Twentieth Century philosophers in England fall into two groups. The bigger is the one whose members engage in analyzing the meanings of words and the ways that we use them. While this is undoubtedly an important enterprise, it is often rather arid and does not touch on what is really significant to most people. These philosophers tend to teach us cleverness.
The other, rather smaller group, to which Isaiah Berlin belonged (after having started as a member of the first group), addresses itself chiefly to human concerns, to how we ought to live. I maintain that men like him teach us wisdom.
Isaiah Berlin certainly did not live in an ivory tower; and in Michael Ignatieff's immensely attractive biography we can follow his engagement in the great world. Like many other academics, he worked in government during the Second World War: at the Ministry of Information in New York and then at the British Embassy in Washington and (very briefly just after the war) at the Moscow Embassy. As a committed Zionist, he played a minor but not unimportant role, acting as an intermediary between his friend Chaim Weizmann and American politicians during the period when American attitudes towards the aspiration for an independent Israel were being shaped. Weizmann and Ben Gurion both asked him to move to Israel and play a part in shaping the nascent state; but Berlin declined. One reason for this was that he felt himself temperamentally unfitted for the intrigues, infighting and abrasiveness that such a role would involve.
Ignatieff shows repeatedly how, although Berlin had political commitments - particularly to Zionism and to anti-Communism - he shied away from being put into a confrontational position. He did not like making enemies; he liked to please; he was uncomfortably aware of his dual allegiance when working for a British government which was unsympathetic to Zionist aspirations. There seems to me no doubt that the philosophy which would develop in due course was a sublimation of his psychology. It should go without saying that this is not said in denigration of his philosophy: some of the greatest achievements in creativity have been driven by personal needs of this kind. One must judge the value of a philosophy by the quality of the end product, not by its psychological origins.
One of Berlin's essays is entitled The Hedgehog and the Fox. The fox, so an ancient Greek once said, knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing. Ignatieff argues that Berlin indeed knew many things but that he had been in search of the one big thing that would make sense not only of the tensions he felt within himself, but also of those which any open-minded person must feel when seeing that in so many important conflicts, whether in personal life, in the history of ideas, in politics, or in philosophical situations, there is so much to be said for each side. He found this one big thing in the notion of Pluralism.
Pluralism means that every individual and every society must accept that there is never one absolute value to which other values must be subordinated. There are many values in life which all command respect; but the most important of these - freedom, justice, equality, tolerance, compassion, loyalty - often must collide. Take, for example, Liberty and Equality. Both are rightly sought after; but equality can only be achieved by curtailing the liberty of action which, if granted, will result in some people pulling ahead of others. And even a single value, like equality, has tension built into it: do we look for equality of opportunity or equality of outcome? Again, if we want equality of opportunity, the result may be inequality of outcome; if we want to ensure equality of outcome, we cannot also have equality of opportunity. There are occasions when unavoidable collisions of values - of allegiance or of moral duty, for example - are the very stuff of tragedy.
Berlin was a liberal and believed in rational discussion; but he thought that no amount of rational discussion can resolve these conflicts of values; and for him it was certainly not a solution to give to any one value absolute priority over others which have as good a claim to be universal.
Berlin was as fascinated by those ideologies which he regarded as inhuman as he was by those he shared. He once said that he would never describe Nazism as mad. It did indeed rest on totally perverted axioms, but upon these axioms its theorists did erect an intellectual structure: how else could one explain that fascism was espoused not just by thugs, but by many academics at universities and by thinkers in other walks of life? Even more so was this the case with Marxism: he detested it, but he truly understood it from within. Ignatieff comments that "Berlin was the only liberal thinker of real consequence to take the trouble to enter the mental worlds of liberalism's sworn enemies." And although liberalism and nationalism, usually allies in the first half of the 19th century, parted company thereafter, Berlin was also one of those rare modern liberals who had respect for nationalism. The freedom to give expression to national identity was an important freedom, but of course it must not itself become oppressive of other people's national identity.
As the book's title suggests, this is a biography that focusses most strongly on the philosopher's life. An exposition of his ideas is skilfully woven into the narrative; but it is not until we are two-thirds of the way through the book, when Berlin had reached the age of 40, that we come upon the chapter headed "Late Awakening" - awakening, that is, to the ideas for which he became famous. But I cannot praise highly enough the loving and vivid portrait of Isaiah Berlin that Ignatieff has given us and the fascinating account of his private and public life.
Isaiah Berlin once commented that his various successes (he was elected to All Souls at the age of 23) "depended on a systematic over-estimation of his abilites". He had a trio of identies, Russian, English and Jewish, which along with natural social advantages and a sense of equinimity, provided the foundation for his traditional liberalism. In the Left-leaning academic atmosphere of the 1960s his stance was markedly different from many of his contemporaries.
