On Political Judgment

For more information about Isaiah Berlin, see the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. For permission to reprint any material by Isaiah Berlin, contact Curtis Brown Group Ltd.

What is it to have good judgment in politics? What is it to be politically wise, or gifted, to be a political genius, or even to be no more than politically competent, to know how to get things done? Perhaps one way of looking for the answer is by considering what we are saying when we denounce statesmen, or pity them, for not possessing these qualities. We sometimes complain that they are blinded by prejudice or passion, but blinded to what? We say that they don’t understand the times they live in, or that they are resisting something called “the logic of the facts,” or are “trying to put the clock back,” or that “history is against them,” or that they are ignorant or incapable of learning, or else unpractical idealists, visionaries, Utopians, hypnotized by the dream of some fabulous past or some unrealizable future.

All such expressions and metaphors seem to presuppose that there is something to know (of which the critic has some notion) which these unfortunate persons have somehow not managed to grasp, whether it is the inexorable movement of some cosmic clock which no man can alter, or some pattern of things in time or space, or in some more mysterious medium—“the realm of the Spirit” or “ultimate reality”—which one must first understand if one is to avoid frustration.

But what is this knowledge? Is it knowledge of a science? Are there really laws to be discovered, rules to be learned? Can statesmen be taught something called political science—the science of the relationships of human beings to each other and to their environment—which consists, like other sciences, of systems of verified hypotheses, organized under laws, that enable one, by the use of further experiment and observation, to discover other facts, and to verify newhypotheses?

Certainly that was the notion, either concealed or open, of both Hobbes and Spinoza, each in his own fashion, and of their followers—a notion that grew more and more powerful in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the natural sciences acquired enormous prestige, and attempts were made to maintain that anything not capable of being reduced to a natural science could not properly be called knowledge at all. The more ambitious and extreme scientific determinists, such as Holbach, Helvétius, and La Mettrie, used to think that, given enough knowledge of universal human nature and of the laws of social behavior, and enough knowledge of the state of given human beings at a given time, one could scientifically calculate how these human beings, or at any rate large groups of them—entire societies or classes—would behave under some other given set of circumstances. It was argued, and this seemed reasonable enough at the time, that just as knowledge of mechanics was indispensable to engineers or architects or inventors, so knowledge of social mechanics was necessary for anyone—statesmen, for example—who wished to get large bodies of men to do this or that. For without it, what had they to rely on but casual…

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