When Isaiah Berlin died on November 5th last year, an astonishing number of people felt it as a personal loss. Berlin was eighty-eight years old, and had been unwell for some months, so his death was not exactly a surprise; nonetheless, it came as a shock, and it left a large gap in the lives of those who knew him even slightly. It sounds mildly insulting to say of anyone that he has become an institution; but it is certainly true that Berlin had become something larger than any of the roles he had occupied with such distinction—among them, philosopher, author, diplomat, and college president. Perhaps, to borrow W.H. Auden’s description of Freud, he had become a “climate of opinion.” It was a climate that owed much, if not quite everything, to the personality of its creator.
This sets Berlin apart from almost all other twentieth-century philosophers. Bertrand Russell had a striking personality, a razor-sharp intelligence, and a command of the English language that many of us would sell our souls to possess; but his account of “definite descriptions” and his theory of classes belong—or do not belong—to the permanent achievements of logical analysis for entirely austere and impersonal reasons. Karl Popper’s intolerance of any criticism of his own views was a standing joke against his theory that inventing hypotheses and subjecting them to critical testing was the key to scientific progress. But the attractions and the shortcomings of Popper’s philosophy of science have nothing to do with the temperamental irritability that led his students to joke that The Open Society and Its Enemies should have been called “The Open Society by one of its enemies.” Many of us admire the philosophy and deplore the ill temper.
Berlin’s work is very much harder to separate from its author, and for anyone who heard him lecture in person or on the radio it is almost impossible to separate the speaker from the text. This is no accident. Although Berlin did not explain philosophical, political, moral, or aesthetic ideas as mere outgrowths of the personalities of the thinkers who held those ideas, he certainly treated them as aspects of those personalities. When he engaged with ideas he engaged with their authors, and for all the world as though he were doing so in the immediate here and now.
Only one volume of Berlin’s collected essays is entitled Personal Impressions, but it is striking how his far more philosophically or historically demanding essays, too, seem to be giving the reader Berlin’s personal impressions of, as it might be, Herzen, Belinsky, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, or the Parisian Utopian Socialists of the early nineteenth century. One thing that made him a great teacher was the way he taught his students to shed their inhibitions—and thus taught them to feel that they too were entitled to buttonhole the immortal dead in a transhistorical conversation. Many of them felt that a benign uncle had taken them to a particularly dazzling party in the Elysian Fields and introduced…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.