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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Fox who aims to be a Hedgehog., 18 Mar. 2005
This review is from: Isaiah Berlin: A Life (Paperback)
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.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 14 Jul 2009, 19:46:14 BST
S Wood says:
"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. " - how did this fit in with his professed Zionism? I understand Berlin was close enough to the Zionists when in America to hand over British secrets to them, not to mention his activities around the edge of the CIA funded Congress for Cultural Freedom. I smell a little whiff of hypocracy when considering what Berlin did as opposed to what he wrote. One doubts the pompous Ignatief is the one to deal with those issues.

In reply to an earlier post on 15 Jul 2009, 22:33:28 BST
Berlin knew that nationalist values collide and that, as in all the other clashes of values which he recognized, there has to be a pragmatic "trade-off" which, like all other trade-offs, means a genuine sacrifice of desirable ends. Jewish nationalism, he said, was the chosen identification of many Jews but had also been imposed by persecution on many Jews who would not otherwise have espoused Jewish nationalism. So he thought they had a right to nationhood; and his most active involvement with Zionism was during and in the most immediate aftermath of the Nazi period. But he thought the Palestinians likewise had such a right, and this, he thought, required the painful trade-off referred to above. Three weeks before he died he dictated a letter urging the creation of a separate Palestinian state. This would certainly be painful for the Israelis, and also for those Palestinians who would not recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state.

In reply to an earlier post on 15 Jul 2009, 23:46:06 BST
Last edited by the author on 16 Jul 2009, 00:25:44 BST
S Wood says:
It was a hell of trade off for the Palestinian Arabs who paid a hell of a price for the barbarism of European anti-semitism. While it is interesting to learn that he believed the Palestinians should have a state it would have been a bit more courageous and edifying for Berlin to have spoken up for it a little earlier.
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