May 29, 2009

Isaiah Berlin

You may have guessed by reading this blog that the late fellow of All Souls and Chichele Professor of Political Philosophy is one of those figures that dominates my thought. If you did guess that, then you would be right. Isaiah Berlin is, as J.G.A. Pocock once called him in a British Academy lecture, one of the master spirits of our age- one of the intelligences that shaped any response to the realities that we face. Berlin did that through using the craft and art of history and of one branch of history- political thought. He came out of the logical positivism that he found in the Oxford of the thirties, particularly in the circle around J.A. Austin and A.J. Ayer but migrated across the faculties to write intriguing works on the Russian intelligentsia of the 19th Century, the Romantic revival in Germany and last but not least on Giambattisto Vico and what Berlin deemed the Counter Enlightenment.

Berlin is often naively interpreted as a prophet of freedom (as in this article here) and to some extent he was- but he was so much more and so much more interesting. I think it is worth therefore here just outlining very briefly why I think the above article and much that is written about Berlin fails to capture him as a philosopher- I want to issue a disclaimer of course- there is no way that I can capture in a couple of paragraphs Berlin's peculiar talent. As ever I hope you use this article not as a final statement but as a point of departure into the subject it discusses. To return to my central point, Berlin was not merely a prophet of western liberty. Partly the range of his learning- from a biography of Marx to working on De Maistre- meant that he took up positions within his life that involved him in key creative intellectual battles of the twentieth century and partly also Berlin was able to, in a simple insight, perceive what liberty was not: it was not happiness, morality, common sense or material satisfaction- it was liberty. If others like Huxley have had this insight then noone expressed it with the learning that Berlin expressed it with. Berlin though went further and it is where he went further that I think lies his most paradoxical and intriguing, not to mention dangerous idea lies.

Berlin was obsessed with nationalism. What he meant by nationalism was the darker strain invented by thinkers like Herder and Hamman in the 19th Century and which offers a whisper of ideas first stated, if ignored, by Vico. Berlin was an ardent Zionist- a friend of Chaim Weiszman and an ally of David Ben Gurion. But his advocacy of nationalism and the many sides of the 'crooked timber of humanity' (a phrase of Kant's that Berlin picked up for the title of one of his books) was more complicated than a mere affection to the state of Israel. Berlin detected that the enlightenment thinkers- especially some of the more minor French figures like Helvetius- had miscomprehended some of what it meant to be human. What they had believed was that one might sweep away moral principles that failed to fit into an overall structure of morality. Berlin though had a radically different approach to political morality- far from arguing that there was some kind of seemless fit, some structure into which we could place our moral principles, he suggested that moral principles conflicted. That they neccessarily conflicted and that every moral choice was in a sense was a tragedy.

Berlin therefore did something so radical that I think few amongst his disciples understand what the philosopher was trying to do. His enemy was coherence itself- whether religious or secular. His enemy was the easily assumed moral posture. This led him to a political faith in freedom and nationalism- in the sense of both British and Isreali nationalism. Berlin's interpretation of both the enlightenment and counter-enlightenment can be questioned (reading him before I read Vico I did not realise how central to Vico was the counter reformation) but in a sense that is to read him the wrong way. For Berlin, Vico, De Maistre, Herder, Herzen, Marx even were all places to leap off from, peaks from which his soaring intellect could explain the crookedness of human experience and the reasons for which freedom was needed.