A criticism of Oxford philosophers in the 1930s was that they talked too much and published too little. This was true of Berlin who became a member of a group of seven philosophers who were known as "The Brethren" and spent their time considering theories of "perception, personal identity and the possibility of knowing other minds." The group included A J Ayer who was entranced by logical positvism and J L Austin who defended no philosophical position of his own but took delight in demolishing those offered by others. These discussions taught Berlin his own limitations and those of logical positivism. "The more precise one's language became, the less it could actually say." By 1939 Berlin, who hated writing, had published one book about Karl Marx but nothing else. In 1946 he explained to a friend, "I know nothing. I have written nothing, I have not said what I wish to say. I no longer remember what it was I would wish to say." Berlin regarded himself as a mere essayist until he found his vocation in the history of ideas. He was appointed Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory in succession to G D H Cole despite his lack of publications and in his inaugeral lecture spoke of "Two Concepts of Liberty" which identified him as being in the liberal tradition.
Berlin stated that negative liberty (leaving individuals to do what they wanted provided their wants did not interfere with the liberty of others) was at the heart of the liberal political creed. Positive liberty was at the heart of empancipatory theories of politics which aimed "to use political power to free human beings to realise some hidden, blocked or repressed potential". It was, he argued, the central contradiction of the Enlightenment between men being free to choose and insisting that they should only be free to choose what it would be rational to desire. While the former recognised the existence of conflicting human values and the exchanges made to reconcile them in a pluralistic society, the latter tended towards totalitarianism. The Left misread Berlin as defending laissez faire individualism. However, Berlin recognised that freedom could only be enjoyed within some degree of social equality. Freedom was not the same as anarchy. Neither did it sit well with Marxism which he characterised as having an "almost exclusive emphasis on abstract socio-economic causation and neglected the importance of ideas, beliefs and intentions of individuals." He rejected the idea that social development required a choice between individualism and impersonal forces.
Berlin was an atheistic Jew who regularly observed Judaism's relgious rituals. He explained to the Chief Rabai that while he would like to believe he could find no evidence God existed. He was an ardent Zionist who detested the violence generated by Jewish terrorist groups. He rejected an invitation by Chaim Wizmann to become Weizmann's chief of staff. He realised that the Zionist project was Middle Eastern in character "creating a kind of Jew with whom he had nothing in common." Ignatieff points to the irony in "a life long Zionist discovering that he had no place in Zion." He continued to have an allegiance to Zionism but remained independent of the new state of Israel. He claimed Israel provided freedom for Jews who had been oppressed elsewhere but argued Jews did not need to live in Israel to be free. His commitment to Zionism was tempered by his dislike of Israeli policies and considered Israel too divisive for its own good or that of its near neighbours. Berlin was not a natural politician or given to public declarations of his opinion on political matters. He was not convinced his advice, when asked for and given, was ever listened to. He was convinced that the Jews of the Diaspora should not interfere in Israeli politics.
Berlin was at odds with the campaigns of the 1960s and attracted the hostility of both Left and Right by favouring neither. He threw his energies into founding Wolfson College which he wanted to provide acadmic excellence within an egalitarian framework, ideals which were realised. There is, of course, far more than can be touched on in a brief review. Berlin's uneasy relationships with women, including an affair with Aline Halban whom he eventually married. His work for the British during the Second World War and his friendship with Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak provide a taste of his rich and varied life. Ignatieff has written a splendid biography which captures that life and provides an overall perspective. It stands as a fitting tribute to Berlin. Easily worth five stars.
on 11 April 1999
Michael Ignatieff charts Berlins remarkable life from his early childhood witnessing the stirrings of Bolshevism in Riga and the full revolutons in Moscow. Subtly drawing out the man from the ideas, we learn of Berlins intellectual self doubt in the mainstream of the Oxford philosophes of the '30s, and how this led latterly to carving out his own agenda on the more sensitive soil of the history of ideas, refuting the rigid philosophical concepts and categories that for him failed to connect with human reality. Igantieff exposes superbly how difficult Berlin found it to relate to the opposite sex, however easy he found it getting in the minds of those 18th. century philosophers he was studying, but how he overcame his self doubt to find a happy and fulfilling marriage. Yet interestingly, we see that the major work he felt he needed to write always elluded him, and he never seems to have felt at ease with the essay format. Ignatieff brings out these characteristics that emphasis the sensitive and personable side to Berlin few intellectuals of his stature possessed - a superb work however we must now expect that Ignatieff provides a follow up work looking more carefully at the application of Berlin's value pluralism in the modern world and analysing its implications.