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The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin Hardcover – 30 Aug 1979

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Enrich your idea of freedom 21 Jun. 2015
By Richard E. Hayes - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
These 16 essays will be of keen interest to those who have enjoyed Berlin's important book FOUR ESSAYS ON LIBERTY (best edition: LIBERTY, edited by Henry Hardy, 2002). Much debate ensued on Berlin's ideas, some of which is presented here. Explicating and arguing with Berlin, these essays extend his valuable work in the history of ideas, and increase our awareness of the scope of the search for a philosophy of government.

Some themes: liberty & equality; pluralism & social harmony; conflict of values & political order; free will & determinism; utilitarianism & natural rights; individualism & community obligation; complexity & explanation; moral duty & self realization.

The essay by Siedentop is especially valuable. He says some discussion of the contrast between liberalism and socialism is misleading -- it denies the full scope of liberal thought; it derives in part from differences between English and French liberalism -- empiricism & epistemology on one side, historical & sociological analysis on the other. "The greatest work of nineteenth century French liberal thought, Tocqueville's DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA (1835-40), exemplified and rested upon that new mode of argument [in contrast to Enlightenment liberalism and Revolutionary radicalism] which had emerged under the Restoration [of monarchy in the 1820s]." (p.162)

Peter Gay (who died last month at age 91) offers a valuable essay on Freud. Gay says Berlin is wrong about Freud, but they are on the same side for Liberal "negative liberty." Gay has written much about the Enlightenment and about Freud (a product, he says, of the Enlightenment) against a crowd of intellectuals who have scorned both.

Hart compares two modern critics of utilitarianism -- Nozick, "Conservative Right," and Dworkin, "Liberal Left." (Later, he says Nozick is a libertarian.) For Nozick absolute individual freedom is the only moral basis of government, which serves only a police function. For Dworkin government has a duty to show equality of concern and respect for all citizens -- this does not entail equality of treatment but does authorize wide intervention. Hart thinks both of these leading philosophers have failed to find a satisfactory foundation for a theory of rights.

Joll examines the question whether leaders of England in 1914 had "the freedom to choose" to go to war. Among the limitations of freedom to choose are "prejudices produced by the concept of a 'vital national interest'."

Gulland writes an interesting essay on the German Buchner and the Russian Lermantov, each of whom wrote an experimental masterpiece, a work of ideas, in the 1830s --"a tense, ambitious, unclassifiable period in European literary and cultural history." The French Revolution and the Restoration provoked thoughts on fate and freedom, the limits of political action, an anti-heroic pessimistic view of man.

Taylor says Berlin's "negative freedom" -- absence of external barriers -- is an untenable position and we must address the question whether true freedom is "realizable only within a certain form of society," because the individual "may be profoundly mistaken about his purposes" which prevents him achieving true freedom. [This view is discussed in LIBERALISM AND ITS CRITICS, edited by Sandel]

Morton White says that for 20 years he and Berlin have discussed free will, moral obligation, determinism, and that they are still far apart. His short essay explores the question: is "the principle of causality or determinism .. compatible with the principle that only a free action or choice should be judged morally?" He faults Berlin for failing to "investigate interpretations of 'could have chosen otherwise' that are compatible with determinism."

Williams discusses Berlin's key concept "that there is a plurality of values which can conflict" and are not reconcilable, and that this fact is a foundation of liberalism. More philosophy is needed to show how a conflict of irreconcilable values can be combined with social and political action.

Wokler tracks the rise and fall of the concept of perfectibility and attempts to redeem Rousseau from a misunderstanding of his theory of perfectibility. Wollheim says Berlin misunderstands J. S. Mill's utilitarianism, and develops a deep analysis of Mill's evolving position, "one of the most interesting and also most neglected aspects of his work as a moral philosopher".

Informed by such criticisms and questions, I recommend further reading of Isaiah Berlin himself.
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