Isaiah Berlin Against the Current

Dominique Nabokov
Isaiah Berlin (center) with his friends Stuart Hampshire and Nicolas Nabokov,
Oxford, England, 1969

To one who thinks philosophically, no story is a matter of indifference, even if it were the natural history of the apes.

—H. M. G. Koster

It was an anecdote he liked to tell. In 1944, while working at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., Isaiah Berlin was called back to London on short notice, and it happened that the only plane available to take him was a loud, uncomfortable military bomber. Because the cabin wasn’t pressurized he had to wear an oxygen mask that kept him from speaking. And there were no lights, either, so he couldn’t read. It was a long flight. He joked afterward, “one was therefore reduced to a most terrible thing—to having to think.”

While airborne, the story went, he had a small epiphany. In the 1930s he had taught philosophy at Oxford, happily, with his likeminded friends Stuart Hampshire, J.L. Austin, and A.J. Ayer. Logical positivism had just come into its own in Britain and Wittgenstein was already developing ideas about language that would challenge it. Something seemed to be happening. But as the war dragged on Berlin wondered whether this style of philosophy was really for him. History had intruded into his life a second time (the first was when he witnessed the Russian Revolution as a young boy in Petrogad) and he had just spent several years in the United States writing influential reports to the British government about the American war effort.

What did his early writings on verification and logical translation have to do with any of this? How did they address the pressing issues of the day? He found himself more and more drawn to engaged nineteenth-century Russian writers like Ivan Turgenev and Alexander Herzen, whose questions, he was discovering, were closer to his own. Thinking all this through in the darkness of the bomber he reached the conclusion, as he later put it, “that what I really wanted was to know more at the end of my life than I knew at the beginning.” When the war was over he gave up his philosophy fellowship and started calling himself a historian of ideas.

It was a witty, self-deprecating story. I’ve often wished, though, that he hadn’t told it. Berlin’s decision baffled his friends and colleagues back at Oxford, and left the impression, reinforced by this story, that he had taken a step down the intellectual ladder. It occurred to no one at the time that moving to the history of ideas might actually represent a step up. Philosophy was philosophy, history was history, and that was that. No one in Britain called himself a historian of ideas, and no one wrote the kind of wide-ranging, labyrinthine essays connecting thinkers over many centuries that Berlin perfected. The dons could make nothing…

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