In his famous essay on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Isaiah Berlin divides writers about human affairs—philosophers, historians, social theorists, novelists, and poets—into two categories that he names, engagingly, hedgehogs and foxes, making his own a line from the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Archilochus sounds sympathetic to the hedgehogs, who are committed, Berlin writes, to “a single central vision, one system…, a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance.” Berlin himself, however, runs with the foxes, who “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory,” whose thought moves “on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without… seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing…unitary inner vision.”
These last lines seem to fit perfectly Berlin’s own work as an intellectual historian: he has written brilliantly about an extraordinary variety of people with very different lives, relationships, opinions, and he has always aimed to give an account of “what they are in themselves.” And yet, the fox’s commitment to multiplicity is still…a commitment, and, as Sidney Morgenbesser and Jonathan Lieberson suggested in these pages years ago, it lends itself, willy nilly, to a hedgehogian interpretation. Berlin in fact knows “one big thing,” which is, they write, “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”—indeed, given the italicized article, can’t be answered at all.1
Now John Gray has written a book that systematically works out this hedgehogian interpretation. Berlin’s entire corpus, he argues, is animated and informed by a single “master idea”—and this master idea is pluralism, according to which there is no single master idea. Is this a paradox? Or is it just in the nature of things that if you manage to slow down the running fox, he turns out, on close inspection, to be one more, slightly unconventional, hedgehog?
Gray’s book is as much a reconstruction as a presentation of Berlin’s thought. He is careful to tell us what Berlin has said and what he probably believes about the crucial questions in which he (Gray) is most interested, but he also tells us what Berlin ought to say and believe if his thought is to be taken as a consistent whole, a single coherent system. But “the fox knows many things,” and Berlin has argued again and again that these many things don’t necessarily cohere in a systematic way (or in any way). Certainly, he has never presented himself as a system maker or as a writer in possession of, or in the grip of, a master idea. He doesn’t write expository treatises or even formal academic articles; he is a wonderful essayist, perhaps the best we have. His longest works are extended essays—philosophical-historical versions of the novella—about writers like Tolstoy, Herder, the exotic Hamann, and Giambattista Vico.
Characteristically, Berlin’s essays have been scattered to the winds, appearing in so many, often obscure, places that few readers had any idea of their number or range until, in recent years, they have been collected in a series of volumes by friends and colleagues. Read together, they invite the question, though they never pose the question: Do these “many things,” this remarkable assortment of historical insight, philosophical reflection, and common-sense argument, add up to a position?
I am not sure that Berlin would want to be “added up” in this way. He might well prefer that we generalize his own favorite genre and write essays about him rather than books like Gray’s. (See, for example, Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration, edited by Edna and Avishai Margalit, a fine collection of essays in which a few of the authors seem sometimes to be imitating Berlin’s breathless, run-on prose.)2 But Gray’s reconstruction is, nonetheless, impressive and revealing. It points persuasively to both the overall coherence and the internal tensions of Berlin’s thought. Here, one feels, is what Isaiah Berlin would have said, and how he would have said it, had he been someone else with Isaiah Berlin’s opinions.
Berlin’s master idea, according to Gray, is “value pluralism.” This is a phrase with far-reaching meaning—not only that there are many different goods in the world, many different versions of a good life and a good society, but also that these goods are often, or at least sometimes, incommensurable and incompatible. Gray starts his analysis of the first of these descriptive terms with an argument that comes from the Oxford philosopher Joseph Raz: “To say of two values that they are incommensurable is to say that they cannot be the subject of comparison.” But this claim must follow from a nonstandard view of comparison, which is, according to my dictionary, “a discovery of resemblances or differences.” Berlin is a remarkably adventurous discoverer of differences, hence, clearly, engaged in a comparison of values. What he means when he says that values are (sometimes) incommensurable, and what Raz and Gray also mean, is that they can’t be ranked on a single scale. No such scale exists, in Berlin’s view, and so there is no universal measure of degrees of goodness.
