Isaiah Berlin

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Berlin, Isaiah [Sir] (6 June 1909 - 5 November 1997)

Berlin, a major philosopher and historian of ideas at Oxford University in England, shared with Plato the distinction of having been an intellectual who never wrote a major book.

Early Years

Born in Riga, Latvia, he was the son of a timber merchant and landowner. His grandfather on his mother’s side was a Hasidic rabbi of the Lubavitch tradition. His family moved to St. Petersburg, witnessing two Russian revolutions in 1917, then immigrated in 1921 to London, where it had business interests.

As a boy, Shaya (as he was known then) had some religious education but found the Talmud a “very, very boring book,” adding, “I could never figure out why I should care why the bull gored the cow.” He continued his religious education in London, where as a youth he had his bar mitzvah. “I never had it in me to do a great masterpiece on some big subject,” he said. But he wrote on a variety of subjects.


He translated Turgenev and wrote Karl Marx (1939), Historical Inevitability (1954), The Age of Enlightenment (1956), Four Essays on Literature (1969), and The Crooked Timber of Humanity (1990). The latter work’s title comes from Kant’s “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” What this meant to Berlin was that mankind must be wary of dogmatism, of utopianism, or of any system of thinking which pursues the ideal. Berlin argued not for utopianism but for pluralism, for the notion

  • that there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational, fully men, capable of understanding each other and sympathizing and deriving light from each other, as we derive it from reading Plato or the novels of medieval Japan - worlds, outlooks, very remote from your own.

His 1959 essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” made a distinction between negative liberty (that which the individual must be allowed to enjoy without state interference) and positive liberty (that which the state permits by imposing regulations that, by necessity, limit some freedoms in the name of greater liberty for all.

In it he wrote,

  • One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altar of the great historical ideas - justice or progress or happiness of future generations. . . or emancipation of a nation or race or class. . .this is the belief that somewhere. . .there is a final solution.

He argued, Marilyn Berger noted in The New York Times (7 November 1997), that both kinds of liberty were required for a just society.

Hedgehogs and Foxes

Berlin once made a distinction between two types of mind: the hedgehog, which knows one big thing; and the fox, which knows lots of little ones. Thinkers who fixate on one big idea - Plato, Dante, Pascal, Proust, Dostoevsky, Marx, Hegel, or for that matter someone who would investigate a subject such as humanism for decades - are hedgehogs.

However, those who have many little ideas, such as Aristotle, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce, and Turgenev are foxes. Tolstoy, he felt, was a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog.

Most of Berlin’s friends, wrote Michael Ignatieff (The New Yorker, 28 September 1998), saw him as an arch-fox - quick-witted, darting from subject to subject, eluding pursuit. Yet he also longed to be a hedgehog—to know one thing, to feel one thing more truly than anyone else. He had reached what he recognized was a critical stage: either he would go on to develop a serious intellectual engagement of his own or he would decline into being what he feared most - a “chatterbox.”


With Hegel, he held that “freedom consists in being at home.” Everyone, he concluded, needed to belong to a group. He was convinced, as was German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, of man’s basic need to be part of a particular human community with its own traditions, language, art, and imagination to shape his emotional and physical development.

However, he noted, “I have no idea how one stops one group, one race, from hating another. The hatred between human groups has never been cured, except by time.” In the 18th Century, he noted, one could believe that nations could live peacefully side by side. “Perhaps in the 18th century you could believe that,” he added, noting that the excesses of nationalism made such a view unrealistic.

Marilyn Berger, commenting about Berlin at the time of his death, said Berlin had been known for his view that the utopian notion of one big answer that is knowable and self-contained must always be fallacious because it does not take into account the cultural pluralism and conflicting values that are part of humanity’s “crooked timber.” Kant had written that “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” a view which inspired the title of Berlin’s 1990 work, The Crooked Timber of Humanity. The 1997 publication of his Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History underlined his deserved reputation for being a great essayist, conversationalist (Robert Darnton has compared him with Diderot), and rhetorician. The seventh and last volume in a series of his essays, the work rejected the common belief that utopians are simply rebels against social laws and historical development but, rather, are people who think they have discovered those very laws whereas none such actually exist. In the 19th century, he noted, thinkers

  • believed that human society grew in a discoverable direction, governed by laws; that the borderline which divided science from utopia . . . was discoverable by reason and observation and could be plotted less or more precisely; that, in short, there was a clock, its movement followed discoverable rules and it could not be put back.

However, the utopians’ faith that science can plot society’s future has led to still further problems, he asserts. By placing their faith in the laws of social and historical development, utopians “place excessive faith in laws and methods derived from alien fields, mostly from the natural sciences.” This, he cites, is evidence of a lack of the sense of reality. Critics generally hailed the octogenarian’s work as evidencing his ability to make philosophy come alive. Berlin was a fervent Zionist, “not because the Lord offered us the Holy Land as some people, religious Jews, believe,” he said, adding,

  • My reason for being a Zionist has nothing to do with preserving Jewish culture, Jewish values, wonderful things done by Jews. But the price is too high, the martyrdom too long. And if I were asked, “Do you want to preserve this culture at all costs?” I’m not sure that I would say yes, because you can’t condemn people to permanent persecution. Of course assimilation might be a quite good thing, but it doesn’t work. Never has worked, never will. There isn’t a Jew in the world known to me who somewhere inside him does not have a tiny drop of uneasiness vis-à-vis them, the majority among whom they live. They may be very friendly, they may be entirely happy, but one has to behave particularly well, because if they don’t behave well they won’t like us.


