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The Proper Study Of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays [Paperback]

Isaiah Berlin
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

5 Mar 1998
Isaiah Berlin was one of the leading thinkers of the century, and one of the finest writers. The Proper Study Of Mankind selects some of the best of his essays. The full (and enormous) range of his work is represented here, from the exposition of his most distinctive doctrine - pluralism - to studies of Machiavelli, Tolstoy, Churchill and Roosevelt. In these pages he encapsulates the principal movements that characterise the modern age: romanticism, historicism, Fascism, relativism, irrationalism and nationalism. His ideas are always tied to the people who conceived them, so that abstractions are brought alive. His insights both illuminate the past and offer a key to the burning issues of the today.

Product details

  • Paperback: 704 pages
  • Publisher: Pimlico; New Ed edition (5 Mar 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0712673229
  • ISBN-13: 978-0712673228
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 23.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 479,756 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"He speaks with such infectious energy that he sweeps us up and carries us with him into territory that had seemed inaccessible. He becomes everyman's guide to everything exciting in the history of ideas" (New York Review of Books)

"A restatement of liberalism in a form by which the world could live" (Observer)

"His uniqueness can be very well sampled in this admirable selection... Large as it is, it can serve only to stimulate the appetite" (Evening Standard)

Book Description

The long-awaited Isaiah Berlin 'Reader' - an anthology of his best and most representative work, drawn from a lifetime's writing by this most distinguished philosopher and historian of ideas.

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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb collection of Berlin's Essays 18 Nov 2001
This collection of Berlin's essays contains some of his masterpieces. Unlike many philosophers his writings are always clear, accessible and written with great style. Amongst my favourites in this volume are his essay on Machiavelli,which illustrates his views on the incommensurability and incompatibility of sets of values, and Herder with his counter-enlightenment views on individual cultures which cannot be ranked against one another. In addition to the examination of the ideas of thinkers such as these there are essays on broader concepts and themes, including Berlin's famous essay on the two concepts of liberty, and various sketches of famous people in the twentieth century, such as Churchill, Roosevelt, Akhmatova and Pasternak. This book is one of the weightier tomes (seventeen essays) of Berlin's writing, but I think it gives the widest illustration of Berlin's range of thought and interest.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Philosophy for Everyman. Excellent. 22 July 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I bought this having read Berlin's "The Roots of Romanticism", which was the clearest and liveliest exposition of how the 18C romantic movement came into being that I have ever read. Berlin's style is new to me and, well - I am still wondering at just much clearer it is than other writers on the philosophy of ideas. It is true that there is sometimes a certain level of prolixity in the way Berlin explains his thoughts, but this does not work against his explanation, it simply helps to make his style all the more engaging, authentic and authoritative.

In this volume Henry Hardy, as in the "Roots of Romanticism", acts as editor to collate a series of the most popular of Berlin's past essays. You only have to read "The Hedgehog and the Fox" or "The Originality of Machiavelli" to discover just how successfully and entertainingly Berlin manages to explain what many other writers struggle to do. Berlin is clearly not only deeply knowledgeable but also passionate about his topic and you can feel just how much he wants to communicate his knowledge and ideas. These essays are almost "alive" in the sense of the man behind them breathing life into the words.

