age—that members of disparate groups, communities, and cultures could be transported en masse to a utopia on the outskirts of civilization, Oneida perhaps, or Red Bank, Nauvoo, or Jonestown, there to create a politically perfect social mixture. As Berlin quotes him, “whom nature separated by language, customs, character, let no man artificially join together by chemistry.”4


Yet according to Berlin, Herder was not a “nationalist” in any dangerous sense; he valued, rather, the individuality and diversity of cultures (and thus his own, German, culture). His idea of “belonging” was posed as a social, not a political, idea. Moreover, Berlin claims, Herder believed that different nations or cultures can emerge alongside one another, respecting each other’s activities, without engendering conflict; he held a

view of men and society which stressed vitality, movement, change, respects in which individuals or groups differed rather than resembled each other, the charm and value of diversity, uniqueness, individuality, a view which conceived of the world as a garden where each tree, each flower, grows in its own peculiar fashion and incorporates those aspirations which circumstances and its own individual nature have generated, and is not, therefore, to be judged by the patterns and goals of other organisms. (“Nationalism”)

Although these ideas were not justifiable grounds for it, Berlin argues, they were developed into aggressive nationalism by German thinkers as a result of complex factors, among which was unquestionably the wounded collective pride experienced in Germany after the Napoleonic wars. They were distorted into not mere pride of ancestry but a consolidated movement of intolerant chauvinism, led by men in search of a base for power or “a focus for loyalty,” and asserting the supremacy of their culture and sensibility. Such movements were to appear again, among the Slavophils in Russia, in Mazzini’s “Young Italy,” in Poland. Eventually they arose in Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

Much as he deplores this development and is concerned to know why its rise was unforeseen or treated merely as a symptom of the craving for self-determination that would pass with time and social change, and how its more inflammable forms may be curbed or avoided, Berlin agrees with Herder that eliding or denying the need to be rooted in a particular group robs men of dignity and self-identity. He thinks this is confirmed in the case of Jews by the twisted self-perception of men like Disraeli and the “Jewish self-hatred” of Karl Marx—as his essay comparing “the search for identity” of these two deracinated Jews amply documents.

Berlin also hopes that Herder’s idea may be confirmed in a different, more fruitful and tolerant way by the outcome of Zionism which was virtually invented by another of his subjects, the nineteenth-century “communist rabbi,” Moses Hess. In his youth this sensitive and truthful man had held the fashionable and “enlightened” belief that his fellow Jews, having served their historical mission, should “disperse and assimilate.” He looked forward to a new, socialist world. As Berlin summarizes his view, “there was no room in the universal society of the future for sectional religions or interests. The Jews must scatter and vanish as a historical entity,” suffer a “dignified dissolution.” But by middle age, Hess regarded his earlier views as fallacious, arguing that the Jews had a historic task—to unite communism and nationality—and that they must find a homeland. As Berlin quotes him, “You may don a thousand masks, change your name and your religion and your mode of life, creep through the world incognito so that nobody notices you are a Jew,” yet “neither reform, nor baptism, neither education nor emancipation, will completely open before the Jews of Germany the doors of social life.” Instead, the Jews must realize they are a separate nation and try to establish a home on the banks of the Jordan.

Berlin does not pretend to draw the line between beneficial and perilous expressions of the idea of “belonging” but he sees this as an acutely pertinent question that must be faced for, as he writes, “no political movement today, at any rate outside the Western world, seems likely to succeed unless it allies itself to national sentiment” (“Nationalism”).


Nationalism is but one of the movements in the modern world that may endanger the existence or maintenance of liberal societies. To identify such movements, to understand their causes, and perhaps their justifiable ingredients (and to accommodate to these as best one can), to forge means for protection from them: these are for Berlin prime responsibilities of the liberal. Indeed, Berlin’s more theoretical work on liberalism is in fact a sustained attempt to furnish a more truthful and effective philosophical defense of it. By making this attempt, he hopes the decay of liberal institutions may be stopped rather than unwittingly fostered.


Berlin’s most famous contribution to this end has been his effort to clarify or define the concept of liberty itself. Common sense and thought, he wrote in his “Two Concepts of Liberty,”5 have no single meaning for the term, but there are two central senses of it which he claimed worthy of analysis and classification—what he called “negative” and “positive” liberty. “Negative” liberty he characterized as the absence of interference—by the state, a class, a corporation, or another individual—with what one wishes to do. As he wrote, “political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others”; it is being left alone by others to act as you desire, so that the larger the range of your potential choice, the greater the extent of your “negative liberty.” “Positive liberty,” on the other hand, is self-realization, bringing into active service our potentials and powers in the service of a goal we identify with; it is self-direction, the acquisition of a share in the authority ruling one:

the “positive” sense of the word “liberty” derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will…. I wish, above all, to be conscious of myself as a thinking, willing, acting being, bearing responsibility for my choices and able to explain them by references to my own ideas and purposes. I feel free to the degree that I believe this to be true, and enslaved to the degree that I am made to realize that it is not.