Values are also, often or sometimes, incompatible with one another so that, even if they could be ranked and we could recognize and then try to live by the top-ranked set, the project would be impossible. The goods realized in, say, the lives of a “great-souled” Greek hero, and a Christian saint, and a modern analytic philosopher cannot be combined into a single good life that, because of the combination, is better than any of the others. These goods are not only different and unrankable; they are also radically inconsistent. One can’t take hold of them all; one can’t live by them all, not simultaneously, at any rate. They might, of course, be realized serially. I can imagine a Greek hero converting to Christianity, then losing, or modifying, his faith and becoming an analytic philosopher. But this life story would not make a Bildungsroman; it’s not about “coming of age” or reaching maturity.
Two conclusions follow from Berlin’s account of value pluralism, and much of Gray’s book is devoted to presenting the two in a version designed to maximize the unease they will anyway produce among Anglo-American philosophers (and also among a lot of ordinary men and women, nonprofessional philosophers-of-everyday-life). It follows first that there is no single universal right or true or even useful account of the good person, the good life, or the good society. Here Berlin sets himself in opposition to what he recognizes, rightly, as “the central stream of the Western tradition.” “One assumption was common,” he writes about the tradition as it stood before Herder and the Romantics:
It was, at any rate in principle, possible to draw some outline of the perfect society or the perfect man, if only to define how far a given society or a given individual fell short of the ideal…. Problems of value were in principle soluble, and soluble with finality.
Since many people still believe this, despite repeated failures to achieve finality. Berlin’s opposition remains today what Herder’s was in his time: a provocation and a call to intellectual battle.
The second Berlinian conclusion is even more provocative, though I think that Gray overstates Berlin’s actual argument when he first presents it (he later gives a more balanced account). Men and women, both in their private lives and as members or leaders of movements, parties, and states, face choices for which there are no rational criteria—hence they must make radical choices, groundless decisions, leaps in the dark. We all know Jean-Paul Sartre’s example of this sort of dilemma: he describes a young man in the early 1940s who must choose between staying with his aging and sick mother and joining the Resistance. The young man, desperate, asks the philosopher for advice. There are no arguments to make one way or the other, Sartre tells him; he must simply choose.
Berlin sometimes writes in this existentialist vein, but it’s not quite his style, and I don’t think that he would accept Gray’s stark opposition between “knowledge of the right,” on the one hand, and “groundless decision,” on the other. No doubt, Berlin’s pluralism is radical, but he is himself a man ready to look for middle ways and to seize upon common-sensical arrangements. He knows that we sometimes face tragic choices when we must turn away from a good (because it is inconsistent with some other good) or embrace an evil (to avoid another evil), but we don’t face such choices all the time, and even when we do we don’t just choose. It makes no sense to say that unless I am standing on bedrock, with certain knowledge of the right thing to do, all my decisions are groundless. I can have good reasons for choosing this way or that without having conclusive, knockdown reasons. Given the concrete circumstances of my own life as I understand them or as my friends interpret them for me, one choice often makes better sense than another. But this doesn’t mean, and doesn’t have to mean, that it is decisively warranted by the one true theory of the good life (nor is that what my friends, even my philosophical friends, are likely to tell me).
Gray makes value pluralism seem harder to live with than it actually is—as if pluralists were always heroes, choosing to get along without the “metaphysical consolation” of doctrinal certainty. But of all the comforts of everyday life, metaphysical consolation is probably the easiest to do without. I don’t mean to associate Isaiah Berlin with this philistine statement, and I certainly acknowledge that for some men and women the surrender of certainty is enormously stressful, even agonizing (the greater the agony, however, the briefer the surrender). But most people, as soon as they find some plausible ground for their plans and decisions, will settle down for a long stay. And they don’t have to believe, and often in fact don’t believe (ask them!), that it would have been definitively wrong, wrong in the eyes of God, to have settled anywhere else. They cast an eye over the other choices they might have made and decide that, all things considered, it is probably best to stay where they are.
