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The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas Paperback – 7 Nov 1991

4.5 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Fontana Press; New edition edition (7 Nov. 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0006862217
  • ISBN-13: 978-0006862215
  • Product Dimensions: 19.4 x 13 x 2.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,384,303 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"A beautifully patterned tapestry of philosophical thought.... A history of ideas that possesses all the drama of a novel, all the immediacy of headline news."--The New York Times

"The perfect guide through the complex radical changes that have swept Western societies.... A brilliant, convincing work ... humane, compassionate, important."--San Francisco Chronicle

"Overwhelming intelligence ... [Berlin's] mind is captivating.... His reflections ... strike at the heart of our most parroted beliefs."--Washington Post Book World

"As a historian of ideas, [Berlin] has no equal; and what he has to say is expressed in prose of exceptional lucidity and grace."--Anthony Storr, Independent on Sunday

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Book Description

'Berlin's supreme gift is his capacity to enter the minds of the thinkers who have ushered in the great sea changes of the Western mind. His is a notable achievement, and this book sustains it' Raymond Carr, Spectator --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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As description. Was a present to a colleague and they loved it.
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Brilliant service! 10/10
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By A Customer on 5 Jun. 2005
Format: Paperback
My human rights professor recommended this book, and she was absolutely right. It is that kind of a book that makes you change your way of thinking about things, whether you agree with the Berlin or not. It shows you how some people are gifter, or do enough effort to see what is beyond the obvious. I have spent some time reading and repeating few chapters in the book. It talks about Utupias in such a way that makes one rethink the immediate astonishment by their concept and see how even what is designed to be perfect has its many imperfections. It also discusses several other things like utalitarianism and other human behaviours.
I must say that it is not the easiest reading on earth, it gave me a hard time understanding the complex meanings behind deep ideas and complicated language.
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An excellent and understable book for all which are no professional philosophers or historicians but want to know. Doing easy the difficult is the most of the merit. Perhaps as with another books, some author's opinions and over all, sigths about the future are discusable, but I think is very good and rare to find such an intellectual authority.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.1 out of 5 stars 10 reviews
35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars To understand the 20th century, read this book. 7 Aug. 2002
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Paperback
The late Isaiah Berlin was one of the foremost liberal thinkers of the 20th century, a man and scholar who developed and promoted some of the most powerful arguments for individual liberty and liberal societies while, at the same time, wrote some of the most powerful essays in the history of ideas, particularly with respect to Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, political philosophers, and ideologues of various persuasions. Some of his essays have become legendary: the essays on liberty, on Karl Marx and Disraeli, on Tolstoy. He left behind a significant body of work, most of which has been edited by Henry Hardy (if you read all of his essays, you will find they overlap quite a bit, but that is the product of an engaging thinker who preferred conversation to writing). "The Crooked Timber of Humanity" is among his finest collection of essays.
If there is any theme to this anthology, it is that human societies are like "crooked timbers"; trying to bend them is unnatural and only results in disastrous consequences. The attempts to bend them--essentially experiments in social engineering--marked the 20th century, from Lenin's Russia to Hitler's Germany to Pol Pot's Cambodia. These experiments had deep roots in modern political thinking, extending back into the nineteenth century. They manifested themselves in illiberal, totalitarian regimes in the 20th century and took an untold number of lives.
But "The Crooked Timber of Humanity" is not a study in history, although it comes from the mind of a man who lived across the span of the century he was writing about. It is a history of ideas and, in particular, of the belief that the interests, motivations, and goals of people can be, and are, the same at all times and in all places. This type of philosophical monism holds to a single vision of how societies ought to be arranged; is characterized by an idealism and utopianism that are to be attained at all costs; and is found in a number of modern ideologies such as fascism and nationalism. Berlin's essays cover idealism, utopianism, Vico, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the views of de Maistre, all of which held to some form of singular, monistic political thinking.
Berlin's answer is reasonable and humane, a pluralstic point of view that holds that human desires and ends are varied, that utopianism in its many forms (Communism and fascism, to cite two) is conceptually incoherenet and unnatural to the experience of being human, and that human experience is multi-dimensional and constantly changing.
This collection of essays exhibit Berlin's pronounced clarity of thought (one of his wonderful trademarks) and illustrative prose (with all those rolling sentences). Berlin once said in an interview that, given his experience of the 20th century, all we should and can expect is a "minimally decent society," one that is free and liberal and open enough to allow human beings to realize their own ends, whatever imperfections such a society might have. The world since the Enlightenment, and in particular the world of the 20th century, has taught that anything else tends to lead to forceful and violent attempts to fashion society according to a specific ideal; as Berlin puts it in this book, to make such an omelette, many eggs have to be broken. He promotes a political philosophy at odds with this type of thinking and, in so doing, has become one of the great voices of liberty.
