Berlin, Isaiah

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by Beata Polanowska-Sygul

(1909-1997) British philosopher, historian of ideas and political theorist. One of the most eminent 20th-century liberal thinkers, who, preceding John Rawls, greatly contributed to the revival of political theory. Author of 14 volumes of writings, including mostly collections of essays, an anthology and a tome of letters. His essays concern an exceedingly wide range of topics – nature of meaning, history of ideas and political theory, Russian and intellectual history, music and impressions from meetings with  famous people. However, there are four main areas of enquiry which can be singled out in his work: liberalism, ethical pluralism, the origins and development of Romanticism and its off-spring and 19th century Russian thought. Berlin is mostly famous for two contributions to political and ethical theory. Firstly, for his celebrated differentiation between negative and positive liberty and defence of the negative concept as the more secure one with respect to possible perversions. Secondly, for his idea of value pluralism, as an intermediary position in ethics, situated between monism and relativism and offering a unique description of ethical life. According to Berlin human aims and values are objective but plural, sometimes incompatible or even incommensurable, and thus potentially conflicting. Combination of the two views resulted in the establishment of a new school within the liberal thought – liberal pluralism.

I. Life

Born in 1909 in Riga, Latvia, then part of the Russian empire, of Russian-Jewish parents; in 1915 the family moved to Russia. They witnessed both the Russian revolutions of 1917 – Social Democratic and Bolshevik – in Petrograd. There a seven-year-old Isaiah saw to his horror a mob dragging off a Tsarist policeman to be lynched. That experience had a formative influence on a later defender of liberalism and moderation. The subsequent fate of his relatives, who suffered persecution and death at the hands of Bolsheviks and Nazis strengthened his aversion to totalitarian ideas. In 1921 the Berlin family emigrated to Britain. Young Isaiah was educated at St. Paul’s School in London and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he studied classics and PPE. At Oxford he was a lecturer and then a Fellow at New College (1932-38;1938-50), a Fellow at All Souls College (1932-38; 1950-1966; 1975-1997), the Chichele  Professor of Social and Political Theory (1957-67) and the President of Wolfson College (1966-75). During the war he did service at the Ministry of Information in New York (1941-1942) and at the British Embassy in Washington (1942-1946). In 1945/6 he spent several months in the British Embassy in Moscow. In 1966-1971 he was a visiting Professor of Humanities at the City University of New York. Berlin held the Vice-Presidency and then the Presidency of the British Academy ( 1959-61; 1974-78). Knighted in 1957 he was also a recipient of many honorary doctorates and prizes, including the Order of Merit (1971), the Jerusalem Peace Prize (1979), the Erasmus Prize (1983) and the Agnelli Prize (1988). In his mature years, Berlin gained a reputation as one of the century’s leading thinkers. Died in Oxford in 1997.

II. Critique of reductionism

At the beginning of his academic career, in the 1930s, Berlin worked  in general philosophy. He belonged to a circle of young philosophers influenced by logical positivism, whose investigations later came to be called ‘the Oxford philosophy’. Apart from himself, the small group included A.J. Ayer, J.L. Austin and S. Hampshire. They actually met in Berlin’s rooms at All Souls, discussing mainly questions about meaning, truth and the nature of the external world. Though attracted to the subject of debates, Berlin remained sceptical of logical positivism, and of its formalistic and ahistorical character. Among other things, he questioned the standard of verification, pointing out that there could be many perfectly meaningful statements without their being strictly verifiable. (‘All swans are white.’;  ‘This pink [shade] is more like this vermilion than it is like this black.’) Thus, though Berlin remained through all his life a dedicated adherent to empiricism, he found verifiability too narrow a criterion of knowledge or beliefs or hypotheses. He expressed his critical views on positivism in several articles published later (they are also included in Berlin 1978). This scepticism of analytical acuity per se led Berlin to differentiate between three kinds of questions: empirical, being answerable by observation; formal, being answerable deductively, and irreducible, being philosophical queries which  do not ‘carry within their own structure clear indications of the techniques of their solution’. Political philosophy  which, according to Berlin, is indeed moral philosophy applied to social context, deals with perennial, still open questions belonging to the ‘third basket’, totally reduced by rigorous logical positivism. As the philosopher wished to work in ‘a field in which one could hope to know more at the end of one’s life than when one had begun’, he decided, towards the end of the war, to give up analytical philosophy for the history of ideas.