But the plural possibilities of political choice are much harder to acknowledge. Party leaders, struggling to inspire and mobilize their supporters and to win the allegiance of uncommitted men and women, are quick to seize upon absolute principles. They don’t offer metaphysical consolation but only the correct ideological position (a lesser version, perhaps, of the same thing). In any case, they are commonly enemies of value pluralism. They rarely believe that their own beliefs about political arrangements and purposes might have been other than they are or that their political opponents are anything less than definitively wrong. And it is here, thinking of this feature of political life, that Gray begins his logical but subversive questions about the consistency of Berlin’s philosophical views. The questions go like this: Isn’t liberalism, Berlin’s own politics, itself one of the beliefs that is believed or at least described in this definitive way? How many liberals think of their politics as only one legitimate way among many? Isn’t the liberty that liberalism aims to guarantee an absolute value, without competitors, and therefore a non-pluralist value? And isn’t Berlin’s defense of liberty and liberalism inconsistent with his own “master idea,” according to which values can’t be ranked and choices are groundless?
Berlin is surely a liberal. He is at the same time an admirer of the British welfare state and of America’s New Deal, hence a social democrat of sorts. He is opposed to every version of the Whiggish view of history as progress; he is a modernist, then, with a strong awareness of danger and conflict and little optimism about human improvement. He is a lifelong critic of at least the stronger forms of Enlightenment rationalism. He rejects the liberal dream of a universal civilization of like-minded, high-minded men and women. He is sympathetic to (some) nationalist hopes for cultural independence and political sovereignty. And still, he is a liberal, and his liberalism, precisely because of these doubts and qualifications, is, Gray says, “the most profoundly deliberated…the most formidable and plausible so far advanced.” (It is not, obviously, incommensurable with other twentieth-century liberalisms.)
The subjects of Berlin’s liberalism are individual men and women engaged in the business of choosing the way they live and the things they do. His famous defense of negative freedom is a defense of these people. They must be free to make—not the right choices, for the values they choose, which then guide their further choices, cannot be ranked. They must be free to make the choices they make. If the state interferes, the interference must be clearly recognized as a limitation on freedom, however that limitation is justified (and it sometimes can be justified). But isn’t this life of choice itself a particular way of life, one among the incommensurable many? Berlin sometimes denies this: “To be free to choose and not to be chosen for, is an inalienable ingredient in what makes human beings human.” But this seems too strong, for two reasons. First, because men and women can and often do give up this freedom, as when they join a religious order, or an army, or a disciplined political party, and Berlin does not deny the possible value of such organizations and of the lives they foster. Second, because many cultures and civilizations, even if they recognize and sustain some degree of individual choice, do not give Berlin’s version of freedom a central role in the everyday life of their members. Whether in religious communities, or in traditionalist families and villages in countries throughout the world, other values occupy the center; and the members don’t seem less than human. What then is the argument for the superiority of a liberal civilization? Or, as Gray puts the question in his usefully system-seeking way: “Is the privileged status and value of choice-making as a human activity derivable from the universal reality of conflict and incommensurability among values?”
Maybe this is just a philosopher’s question—and one possible response is to ignore its system-seeking intent and to stress instead the many obvious and ordinary connections between value pluralism and liberalism. This is the line of argument adopted by Berlin and Bernard Williams, writing together against a critic (George Crowder) whose argument is rather close to Gray’s. “This formal style,” they say, “is [not] the most illuminating way in which to discuss these matters.”3 And they recommend a more concrete historical and political analysis. Concretely, there are many connections between pluralism and liberalism, and they work both ways. The experience of pluralism (as in the years after the Protestant Reformation) is likely to generate among some people—how many is a question—a commitment to toleration, respect, freedom of choice, and these are the people we most admire, the enemies of cruelty and oppression. And the institutions and practices of liberalism are likely to open public space to previously repressed and invisible groups, turning a merely theoretical or potential pluralism into an actual, on-the-ground pluralism—hence freeing individuals to live the lives they value without coercion, humiliation, or fear. Liberalism is a way of accommodating or enabling pluralism; pluralism provides the critical occasions when liberal values matter. Is it really important which comes first in principle or whether one follows logically from the other?