The distinction between positive and negative liberty is, for Berlin, of crucial importance for theory and practice, even though he writes that “the freedom which consists in being one’s own master, and the freedom which consists in not being prevented from choosing as I do by other men, may, on the face of it, seem concepts at no great logical distance from each other—no more than negative and positive ways of saying much the same thing.”

“Negative liberty,” he thinks, is at least tolerably clear: although there are of course subtle exceptions, we can tell with relative ease whether a man’s actions are physically obstructed by another or by the state, and, perhaps less easily but in general accurately, whether he is being intimidated or threatened or otherwise prevented from doing something which he wishes to do by these same agencies. The man may be an illiterate, a pauper, a victim of a crippling disease, a psychotic; he may lack the means, will, knowledge, confidence, to use his freedom—he may, in other words, lack what Berlin calls the “conditions of liberty”—but he is free in the “negative” sense if he is not interfered with or can legally regain his freedom if it is infringed.

By contrast, the “positive” concept of liberty is opaque: whether a man is free in this second sense depends on more than this having “negative liberty”, on more than the absence of impediments to his action. But what more? One answer might be: having the right to participate in the sovereign authority. But there are others as well. It could be said that man does not possess “positive freedom” unless he possesses whatever means—money, success, friendship, luck, security—are necessary for him to realize his ambitions, just as it could be said that a man who has a low income, or who has never had a university education, or who has never been psychoanalyzed, is not “free.”

Berlin suggests that this “positive” sense of freedom has repeatedly been debased, turned into a denial of present, negative liberty in the name of a “true” or “real” or “ultimate” freedom by specious argument. He agrees that we all wish to realize a variety of values—health, freedom from penury, leisure, wealth—and he shares these values; but he says that nothing good will come of confusing these with liberty. It is easy enough to gather all of these values together and call them “liberty,” but we would still have to distinguish between them eventually, and failure to do so only encourages the illusion that they can somehow be combined into a single, coherent pattern.

Moreover, we court dangerous consequences in theory and practice if we employ loose interpretations of “positive liberty.” To use an example of Berlin’s, the German philosopher Fichte argued that men are in fact not rational; they are not self-directed because they fail to think, to discover their own real desires; they must be educated, as children are, for their own good; they will not recognize the reasons for such education now, but they will later. There are, of course, more recent examples of the same kind of fatal argument: true “freedom” has often been defended by authoritarian regimes both in advanced and developing nations.

Critics such as C.B. Macpherson and Charles Taylor in his essay in The Idea of Freedom argue that negative liberty is, as Berlin and others define it, an incomplete notion. We do not, these writers argue, desire merely freedom from external “obstructions to action.” We wish liberty to pursue activities that are significant to us. We may not care if we are not free to drive at 80 miles an hour, but we care deeply if deprived of religious liberty. Taylor also seems to argue that defenders of negative liberty are wrong to believe that people are uniquely privileged to know what is significant for them in ways that others cannot improve upon—in the same way, for example, that they are in the best position to know whether they are in pain. If a person is neurotically unhappy or obsessed by emotions such as revenge or spite, his grasp of what is important for him may be so distorted that his freedom is thereby diminished.

We may imagine Berlin’s response to such objections: First, it is not true that we desire liberty simply in order to realize ideals we currently have. We might develop new interests and new ideals, and we cherish liberty for allowing us to realize these possible values—which could include having some negative liberties for their own sake. Second, while agreeing that sheer lack of obstruction to our actions by the state is not all we desire, Berlin would add that liberty may very well be a prerequisite for the accomplishment of many of our desires, for example to communicate freely with others and to learn through them about ourselves. And Berlin might argue that although some defenders of negative liberty held the Hobbesian views about self-knowledge that Taylor rightly attacks, he himself does not. 6

In any case, the central question for the liberal throughout the history of liberalism has been one of how and where the frontiers are to be fixed between individual freedom and state interference. How does Berlin conceive the answer to this question? Is negative freedom (however it is to be precisely defined) for him an absolute value that is to be ensured before any other? Or is it a value among many that must be taken into account in the constitution of a state?