III. History of ideas

Berlin’s first contribution as a historian of ideas was his classic biography of Marx (1939), to which he was commissioned in the early 1930s. Before writing the book he devoted himself to a five-year-long study of Marx and his predecessors, in particular the French philosophes of the eighteenth century. Further interest in the critics of Enlightenment, in Romanticism and its off-spring and in the ideas of the Romantic Russian radicals of the nineteenth century, resulted in the emergence of a stream of volumes on the history of ideas, from Vico and Herder (1976) and Against the Current (1979) to Freedom and Its Betrayal (2002). The vast study included a whole myriad of thinkers; the ones to whom Berlin paid particular attention were those who initiated a great breakthrough in European ideas, resulting in undermining the two-millennial western monism -  Machiavelli, Vico, Herder, Montesquieu and Hamann. Before them European thought, both rational and spiritual, rested on a Platonic ideal: that to all true questions there must be one true answer, all the rest  being necessarily errors; that there must exist a dependable path which leads to the correct answers to these questions and that once the true answers are put together, they must necessarily form a harmonious whole, providing a final solution to the cosmic jigsaw puzzle. Due to Berlin’s controversial interpretation the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers shook this central, monistic belief of Western philosophy from Plato to our day. Machiavelli - by pointing out the incompatibility of two parallel moralities: Christian virtues and pagan virtu; Vico – by his original idea of cultures, differing across time, and the need to understand them, as it were, ‘from the inside’; and Herder – by his belief in ‘the centre of gravity’, possessed by each culture and his recognition of the natural human need to belong. Vico’s contribution amounted to the propounding of cultural pluralism, further developed by Herder into the idea that every culture has a conceptual structure of its own. The crack in the monistic foundation of European tradition was then widened by the Romanticism and its diverse off-spring: anarchism, nationalism, fascism, existentialism, relativism, subjectivism. Berlin’s comprehensive study, conducted with his unique, imaginative empathy, cast light on the origins and nature of these movements. His penetrating investigations in the field of the history of ideas led him to put forward his own ethical theory.

IV. Value-pluralism

Having found monism politically dangerous, if not disastrous; and philosophically mistaken, Berlin conceived of  a truer ethical vision, which would fit common human experience and simultaneously preserve the concept of man as a moral category. In his interpretation such an ethical theory - named by Berlin as pluralism - was indeed inherent in Vico’s and Herder’s views. Having reconstructed its basic outline from both thinkers’ work Berlin developed value-pluralism in his own writings (The Crooked Timber of Humanity, The First and the Last, Liberty), though without setting out a systematic theory. According to Berlin there is a plurality of differing values which men can and do seek. By ‘values’ he means ‘those ends, that men pursue for their own sakes, to which other things are means.’ Values are irreducibly plural, but their number should not be exaggerated; it is finite, as they must be within the human horizon. If they are not, they fall outside the human sphere, and those people, who do not pursue them, are not able to understand why others do. Like in the case of men who worship trees only because they are made of wood. Such a position would render any communication impossible; thus, worship of objects made of wood should not be described as merely subjective, but as insane. According to Berlin, values are objective in the sense that they are ‘part of the essence of humanity’, and ‘this is an objective given’. Despite their irreducible plurality, there exists some ethical minimum, some common ‘core’ of values, which makes it possible for human beings to communicate.  Genuine values may be incompatible, and sometimes incommensurable. Thus, they can be neither ranked in a comprehensive hierarchy nor reduced to a common measure of universal binding force. Being multiple, values are potentially conflicting. Thus, e.g. full freedom cannot - by its very nature - be reconciled with total equality, justice with mercy, knowledge with happiness, spontaneity with security. There exists no ultimate standard that would allow for rational resolution of collisions between them. The way out is either taking a radical, sometimes hard or even tragic choice, or making a compromise, by way of trade-offs between values. All that can be achieved is a pragmatic, vague and temporary  equilibrium. As the  possibility of conflict can never be eliminated, then suffering and tragedy can never be eliminated from human life. Moreover, the idea of perfection itself is logically incoherent, so total harmony is beyond human reach.