This book is very highly recommended reading for anyone who feels the need to know how we arrived at where we are today via the classical civilisations, through to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Romanticism and on to today.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wordy but so interesting. 14 Mar 2014
By Tilly
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is cleverly written and tackles huge subjects. Berlin is a great writer and you will definitely benefit from his wisdom. After two gap years before university this book is slowly grinding my brain into gear - it feels so good to be challenged and forced to think for once!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
64 of 70 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Renaissance for the Humanities 23 Jun 1999
By A Customer - Published on
"The Proper Study of Mankind" is an awe-inspiring anthology of seventeen essays in the Humanities by the erudite and engaging Isaiah Berlin. The title may seem a bit stilted for Berlin, who is no starched collar, and whose writing is crisp, crackling, and refreshingly free of pomp and pedantry. But long as one stops and thinks (something going out of fashion these days, but still very much in the spirit of Berlin)...that title does make sense. Of course! "The proper study of Mankind is Man." Not ideals. Not ideologies. But human beings as they really are--and what they actually do.
Berlin does not believe in final solutions to human questions. There is no definitive answer once and for all. Nor is there one way, the way, the only way to be, live, act, think, learn, work, write, express oneself, etc. Man is not singular. Man is plural. That is what makes humanity so facinating to "study." The mystery, the drama, the unpredictability of these intractable creatures baffle social scientists, human engineers, controlling personalities who--try as they may!--cannot quite track down, trap, take prisoner the wildly elusive chimera of "human nature."
Ah, but Shakespeare delights in this dazzling dance. And so does Berlin. He writes with riveting wonder at the butterfly flights of human beings, human minds, human wills, human histories. He traces errant clues left behind, on scattered pages, to defy the wind of time. Berlin is sensitive to these fragile fragments of thought, these traces, these rumblings of the human spirit. He is a great historian of ideas--one who listens with a keen sense of hearing for echoes and reverberations in the din of cacophony. He is a perceptive discerner of patterns in space, careers through time, and points of origin. He is original. He does not regurgitate his enormous reading. Rather, he chews, tastes, savors, spits out fat, sucks up marrow, and digests. Thus fortified by this huge feast of reading, Berlin writes something utterly new, all his own, from all that he has read.
The most stirring, most exciting, pages in this anthology are those of the finale (section V) of Berlin's essay on "The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will." When Berlin writes like this, you don't just see light, you feel fire! But then, turning to Berlin's penetrating essay on "The Origins of Machiavelli," the reader is captivated by an utterly different set of sensations: depth, moisture, deep caves, dank smells, dirt, digging in darkness, fearful, clutching one's dagger, probing, deeper--a Dante-esque spiralling down to the bowels of the earth--followed by a swift sudden plunge into the heart of this seminal genius, this Machiavelli, this spectre of the night whose short, simple, virus-like books continue to plague the west, century after century. This too is great reading!
Indeed, all of the essays in this anthology are good. It's just that some are better than others--depending on what you are looking for. The first six essays are predominantly conceptual. They distill the ideas. Thus, they have punch and potency. But they are somewhat dry and lacking in flavor. Reading them, the connoisseur sips pure alcohol. All the while, however, he or she longs for the exquisite taste of an excellent wine: full-bodied, fruity, robust, bursting with bouquet, and delightfully complex. That is to say: the vintage Berlin.
Abruptly after the first six essays, however, the corks pop, the writing flows, and taste buds bathe in champagne. Berlin is at his best--humane, historical, humorous--in the nine essays that follow: four on "The History of Ideas"; three on "Russian Writers"; and two on "Romanticism and Nationalism." The remaining essays, the last two, on "Twentieth-Century Figures" (Churchill and Roosevelt) round out the feast with a delicious dessert. After devouring this book, however, I keep coming back for seconds, thirds, fourths from my favorite essays--those on Romanticism, Nationalism, the Counter-Enlightenment, and, of course, Machiavelli.