A serious opera buff and a sought-after conversationalist, he was a friend of Freud, Nehru, Stravinsky, Boris Pasternak, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Chaim Weizmann, Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, and Felix Frankfurter.

Ignatieff has detailed Berlin’s affection for a famous beauty, Akhmatova, who was twenty years older than he and twice married. When Patricia Douglas, a married woman with children, came to take care of him on an occasion when he was suffering from a bad cold, he surprised her in a raw display of feeling by pulling her into bed with him.

Also, he loved Aline Halban, who was married at the time to an Oxford colleague, and also with children. When she left her husband, she and Berlin were married in 1956 at Hampstead Synagogue, a sign that he may have been closer to Judaism than some of his contemporaries suspected.

The Last Essay

The posthumous publication of his last essay, “My Intellectual Path” (The New York Review of Books, 14 May 1998), discussed Oxford philosophy before the Second World War. He told of his first interest in philosophy and in the work of G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell when an undergraduate at Oxford in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The “fashionable view” of verificationism

  • was that the meaning of a proposition was the way in which it was verifiable—that if there was no way whatever of verifying what was being said, it was not a statement capable of truth or falsehood, not factual, and therefore either meaningless or a case of some other use of language, as seen in commands or expressions of desire, of in imaginative literature, or in other forms of expression which did not lay claim to empirical truth.

He never became “a true disciple,” however, always believing

  • that statements that could be true or false or plausible or dubious or interesting, while indeed they did relate to the world as empirically conceived (and I have never conceived of the world in any other way, from then to the present day), were nevertheless not necessarily capable of being verified by some simple knockdown criterion, as the Vienna School and their logical positivist followers asserted. From the beginning I felt that general propositions were not verifiable in that way. Statements whether in ordinary use or in the natural sciences (which were the ideal of the Vienna School), could be perfectly meaningful without being strictly verifiable. If I said “All swans are white,” I would never know if I knew this about all the swans there were, or whether the number of swans might not be infinite; a black swan no doubt refuted this generalization, but its positive verification in the full sense seemed to me unattainable; nevertheless it would be absurd to say that it had no meaning.

His last essay also discusses monism (about which he always felt skeptical); Giambattista Vico (the first philosopher, a Catholic, to have conceived the idea of cultures); J. G. Herder (the father of cultural nationalism (whom he found not to be a relativist and who held that mankind “was not one but many”); romanticism (although Marx and others held that perfection is a goal, “I reject this huge metaphysical interpretation of human life in toto - I remain an empiricist, and know only what I am able to experience, or think I could experience, and do not begin to believe in supra-individual entities - nevertheless I own that it made some impact on me.”); pluralism (“I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments,” a view he held is not relativistic.); freedom; determinism ; and the pursuit of the ideal. The essay concludes,

To go back to the Encyclopedists and the Marxists and all the other movements the purpose of which is the perfect life: it seems as if the doctrine that all kinds of monstrous cruelties must be permitted, because without these the ideal state of affairs cannot be attained - all the justifications of broken eggs for the sake of the ultimate omelette, all the brutalities, sacrifices, brainwashing, all those revolutions, everything that has made this century perhaps the most appalling of any since the days of old, at any rate in the West - all this is for nothing, for the perfect universe is not merely unattainable but inconceivable, and everything done to bring it about is founded on an enormous intellectual fallacy.

The essay takes on added significance because Berlin had written his views at the request of Ouyang Kang, professor of philosophy at Wuhan University in China, in order that they could be translated and included in a volume about contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, which hitherto had been largely unavailable in China.

Roots of Romanticism

A posthumous work, The Roots of Romanticism (1999), suggests that because they could not compete with the French in social, political, and philosophical matters, the Germans developed the Romantic movement, “the greatest transformation of Western consciousness, certainly in our time.” To illustrate, he described the thinking of Fichte, Goethe, Hamann, Herder, and Schiller.

Last Years

Berlin was President of the British Academy from 1974 to 1978. He became a Humanist Laureate in the Council of Secular Humanism’s International Academy of Humanism.

“I don’t mind death,” he said of his own death. “I’m not afraid of it. I’m afraid of dying for it could be painful. But I find death a nuisance. I object to it. I’d rather it didn’t happen. . . . I’m terribly curious. I’d like to live forever.”

(An astute commentary about Berlin was written by Alan Ryan in The New York Review of Books, 17 December 1998)

{CE; The Economist, 27 September 1997; FUS; Robert Darnton, The New York Review of Books, 26 June 1997; Marilyn Berger, The New York Times, 7 November 1997}