V. Liberty

In his widely discussed essay Historical Inevitability (1954, included in Liberty, 2002) Berlin tackled ‘the phantom problem’ of determinism. He did not refute determinism, but pointed out its logical consequences. Genuine embracing of determinism requires abandonment of the idea of responsibility, hence a radical change in vocabulary. A whole network of concepts related to obligation and duty, right and wrong, moral praise and blame would have to be given up or, at best, interpreted as a means of aesthetic expression.  Berlin’s inaugural lecture Two Concepts of Liberty (1958; included in Liberty, 2002), having produced vast and passionate argument, has been recognized as a standard work on political freedom, often compared to Mill’s essay On Liberty. The gist of the lecture was to distinguish between two notions of liberty – ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ or ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’ (the terms are used interchangeably). The two notions are specified by answering the following two questions: ‘How far am I controlled?’ and ‘Who controls me?’ Negative liberty, related to the first question, is meant as a lack of man-made - whether deliberate or unintentional  - obstacles to potential human choices. Thus, the extent of negative liberty depends on ‘the number of paths down which a man can walk, whether or not he chooses to do so.’ The positive sense of liberty, involved in answering the second question, is understood as self-mastery or self-realization. According to Berlin both freedoms are ultimate, valid human ends. None of them is an absolute value and both may be subject to distortion. Though cognate, they are definitely distinct; they may or may not clash. Yet, it is the concept of positive liberty that proves to be more susceptible to dangerous perversions, which are likely to take place when the notion becomes connected with the idea of the two selves. Then the expansion of the ‘higher’ self. Liberty over some supraindividual entities leads to identifying freedom with authority. Thus, the negative notion gives relatively better safeguards for individual freedom. Berlin’s analysis of the two concepts of liberty constitutes a meta-theory of political freedom, rather than a body of doctrine. The very character of the philosopher’s reflection, bearing marks of a passionate plea against political slavery, seems to have been determined by the particular historical context in which his famous lecture emerged, i.e. the Cold War between the Liberal West and the Stalinist East.

VI. Discussion

All veins of Berlin’s enquiry provoked animated debates. However, the most disputable ones were his concept of liberty and his idea of ethical pluralism. There were multiple directions in which the widespread and interminable discussion on Berlin’s doctrine of liberty developed. The philosopher was accused, inter alia, of having adopted an allegedly too narrow, negativist approach (A.S. Kaufman, A. Ryan, L.J. Macfarlane, C. Taylor, M. Cohen.) Participants in the discussion also questioned the famed differentiation between freedom ‘from’ and freedom ‘to’. (G. McCallum, J. Feinberg). The adequacy of Berlin’s derivation of the concept of negative liberty from classical liberalism was found highly controversial as well (M. Cohen, J. Gray, J. Tully, G. Smith). Comparatively few critics tackled the main thesis of the particular liability of the positive doctrines of liberty to perversion (M. Cohen, W. Parent, C. Taylor, C.B. Macpherson). On the whole, most objections resulted from misinterpretation of Berlin’s view, particularly from the failure recognise the meta-theoretical character of his reflection. Nevertheless, the ‘irreducibly philosophical’ character of the subject-matter of liberty renders Berlin’s position permanently questionable.
Berlin’s doctrine of value-pluralism has been subject to especially heated discussion in the last decade. The main controversies concern the status of pluralism on the spectrum of ethical theories, particularly the possibility of differentiating between pluralism and relativism. Some  critics maintain that - as both positions share the same conception of values as human creations - they are actually indistinguishable. Berlin and his adherents reply that the objective nature of values and the basic human ‘core’ inherent in pluralism, make both visions of ethical life profoundly distinct. However, clashes between incommensurables impose the necessity of making radical choices; and these are made on purely subjective grounds.
Another burning issue is the relation between pluralism and liberalism in Berlin’s thought. The philosopher was ambiguous on this controversial point; according to his last utterances on the topic there is a psychological, de facto connection between both views. Some contemporary pluralists share Berlin’s view that pluralism supports liberalism.(Raz, Galston, Crowder). G. Crowder seeks to justify the thesis that pluralism implies liberalism. Others insist that there is no connection between the two views; moreover, they claim that pluralism actually undermines liberalism (Gray, Kekes). Both controversies remain open for discussion.