Of course, as incisive as Berlin was, he was not without controversy; his essay on de Maistre was not well received when it was first written, and, since his death, he has been lauded with every praise that can be heaped on a thinker. Whether or not he deserves all of that praise is a completely separate issue. "The Crooked Timber of Humanity" is a fine collection of essays on political philosophy and a fine sampling of Berlin's way of thinking.
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Man Who Read Too Much 3 Mar. 2000
By Tim Stuhldreher - Published on
Format: Paperback
Martin Gardner has an excellent review of this book in his collection of essays, _The Night is Large_, and I can add little to what he says.
The opening essay is a short, partly autobiographical account of how Berlin came to embrace his distinctive pluralism. It provides the clearest, most concise explanation I have seen to date of why Marxism and its ilk are wrong. His essay on de Maistre is longer than its subject deserves, but not uninteresting.
All of Berlin's essays display his encyclopedic knowledge and shrewd judgment. It is said that he was one of the fastest talkers on record; he writes with equal volubility, packing into each sentence a book's worth of history and theory. These essays are not for the neophyte or the casual reader -- the forthcoming _Power of Ideas_ (March 2000) promises to be more accessible -- nevertheless, they are virtuoso examples of the much praised but little practiced art of sympathetic critical interpretation.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed; 3.5 Stars 25 May 2008
By R. Albin - Published on
Format: Paperback
An interesting collection of Isaiah Berlin essays. The best of them, on the Catholic arch-reactionary Joseph de Maistre, exhibit Berlin's best qualities. The de Maistre essay is a very informative exploration of an important figure largely unknown to most readers, delivered with Berlin's lucid prose, and demonstrating how this apparently obscure thinker is relevant to our times. This essay also displays one of Berlin's weaknesses. The title is Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism, but Berlin never really demonstrates a connection between de Maistre and the great fascist movements in Germany and Italy. Berlin excelled as an explorer of interesting intellectual history and expositor of important themes like the importance of pluralism, but was neither a systematic philosopher nor definitive scholar.
Some of the other essays in this book are quite good, I particularly like European Unity and its Vissicitudes, and the quality of writing is superb. Most of these essays overlap considerably in theme and content, and reading them is somewhat repetitive.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Complexity of humanity 19 Feb. 2012
By Professor Joseph L. McCauley - Published on
Format: Paperback
I read this book ca. 1990 when it was recommended by a historian friend. I thought I'd reviewed it earlier but apparently didn't. What stuck with me was Berlin's discussion of what we see as 'problems'. The next step to identifying a problem is to look for a solution. Berlin considers that there may be 'problems', situations we identify as problems, that have no solution. I'm going to re-read the book. That's my recommendation to the reader. I was motivated to think of Berlin again after seeing parts 1 and 2 of Stoppard's 'Coast of Utopia' about Russian idealists of the mid 19th century. That play is worth seeing if you have the chance. Berlin is quoted in the play description, he wrote about the Russian idealists and idealism of that era and also about Marx. That era produced failed revolution and then stronger counter-reaction from the right. Germany got the iron fist of Bismarck, e.g. The Egyptian Spring of our era got the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood. The play made me think again of a conundrum: why does left idealism tend to come out of the privileged (including educated) classes, and why do the suppressed or relatively underducated classes tend to be so reactionary? Privileged people grow up in a safety net, they feel safe taking risks. They come from a class that holds power and can imagine creating change, they can imagine 'solving problems' Those from the weaker classes have never experienced power in their own hands, or the hands of their families, and can little imagine the power to create change. They are more realistic in believing that nothing is likely to be changed in their favor, and worry about losing what little they have. I.e., they are risk averse, they can more easily fear losing everything. John Berger also wrote about this. The idea that the future can be crafted as an engineer can craft a useful machine is flawed. The social machine is too complex to have predictable behavior. What you think you are shaping is not what you will get as a result. The other thing that I think that Berlin wrote, or was it Berger (?), is that when people start rising from the 'lower classes' (academically, in other ways) then we are already in a revolutionary situation.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars On the Turn of Tide from Enlightenment to Romantic Values. 29 April 2010
By Kevin Currie-Knight - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
All of the essays in this book tackle the theme of marking the ideological shift from Enlightenment Utopian values to Romantic Pluralistic ones. Essays like "The Pursuit of the Ideal" and "Revolt against the Myth of an Ideal World" focus on the gradual shift from faith in Reason's ability to bring humankind to perfection toward a view that sees reason and values as culturally embedded and very human. "Giambattista Vico and Cultural History," "The Bent Twig: On the Rise of Nationalism," and "Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism" discuss the shift from the idea of a common human nature knowable by Reason to a more Nationalistic view, where nations and people's are more different and clashing than similar and harmonious. Through it all, Berlin exposes us to many thinkers representing both the Enlightenment and the Romanticism it spawned.