I am inclined to think that “informal,” pragmatic arguments of this kind are the better ones, and I will come back to one of them later on. But Gray has several strong rejoinders, which are by no means narrowly formalistic and to which, I suspect. Berlin would not be unsympathetic. First of all, value pluralism, if it is itself a value and not merely a description of the world, would seem to require that large numbers of people be something other than liberals, not-liberals in fact: that they believe in, embody, act out different world views. For these other views are valuable (at least, some of them are) and incommensurably so, and therefore we have no reason, whatever reasons we have for our own choices, to wish that they disappear from the world. This is not to say that every world view and way of life is similarly and incommensurably valuable. Berlin is not a relativist. Certain beliefs, attitudes, practices, and ways of life—most obviously those associated with the Nazi and Communist dictatorships—he firmly rules out as inconsistent with our common humanity. But however this humanity is conceived, it doesn’t entail political liberalism. There are (some) illiberal or not-liberal values, among them values associated with traditional religious belief, that are—here too he is no relativist—genuinely valuable.
Gray’s second rejoinder requires somewhat lengthier scrutiny. Despite one standard view of liberalism as a form of political neutrality, liberal societies are not, he argues, neutral in their effects upon the ways of life they license. They aren’t simply systems for choice, with no impact on the actual array of choices. Instead, “they tend to drive out non-liberal forms of life, to ghettoize or marginalize them….” Indeed, if they don’t do this, they are likely to find themselves torn by cultural warfare (in which liberalism might well turn out the loser)—as the United States is torn today, when Christian fundamentalists refuse to live quietly on the margins. The fundamentalists fear (rightly, Gray’s argument suggests) that in a society ruled by liberal foxes rather than Christian hedgehogs, a society in which many different ways of life and systems of value are tolerated, respected, and not ranked, their own children will become …what? They may well become liberal Protestants, or agnostics, or “relativists”—in any case, adults no longer committed, as their parents are to the gospel truth. The parents believe (rightly, Gray suggests again) that they can sustain and reproduce their own ways and values only if they exercise some degree of coercive authority over the public life of American society. (So, for example, they would censor pornography and require public school teachers to give a “neutral” account of creationism and evolution.)
The choice presented by Gray is as follows: either the parents (or their children) become “liberals” like everyone else, or everyone else lives under a less liberal set of rules. Gray’s question—“Why should liberty trump diversity?”—doesn’t quite get at this situation, for diversity seems at risk either way. But the dilemma is clear. Some ways of life, considered valuable by many people, are not compatible with liberal values and probably won’t do well in a liberal milieu. In countries like the United States, all that can be done for them (and all that Berlin would want to do) is to make sure that the milieu is really liberal, so that illiberal groups, like Christian fundamentalists, say, or the Amish, or the Hasidim, are only marginalized and not themselves persecuted or repressed. But there is another possible resolution of this dilemma, available in the old multinational empires and in some of the successor countries: that is, to give full social scope to each way of life, to proliferate sovereign states and religious republics. Then diversity would be realized internationally, and some but not all of the “nations” would be liberal.
Berlin is sympathetic to this out-come, at least this far: he won’t prescribe a single model of the good society for universal emulation, and he is inclined to support the efforts of oppressed national and religious groups to achieve some sort of independence or, at least, cultural autonomy. But he would strongly reject the ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, population transfers, and border wars that a one-way-of-life/one-political-society solution would entail. His moral vision, as I understand it, allows for (say) an Islamic republic in a country like Iran with an overwhelmingly Muslim population (so long as minorities are tolerated), but his sympathies will lie, nevertheless, with those citizens of the republic who fight to liberalize it. Similarly, he is a Zionist who firmly opposes the political claims of orthodox Jews and right-wing nationalists.
Does liberty, then, trump diversity? Gray argues that Berlin’s position must be, or should be, that it does so only for us, here and now, given the circumstances of contemporary life. Liberty is a high value, but it has no absolute claim on the support of men and women everywhere; we are not liberals for all seasons. Gray puts it this way, pressing Berlin’s point: “Where liberal values come into conflict with others which depend for their existence on non-liberal social or political structures and forms of life, and where these values are truly incommensurable, there can—if pluralism is true—be no argument according universal priority to liberal values.” What then can be said about the choice of liberalism? Though he claims to be making the argument that “best coheres” with Berlin’s pluralist views, Gray in fact makes three rather different arguments. The first, which I have already discussed, is merely a useful provocation; the second and third reflect, I think, aspects of what Berlin actually believes:
1) “…the relation we have to liberal practices is in the nature of a groundless commitment.” This is the provocation: it is not what Gray thinks, or what he thinks Berlin thinks, or what Berlin (usually) says.