For investigations into the consequences of pluralism into jurisprudence see: C.R. Sunstein (1994, 1997)  and S. Veitch (1999).
For Berlin’s works, books and articles on Berlin, and for further reading, see: The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library


Berlin, I., Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (London: Thornton Butterworth; Toronto: Nelson, 1939).

Berlin, I., Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas (London: Hogarth Press, 1976, New York: Viking, 1976).

Berlin, I., Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, ed. H. Hardy (London: Hogarth, 1978).

Berlin, I., Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, ed. H. Hardy, (London: Hogarth, 1979).

Berlin, I., The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, ed. H. Hardy (London: John Murray,1990).

Berlin I., Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, ed. H. Hardy (London: Chatto & Windus, 2002).

Berlin, I., Liberty, incorporating Four Essays on Liberty (1969), ed. H. Hardy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Berlin, I., The First and the Last, ed. H. Hardy (New York: New York Review of Books, 1999).

Cohen, M., ‘Berlin and the Liberal Tradition’, The Philosophical Quaterly, 10, 1960, pp. 216-27.

Crowder, G., Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism (Cambridge: Polity, 2004).

Crowder, G., Liberalism and Value Pluralism (London and new York: Continuum, 2002).

Galston, W., Liberal Purposes: Goods, Virtues and Diversity in the Liberal State (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Galston, W., Liberal Pluralism: The Implications of Value Pluralism for Political Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Feinberg, J., ‘Rights, Justice and the Bounds of Liberty’ in: idem, Essays in Social Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980).

Gray, J., ‘On Negative and Positive Liberty’, Political Studies, XXVIII, 1980, pp. 507-26.

Gray, J., Isaiah Berlin (London: HarperCollins, 1995).

Kaufman, A.S., ‘Professor Berlin on Negative Freedom’, Mind, LXXI, 1962, pp. 241-3.

Kekes, J., A Case for Conservatism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).

Kekes, J., Against Liberalism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997).

Kekes, J., The Morality of Pluralism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).  

Macfarlane, L.J., ‘On Two Concepts of Liberty’, Political Studies, XIV, 1966, pp. 77-81.

Macpherson, C.B.,  ‘Berlin’s Division of Liberty’, in: idem, Democratic Theory: Essays in Retrieval (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. 95-119.

McCallum, G., Jr,  ‘Negative and Positive Freedom’, The Philosophical Review, LXXVI, 1967, pp. 312-34.

Parent, W., ‘Some Recent Work on the Concept of Liberty’, American Philosophical Quaterly, II, 1974, pp.149-67.

Raz, J., The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).

Ryan, A., ‘Freedom’, Philosophy, XL, 1965, pp. 93-112.

Smith, G., ‘J.S. Mill on Freedom’, in: ed. Pelczynski, Z., Gray, J., Conceptions of Liberty in Political Philosophy (London: The Athlone Press, 1984), pp. 183-216.

Sunstein, C.R., ‘Incommensurability and Valuation in Law’, Michigan Law Review, vol.92, 1994, p. 780-861.

Sunstein, C.R., ‘Incommensurability and Kinds of Valuation: Some Applications in Law’, in: Chang, R., ed., Incommensurabilty, Incomparability and Practical Reason (Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press, 1997, p. 234-254).

Taylor, C., ‘What’s Wrong with Negative Liberty’, in: ed. Ryan, A., The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 175-193.

Tully, J., ‘Locke on Liberty’, in: ed. Pelczynski, Z., Gray, J., Conceptions of Liberty in Political Philosophy, (London: The Athlone Press, 1984), pp. 57-82.

Veitch, S., Moral Conflict and Legal Reasoning (Oxford – Portland: Hart Publishing, 1999)

Related entries

EmpiricismEnlightenmentEthical PluralismIncommensurabilityLogical PositivismMonismRelativismVerifiability.

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