As might be expected from even a cursory knowledge of Berlin’s complex conception of human values, one cannot find a simple answer in his work. On the one hand, he sometimes writes as if negative liberty is just one among the many “ultimate” values human beings possess; “positive liberty” is another; none is “absolute” or to be favored over the others; each is an ingredient (and only that) in the pattern of life we desire. This is the pluralism we have seen Berlin praise Machiavelli for discovering: freedom is not the only value human beings have; it is not “superior” to or more “true” than other values, such as happiness or loyalty or economic security. “The issue,” Berlin writes,

is more complex and painful. One freedom may abort another; one freedom may obstruct or fail to create conditions which make other freedoms, or a larger degree of freedom, or freedom of more persons possible; positive and negative freedom may collide…. But beyond all these there is an acuter issue: the paramount need to satisfy the claims of other, no less ultimate values: justice, happiness, love, the realization of capacities to create new things and experiences and ideas, the discovery of the truth.7

On this view, then, the distribution of these many, competing values is a matter of balance, of intelligent adjustment, case by case, as each situation demands, with no guarantee that each value will be satisfied to the same degree as the others. This is presumably the reason why Berlin could write that the New Deal was “the most constructive compromise between individual liberty and economic security which our time has witnessed.”8 Even if negative liberty—freedom from interference by others—was lost to some degree under the New Deal by the rich and by businessmen, the situation as a whole realized a blend of values which was preferable as a total pattern to that offered by other blends, such as one which would preserve existing negative liberties and contain uncontrolled private enterprise and mass unemployment.

On the other hand, Berlin also seems to sympathize with the position that freedom should be ensured before other social values are. Freedom, he writes, is valuable because, as we saw earlier, “the necessity of choosing between absolute claims is an inescapable characteristic of the human condition” and is therefore not just a means but an end in itself: “to be free to choose and not to be chosen for, is an inalienable ingredient in what makes human beings human”; this fact “underlies both the positive demand to have a voice in the laws and practices of the society in which one lives, and to be accorded an area, artificially carved out if need be, in which one is one’s own master.”

If one has less than this amount of freedom from interference one is “dehumanized”: this is a fact, Berlin claims, not perhaps like a fact that can be verified by observation, but a truth about the concepts and categories we use to interpret the world. Sheer indifference to freedom is not compatible with being human. This conception has not always prevailed—Vico has shown that our concepts and categories of interpretation have changed over time—but it is a fact about how we now happen to conceive the world.9

When Berlin speaks in this way, as he does often, it seems he is claiming that freedom is not on a par with other values we treasure. On this view, freedom is of prior importance, a more fundamental aspect of humanity; values other man freedom may override freedom only in order to secure greater freedom; the realization of values like happiness, mercy, efficiency could not compensate for the loss of liberty.

In other words, Berlin does not claim that negative liberty in general must be preserved at any cost. His answer to the question of the place of negative liberty in a desirable society seems to be, rather, that at any time some negative liberties must be preserved—an example might be the freedom from arbitrary arrest—but that some of these may be overridden for the sake of other, pressing values. There is no general answer available to the question of which negative liberties should be present at any given time. For example, developing countries which lack productive resources might understandably claim that the negative liberties granted by them to enterpreneurs should differ from those in an advanced country like the United States.


Still, there are important questions that remain to be answered within the liberal tradition advocated by Berlin. The complex social arrangements of the modern liberal society have often compelled its members to lead unimaginative and mechanical lives, filled with drudgery and monotony. Doesn’t such a state of affairs mock liberal ideals? In Against the Current, the essay “Georges Sorel” discusses a recent thinker—he died in 1922—who closely examined this problem. According to Berlin, Sorel realized that the eighteenth-century confidence in “scientific,” rational politics—once a progressive faith used to attack conservatism—had, in his day, itself become the orthodoxy, expressed in the triumph of the technocratic society, with its experts and specialists, in Berlin’s phrase its “bureaucratic organization of human lives.”

Sorel deplored this development: as Berlin describes him, he loathed the bourgeoisie, the flatness of their lives, their materialism and hedonism; for him they were “squalid earthworms,” “sunk in vulgarity and boredom in the midst of mounting affluence.” He hated the technological disciplines that were beginning to dominate business and politics in his day, run by narrow specialists and dedicated to adjusting men to the new social order; he felt that humanitarian democracy robbed men of their most distinctive characteristics, their need to express themselves, to rise above the norm, to find dignity in fulfilling work.