2) The ground of liberalism for us “must…be found in a particular cultural tradition or form of life in which choice-making is central to the good life.” This is where “we recognize ourselves…find our self-conception mirrored….”
3) There are more practical arguments for a liberal politics, since the truth of pluralism, as Berlin has expounded it, doesn’t disallow “reasonable trade-offs among conflicting goods” or pragmatic accounts of the advantages of this or that political choice in the situations in which we live. So Gray can suggest that “in our historical circumstances, it may be true that the universal minimum requirements of morality have the best chance of being met under liberal institutions.”
The last two of these arguments—call them the cultural and pragmatic arguments—would both be accepted by Berlin, I think, though I am not sure that he would find them sufficient. (I should note that the particular form Gray gives to the pragmatic argument brings it very close to the “liberalism of fear” defended by the American political theorist Judith Shklar, who was a friend of Berlin’s. Her liberalism, which is surely similar to his, was driven by a profound knowledge of and hatred for all the forms of political oppression that have flourished in this terrible century: liberal politics was her defensive response.) But Berlin still seems tempted, sometimes, by arguments that go beyond culture and pragmatism, and suggest that the love of liberty or the need for liberty has some basis in human nature, so that liberalism can authoritatively be called the best politics for beings like us. And then he isn’t only a liberal for good reasons but—the phrase is from one of his own self-descriptions—a “liberal rationalist.” Gray’s central claim is that liberal rationalism cannot stand alongside value pluralism, and that Berlin, if he is to be faithful to his own most powerful insights, if he is to be a consistent theorist, must content himself with the cultural and pragmatic arguments.
But this claim, which seems to me generally right, depends on starting from the “master idea” of value pluralism and then demonstrating that liberalism is not entailed by it. And why should we start from there? Remember what pluralism means for Berlin: not merely that people hold many different, sometimes incommensurable, sometimes incompatible ideas about what is valuable, but that there actually are different, incommensurable, and incompatible values. Now, I know quite a few liberals who don’t believe this; in a sense, Gray’s book is written against them, with the aim of denying them any possible comfort from Berlin’s work. (Several of them have vigorously, responded, imitating Gray’s hedgehogian style but claiming in effect that liberty is Berlin’s master idea.4 ) But I don’t know anyone who believes in value pluralism who isn’t a liberal, in sensibility as well as conviction.
Here is another one of those informal, common-sensical connections. You have to look at the world in a receptive and generous way to see a pluralism of Berlin’s sort, i.e., a pluralism that encompasses a variety of genuine but incommensurable values. And you also have to look at the world in a skeptical way, since the adherents of each of the different values are likely to rank them very high on a scale designed for just that purpose. And receptivity, generosity, and skepticism are, if not liberal values, then qualities of mind that make it possible to accept liberal values (or, better, that make it likely that liberal values will be accepted).
But if value pluralism is true, as Gray believes, and if only liberalminded men and women can fully recognize this truth, then liberalism may just possibly have a different status than other values and ways of life. And how can we say anything about this status if we remain committed to value pluralism? Perhaps, if we can’t say anything, we had best be silent. The tension in Berlin’s thought that Gray reveals is not resolvable. His own effort to resolve it by fitting liberalism into the “many things” that foxes know serves only to deny one of those things, which is that liberalism may not fit. Gray has written an acute and illuminating exposition of Berlin’s world view, but his effort at reconstructing that view and reconciling its different parts is, at the same time, a kind of trap. He probably gets closer to Berlin than anyone else has done, and still, when he closes the trap, Berlin is not inside. The fox is still running.
October 19, 1995
“The Questions of Isaiah Berlin” and “The Choices of Isaiah Berlin,” The New York Review, March 6 and 20, 1980. ↩
London: Hogarth Press, 1991. ↩
“Pluralism and Liberalism: A Reply” in Political Studies (June 1994), p. 309. ↩
See Steven Lukes in the Times Literary Supplement, February 10, 1995, and Robert Wokler in the Times Higher Education Supplement, March 3, 1995. ↩