Still, each essay in this anthology is ingenious in its own way: the approach, the point of view, the style of writing...everything curved, shaped, fitted--just so--to suit the subject. But there is no forced compartmentalization. Ideas from one essay spill over into another--and can be found swimming, quite freely, in a third. Those who demand strict obedience, straight lines, right angles, cleanliness, order, stability, sterility, etc., will be appalled. But those who despise totalitarianism will be overjoyed.
45 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars hedgehog and fox 23 Oct 2000
By Orrin C. Judd - Published on
The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing -Archilochus, 8th century BC
Never have the readers of the New York Times been more humbled and mystified than the November day in 1997 when the paper ran a front page obituary for the Latvian-born British philosopher Isaiah Berlin. You could hear the collective gasp and feel the pull of the intake of breath as thousands of folks who pride themselves on being "in the know" turned to one another and asked, across a table laid with grapefruit halves and bran cereal,, "Was I supposed to know who Isaiah Berlin was? I've never heard of him." The answer is that there was no real reason most of us would have heard of him, though we'd likely read a couple of his book reviews. He was after all a philosopher who never produced a magnum opus summarizing his worldview. His reputation really rested on a couple of amusing anecdotes, one oft-cited essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, and on his talents as a conversationalist, which would obviously only have been known to an elite few. Oddly enough, he has experienced a significant revival of interest since his death, but he is basically still just known for this essay.
If, like me, you finally forced yourself to read War and Peace and were simply mystified by several of the historic and battle scenes, this essay is a godsend. Though many critics, and would would assume almost all readers, have tended to just ignore these sections of the book, Berlin examines them in light of Tolstoy's philosophy of history and makes a compelling case that Tolstoy intended the action of these scenes to be confusing. As Berlin uses the fox and hedgehog analogy, a hedgehog is an author who has a unified vision which he follows in his writing ("...a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance...") , a fox has no central vision nor organizing principle; his writings are varied, even contradictory. Berlin argues that Tolstoy was a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog, that he longed for a central idea to organize around, but so distrusted the capacity of human reason to discern such an idea, that he ended up knocking down what he saw as faulty ideas, without ever settling on one of his own.
According to Berlin, in War and Peace, Tolstoy used the chaotic swirl of events to dispel a "great illusion" : "that individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events." Or as he puts it later, Tolstoy perceived a "central tragedy" of human life :
...if only men would learn how little the cleverest and most gifted among them can control, how little they can know of all the multitude of factors the orderly movement of which is the history of the world...
This idea is strikingly similar to the argument that F. A. Hayek made almost a century later in his great book The Road to Serfdom, though Hayek made it in opposition to centralized government planning. Tolstoy's earlier development of this theme makes him a pivotal figure in the critique of reason and a much more significant figure than I'd ever realized in the history of conservative thought.
I'd liked War and Peace more than I expected to when I first read it--despite not grasping what he was about in these sections of the book--and I'm quite anxious to reread it now in light of Berlin's really enlightening analysis. I've no idea how to judge the rest of Berlin's work or how he ranks as a philosopher, but you can't ask more of literary criticism than that it explain murky bits, that it engender or rekindle interest in an otherwise musty-seeming work, and that it take a potentially dated book and make us realize that it is still relevant. This essay succeeds on all those levels. In this instance at least, Isaiah Berlin warrants his hefty reputation.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Therapeutic philosophy 2 Oct 2008
By Ataraxia - Published on
I picked up a copy of this anthalogy of essays as I was browsing the bookstore. This was a time when I was wrestling with the absolutism of monistic philosphical systems, whether religious or secular(communism, nazism, capitalism, individualism, etc...)vs. the opposite view- nihilistic and perspectivist relativism, which seems to look at the shortcomings of the virtues of each of these systems, and so then tosses them all out the window, leaving us with nothing. I was not aware that there could be a third alternative. I started reading the first essay, "the pursuit of the ideal", and felt absolutely thunderstruck! How often have you felt that way after reading a philosophical essay? Another essay in the same vein is "Two Concepts of Liberty".

