Getting Isaiah Berlin Wrong

Cecil Beaton Studio Archive/Sotheby’s London
Isaiah Berlin, 1955

A marvelous raconteur famed for his opulent intellect and brilliant wit, Isaiah Berlin could easily give the impression of being an intellectual dilettante. He often endorsed such criticism self-mockingly; asked by his biographer about the source of his serene well-being, he replied that he was happy because he was superficial. In a letter to a close friend he presents a very different self-image:

The only truth which I have ever found out for myself is, I think, this one: of the unavoidability of conflicting ends…. The contrast between my cheerful and feckless façade, and unquiet constant perturbations and apprehension within, is too odd.

This truth became the basis of a liberalism deviating sharply from the Anglo-American tradition. What the philosopher John Gray has termed Berlin’s “tragic liberalism” inspired his seminal Four Essays on Liberty, directed against the faith (common to liberal and radical doctrines founded on European Enlightenment optimism) that all rational goals can ultimately be harmonized. To this monistic vision he opposed the notion of value pluralism: the necessity of difficult choices between ultimate ends equally good but incommensurable and often irreconcilable.

Writing in 1994, Gray argued that the full originality and subversiveness of this view had yet to be appreciated. The process continues even sixteen years after Berlin’s death. A 2011 symposium in Beijing on Berlin and contemporary China drew a mixture of speakers from East and West, including a generation of scholars not yet born when his essays on liberty were first published.

Arie Dubnov, an assistant professor of European Intellectual and Modern Jewish History at Stanford, belongs to this generation. His study begins with a sweeping rejection of previous attempts to define Berlin’s legacy, which, he claims, have turned him into “a sacred cow, revered by students and epigones, and gleefully butchered by foes.” Critics and worshipers alike are “missing a key point” by ignoring the unresolved tension in his thought between his defense of individual freedom and his recognition of humans’ need to belong to a larger whole.

Since philosophers such as Gray and Bernard Williams have identified precisely this feature of Berlin’s work as the source of its enduring interest, this is an astonishing claim, even if allowances are made for the hyperbole of a young scholar anxious to proclaim the originality of his biographical approach to Berlin’s thought up to the early 1950s, an approach aimed at reconstructing the intellectual journey leading to his essays on liberty. Berlin’s plural identity—Russian, Jewish, and English (“the three strands in my life,” he called them in an article published in the Jewish Quarterly)—is often cited in this regard. Centrally for his argument, Dubnov reduces the number to two, insisting repeatedly on a “dual perspective” for Berlin’s thought via British philosophy and Zionism.

Born in Riga in 1909, Berlin moved with his family to Petrograd in early 1916…

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