The desire to satisfy this need is what Berlin claims underlay Sorel’s continuous search for a group, or a class, which would “redeem humanity, or at least France, from mediocrity and decay”—what Berlin points out is now called a “counterculture.” The desire drove him, with “the moral fury of perpetual youth,” from one extreme to another in the service of this cause. He was successively a traditionalist, a Marxist, a Dreyfusard, a royalist, a fierce anti-Dreyfusard, a Bolshevik, and an admirer of Mussolini. He eventually discovered that the proletariat was the only truly creative class of society and thenceforth struggled to formulate the energizing social myth of a general strike which would

call for the total overthrow of the entire abominable world of calculation, profit and loss, the treatment of human beings and their powers as commodities, as material for bureaucratic manipulation, the world of illusory consensus and social harmony, of economic or sociological experts no matter what master they serve, who treat men as subjects of statistical calculations, malleable “human material, forgetting that behind such statistics there are living human beings.”

Although Sorel was largely ignored by the workers, he spoke to them above all of defiance, resistance against devitalizing forces of mechanization and technology, against “those who turned every vital impulse into abstract formulas, Utopian blueprints, learned dust.”

Berlin’s essay skillfully retrieves Sorel from his reputation as an eccentric, a fanatic, an intellectual misfit; it establishes that Sorel’s ideas anticipated those of later men like Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara, as well as the disaffected “grimmer dynamiters of the present,” that “his words still have power to upset.” Berlin has written elsewhere of his own reaction to the social developments denounced by Sorel, which he believes have intensified in the vast totalitarian regimes of our time, as well as in some of the new sovereign states of Africa and Asia, governments that hold that individuals are incapable of making choices, of raising upsetting questions, governments that employ “the calm moral arithmetic of cost effectiveness which liberties decent men from qualms,”10 and that treat the solitary questioner as “a patient to be cured.”11

To be sure, Berlin does not condone Sorel’s remedy: he is too aware that violent means or the loss of existing liberties, or of habits of courtesy and decency, can spoil laudable ends. He is too aware that, as he once expressed it,

a humane cause promoted by means that are too ruthless is in danger of turning into its opposite, liberty into oppression in the name of liberty, equality into a new, self-perpetuating oligarchy to defend equality, justice into crushing of all forms of nonconformity, love of men into hatred of those who oppose brutal methods of achieving it. 12

We must not, he says, be immoderately magnetized to security or to happiness at the expense of existing liberties; we must be tolerant of idiosyncrasy, even inefficiency; we must live with “logically untidy, flexible, and even ambiguous” political adjustments: these will, he says, “always be worth more than the neatest and most delicately fashioned imposed pattern.”13

Berlin seems to sympathize with the social perceptions of thinkers like Sorel (and Bakunin) who make a devastating case against the miserable lives people are often forced to lead—in spite of their possession of liberty. It is commonly argued that the remedy for such developments lies with government, that private associations will fail to provide solutions. But here Berlin might balk. He deeply fears the mentality that looks to government to solve human problems, and indeed much of his political writing is addressed to the classical question of the individual’s rights against the state. The emphasis in the writings of anarchists on achieving desirable social results through cooperation and voluntary means seems more congenial to him than the insights of some socialists and “planners,” provided that individual liberties are secure. More generally, greater respect for charity, openness, decency—as against a tradition that views society as “a trading company held together solely by contractual obligations”—might permit, he thinks, the liberal society to remold its institutions so that the continual agony of balance and compromise is lessened. But these will not disappear altogether. We must therefore be prepared to endure the agony of political choice, which, he thinks, is just a special instance of the lesson, sprung upon the Western intellect most vividly by Machiavelli, that in both our personal and social lives, beneath the surface of an apparently clear pattern of moral values lie contradiction, collision, conflict.

This conclusion, as Berlin’s essay in Against the Current shows, is strikingly like the considered ideas of that nineteenth-century radical Alexander Herzen, the “Russian Voltaire” as Berlin calls him, the great populist who, twice imprisoned by tsarist authorities, fled Russia in 1847 and spent the rest of his life wandering about Germany, Italy, France, and England, composing sharp analyses of European political affairs in the turbulent years following the revolutions of 1848, in journals he founded and subsidized.

As Berlin describes him, Herzen was equipped with unusual independence of mind and an exceptionally keen and self-critical awareness of the twin agonies of choice analyzed by Berlin: he occupied throughout his life a thankless, middle ground of moderation amid the political convulsions surrounding him, and was morally offended both by the callous men to his right and the boorish and hysterical young revolutionaries to his left. He fought all of his life for freedom and yet he permitted himself to wonder whether men, after all, really did want freedom, or whether the men who did were not, in contradiction to his deepest convictions, exceptions in their species, like fish that fly.