What Berlin is arguing in these essays is not that values do not exist, or that they are relative. It is more subtle: who said these values are all destined to converge together to form the perfectly virtuous man, as Aristotle seemed to think? Berlin uses the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle. The various virtues are like pieces of a puzzle, but who said this puzzle was a good one- that its pieces were designed to ultimately fit together, if only we were wise enough, learned enough, read enough, spiritual or religious enough, etc... And yet we seem to cling to this Platonic Ideal, this "ancient faith", as Berlin calls it, and sacrifice ourselves and our fellow man in trying to achieve a final solution to this puzzle. In this search for a final solution, no price seems to be too high to pay.

Can one be a perfect parent and be highly successful in their career? Can one be completely honest, peace-loving, and truthful (very laudable Christian virtues) and still be an effective leader of state (Who often needs the Machiavellian virtues of stealth, secrecy, and even heartless violence if needed)? Is one wrong in acknowledging the merits of capitalism, and yet wanting to have this tempered to some extent so that society offers a bit of a safety net to those who occasionally fall off?

Berlin's solution is to realize that these ultimate virtues do not necessarily always entail one another, and that life frequently forces us to choose between these. Of course we have the enlightenment ideals of judgement, rationality, knowledge,& intelligence to help guide us. But there is also room for the Romanticist ideals of taste, temperament, and passion. It offers the best reconcililation between these world views that I am aware of. Berlin himself seems to like the label liberal objective pluralism for this kind of thinking.I have read things that echo his thought in such thinkers as William James and John Dewey, but never so clearly and eloquently written.

Do you find that there is something terribly wrong in the relativistic nihilism of postmodern thought, as well as absolutist, fundamentalist, narrow-minded and simple-minded ideologies (both religious and secular) which seem to be a backlash to that kind of thinking? Well, here is a very therapeutic third option. To me, it offers sanity in an insane world. I, like some other reviewers here, find it surprising that Berlin's views are not more often discussed in academic philosphy, as well as in public discourse on issues of values and ethics.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't be put off by the review below 28 Feb 2006
By Alex - Published on
The review below is the work of someone who hates the English language. Bemoaning Isaiah Berlin his verbosity is akin to sitting courtside, complaining about Michael Jordan's long legs or the hairs on the hairy arms of Pete Sampras. Berlin's prose is verbose, fantastical, exhilarating, and breathtaking.

Said review below also, yet still more absurdly, claims Berlin to be a cultural relativist, an outrageous slander. Isaiah believed that human ends were constant and universal. He would often, in conversation, support this with an idea of Wittgenstein's, that if a lion could speak, we would not understand it. The point is that, unlike talking cats, we hear each other across contingents and cultures, centuries and civilisations. Less happily, the values we hold, Berlin also knew, while objective, even universal, are irreconcilable, conceptually incompatible, and live, contra Pythagoras, in eternal disharmony. Realising all our values at the same time would sound like something by Schoenberg. So we must make choices. And such choices, trade-offs that they are, involve loss. For Berlin, choice is constituted by loss, the meaning of tragedy, the original sin of free-will.

The book is a generous anthology of Isaiah's essays. While they're each published elsewhere, and while I would have made a different selection (I disagree with the inclusion of "Historical Inevitability", which is too long and needs some editing), this is a convenient format, perfect for taking on holidays and reading on the beach.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The best of the best 13 Dec 2004
By Shalom Freedman - Published on
In this volume Henry Hardy Isaiah Berlin's faithful pupil and editor brings together some of the best essays from the previous volumes of Berlin essays he supervised the publication of. There are essays on 'The Pursuit of the Ideal ' on ' Philosophical Foundations' on 'Freedom and Determinism' on 'Political Liberty and Pluralism' on 'The History of Ideas ' on 'Russian Writers '

on' Romanticism and Rationalism' and on ' Twentieth Century Figures'

The volume contains Berlin's most well- known essays including the essay on 'The Hedgehog and the Fox' the one on ' Machiavelli' and the one ' On Historical Determinism'.

This is a selection of the best writing of a person who is without question one a most significant modern political thinker and historian of ideas.

Berlin's love of ideas, his vast knowledge, his tremendous verbal energy and skill, his humane understanding of character, his original consideration of fundamental historical periods and processes are all at work here.

This is a volume which should be in the library of every person who wishes to think about history and politics seriously.
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