To me, the book can be summed up by paraphrasing Berlin: we have been living in a world equidistant between the Enlightenment's glorification of Reason and Romanticism's glorification of the Will. On one hand, cultural relativism (any kind of relativism, really) is still a dirty word to many and, as John Gray never tires of pointing out, academe never fails to think up new context-neutral justifications for liberalism as the best way of life. On the other hand, our view of the arts - glorifying the lone, passionate, artist - is profoundly influenced by Romantic ideals and...well...folks like Gray also gain solid academic hearings.

So, this book is about the push and pull between these two ideas of Enlightenment and Romanticism, and how too much of the one leads to tyranny but each keeping the other in check leads to a balance (not by resolving, but prolonging, the tension). We also hear some good defenses of value pluralism and especially the idea that there exists no cogent reason to suppose that ultimate values CANNOT conflict and be equally valuable. Why assume, as the Enlightenment faithful had, that adhering to one value (liberty, romantic love) does not entail a loss of another (security, independence). We are, after all, human in a human thoughtworld where I have different interests, likes, predilections, etc, than you. Why suppose that this lends itself to a world where values will not ultimately conflict?

Two qualms: first, stylistically, the book is repetitive. We hear about the 'three supposed truths' (that there is an objective thing called Truth, that reason can access it, and that Truths do not conflict) in three different essays and several times one catches Berlin repeating phrases from previous essays.

Second, Berlin's differentiation between value pluralism and relativism ("Alleged Relativism in Eighteenth-Century European Thought") is not satisfactory. Berlin tells us that relativism is the idea that values and value-systems are person/culture-relative, and that pluralism is the idea that values may be objective but conflicting. The problem is that when he admits that a key aspect of pluralism is the idea that there is no objective, true-for-all way to order human values, that makes the value systems...relative. Berlin also suggests that pluralism is not 'anything goes' as relativism is, because it recognizes that certain values are 'beyond the pale' in the sense that (sane) humans could not subscribe to them. But who makes that call, and isn't it a bit circular? After all, can't I easily dismiss your values as beyond the pale by calling you "insane" and defining "insane" as "anyone who subscribes to values that are, to me, "beyond the pale"? And who is the final authority in an argument between you and I over whether your values are "beyond the pale"? Clearly, you will say they are not, and I will say they are. Appealing to 'human nature' does not help the matter, as Berlin thinks it does, because there is simply no prototype for what 'human' is other than one made of averages.

Anyhow, I give this book four stars because, disagreements aside, Berlin is a great writer with insight, sympathy, and great descriptive power. Anyone wanting to understand the interplay between Enlightenment and Romantic ideals should not miss this.
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