His ideas were constantly tested and refined by self-questioning and by events themselves. He consistently believed, as Berlin quotes him, that “art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have” (“Herzen and His Memoirs”). It is indeed irresistible to compare Herzen and Berlin in a less superficial manner. Both are sharp, urbane, richly talented writers, “talking” writers resistant to academic classification. Both are highly self-critical, skeptical of their skepticism, combining deep respect for learning and a sense of the great importance of ideas in our lives, with a concern for dignity and decency. Both are thinkers who rest their views on common sense and experience and who are willing to accept the metaphysician’s taunt that they are abdicating their responsibilities in favor of “brute facts.”

Both fear “the despotism of formulas” and continuously stress the diversity and incompatibility of human values and the inescapable predicament of choosing between them. Both are moralists who openly respect the free play of individual temperament, exuberance, variety, independence, distinction. Both recognize that, as Herzen wrote, “one must open men’s eyes, not tear them out,” and ask that men be content with piecemeal, fallible, gradual solutions to their most pressing problems and not be fooled by metaphysical nostrums that require brutal or shrill methods of social reform. And—perhaps their most distinctive common trait—both stand firmly opposed to simplistic or reductive thinking.

Indeed, seen in this light, their works—ostensibly those of “foxes” (to use the terminology of Berlin’s famous essay on Tolstoy),14 of marvelously scattered intellects dispensing interesting and informed judgments on unconnected topics—have a striking affinity. An ironist would remark that they are indeed not foxes who “know many little things,” but hedgehogs who “know one big thing,” and the one thing they say again and again is that questions such as “What is the goal of life?” or “What is the meaning of history?” or “What is the best way to live?” can receive no general answer—that is, that there is not, or should not be, any hedgehog’s thesis about human affairs to expound.

In any case, some of Berlin’s central points require further elucidation. For example, several of his analyses emphasizing the freedom and unpredictability of human choice appear to undermine psychological determinism—the view that all our actions can be explained by general laws and information about our desires, preferences, and beliefs. But this point is in need of refinement. We may be able to explain one aspect of a person’s choice but not another. To take a common example, a young friend may be torn whether to become a poet or a mathematician. We may not be able to explain why our friend chose to become a poet rather than a mathematician, but we can explain why he did not become a clown or a pilot. In view of his background, certain choices were not plausible for him. In his writings Berlin emphasizes freedom, but his view of the interplay between freedom and the conditions that restrain freedom deserves further development.

Another element in his thought that needs clarification concerns the nature of history. Berlin rarely fails to denounce interpretations of history as conforming to laws or rules or inexorable trends; this, he says, would run counter to our view of man as free, creative, and responsible for his actions. Yet when he comments sympathetically on the work of Vico, Berlin himself agrees that history is an account of gradual changes in ideas, ideals, forms of life, and cultures, along with the self-transformation of humanity. History can be understood, he seems to say, as a process of self-correction, for men seek ideas and patterns of life that are adequate to their needs and their dominant questions; when these outlooks begin to collapse, men discard them in favor of better ones. This, he adds, is a fact we can discover with the help of imaginative reconstruction and empathy. How do we reconcile these views? It seems Berlin is not offering us a general theory of history in the sense that Newton offered us a general theory of matter; he is, rather, giving us a picture or general approach to history. The issue of when general pictures (as against theories) of history are acceptable, tenable, or indeed indispensable needs clarifying.

A final issue in Berlin’s thought that might be usefully amplified also derives from his discussion of Vico. Berlin agrees with Vico that we can grasp the values of alien cultures with the help of sympathetic imagination. He can be interpreted as suggesting that once we do this, we realize that these values are not random preference; they are rooted in deep human interests and needs, and expressed in different cultural settings. A theory of ethics based on shifting and often conflicting human interests seems implicit in Berlin’s work and might be developed further as an alternative to theories grounded on a fixed eternal “human nature.”

However this may be, we must be grateful to Isaiah Berlin for his remarkable achievement: as a philosopher, for puncturing shallow theories of man, theories which ignore our freedom; as a historian of ideas, for exploring, with resilience, sympathy, and lack of dogmatism, neglected ideas about man, and thereby reanimating misunderstood intellectual undercurrents of the past. In his recent as in his earlier work, Berlin presses home a conception of life which is at once morally invigorating and possibly true, a view he himself admirably summarized when he once wrote that

the principal obligation of human beings seems to me to consist in living their lives according to their own lights, and in developing whatever faculties they possess without hurting their neighbors, in realizing themselves in as many directions as freely, variously, and richly as they can, without worrying overmuch whether they are measuring up to the peaks in their own past history, without casting anxious looks to see whether their achievements reach the highest points reached by the genius of their neighbors, nor yet looking at other nations, or wondering whether they are developing precisely as they expect them to develop.15

This Issue

March 20, 1980