Isaiah Berlin & the history of ideas
Isaiah Berlin was born in Riga in the Russian Empire's baltic
territories on June 6th, 1909. His father was a successful timber
merchant and landowner and his maternal grandfather was a Hasidic
rabbi of the ecstatic Lubavitch tradition. In these early years
Isaiah Berlin was actually known as Shaya Berlin.
In 1915 Berlin's family moved to St. Petersburg where, some
months later, he was an eyewitness to the Russian
Social-Democratic revolution (March 1917) and the Bolshevik
revolution (October 1917) events which, in his own opinion,
changed him for life.
In 1920 the Berlin family moved back to Riga, now the capital
of an independent Latvia, and then emigrated to London, where
they had business interests.
As a boy Berlin had had some Jewish religious education, this
was continued in London, where he had his bar mitzvah. It appears
that his Jewish background proved to be an obstacle to his being
accepted as a pupil at Westminster School with the result that
his family sought his being educated at St. Paul's.
At St. Paul's Berlin proved to be only a fair student and, on
that basis was denied admission to Balliol College, Oxford, but
managed to gain a scholarship to Corpus Christi. At the end of a
course in humane letters Berlin was awarded a "bad" first but he
then took another course, in philosophy, in which he was awarded
a "better" first.
At this stage of his life Berlin had no definite thoughts as
to a career. He attended an unsuccessful interview for a
journalistic position with the Manchester Guardian, he declined
his father's invitation to join him in the family business as he
felt he could not belong in that world, he also considered law
until this continued indecision was eventually interrupted by an
offer of a teaching post in philosophy at Oxford
Berlin became a lecturer in philosophy at New College in 1932
and was appointed a Fellow of All Souls College at a remarkably
young age. He was also the first Jew to hold such a fellowship.
Some of the leading analytic philosophers of the day including
J.L. Austin, A.J. Ayer, Stuart Hampshire, Donald MacKinnon, and
Donald Macnabb often attended meetings held in Berlin's rooms at
All Souls College.
The outbreak of the Second World War led to Berlin being
redeployed and sent to New York, where he worked for the British
Information Service, and then to Washington, where his assignment
was to report on the direction of opinions and moods in
After the war Berlin was seconded briefly to the British
Embassy in Moscow where he was given a role in preparing
commentary on the output of the Russian press. It was his first
visit to Russia since his family had left for Riga in 1920.
Berlin was advised by British diplomats that he would find
extreme difficulty in speaking with anyone other than the
officials assigned to him by the communist regime which had a
tradition of attempting to discourage meetings between Soviet
citizens and foreigners. It transpired that he was able to
independently meet a number of Russian artists and writers, and
he wrote that "it was like speaking to the victims of a shipwreck
on a desert island, cut off for decades from civilization."
Berlin later wrote an article about his meetings with Russian
writers in which he expressed a sympathetic regret for the
conditions under which they were obliged to live due to the
restrictions imposed by the Soviet regime on most forms of
Berlin spent the years from 1947 to 1958 as a writer and
lecturer in Oxford and London, and also in the United States at
Washington, and at the universities as Harvard, Princeton, Bryn
Mawr, and Chicago.
In the 1950s, Berlin fell in love with Aline de Gunzbourg, a
Frenchwoman who was the descendant of a noble Russian family and whom
he married in 1956.
Berlin was so beguiling a conversationalist that when Prime
Minister Harold MacMillan nominated him in 1957 for the queen's
list he noted that the knighthood should be bestowed "for
From 1957 to 1967, Sir Isaiah held the prestigious Chichele
Chair in Social and Political Theory. As the first president of
Wolfson College from 1966 to 1975, he was instrumental in
attracting a strong faculty to a new school at Oxford.
His best-known essay in the United States, "The Hedgehog and
the Fox," a 1953 study of Tolstoy's view of history as embodied
in "War and Peace." is regarded as a classic of political inquiry
and literary criticism. In this essay, which became part of a
great body of work by Sir Isaiah on Russian thinkers of the 19th
century, he drew a distinction between two human types: those,
like the fox, who pursue many ends, often unrelated, even
contradictory, and those, like the hedgehog, who relate
everything to a single universal organizing principle.
Sir Isaiah's 1959 essay, "Two Concepts of Liberty," is
considered a major contribution to political theory. In it, he
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. He argued that both kinds of liberty
were required for a just society.
Much of Berlin's writing might have been left lying in the
basement of Headington House, his elegant Queen Anne residence in
Oxford, had an enterprising young graduate student not come along
to gather it together. Sir Isaiah's lectures were often not
published and his essays were scattered in so many magazines and
journals that his body of work was inaccessible to most people.
Henry Hardy, the graduate student, set out to collect it in four
volumes that became five: "Russian Thinkers"( 1978); "Concepts
and Categories" (1978); "Against the Current" (1979); "Personal
Impressions" (1980) and "The Crooked Timber of History,"
In addition, Sir Isaiah was the author of five other books:
"Karl Marx," (1939); "The Age of Enlightenment" (1956), "Four
Essays on Liberty " (1969); "Vico and Herder"( 1976); and "The
Magus of the North: J.G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern
Until the publication of the Hardy collections, Sir Isaiah had
been known as a man who talked much but wrote little and had, in
fact, been taken to task for not producing a major opus.
Sir Isaiah had begun to move away from analytic philosophy
towards the history of ideas at the time of his return to
academic life in Oxford after the Second World War. After his
involvements with the earth shattering events of the war years
analytic philosophy seemed to be a little disconnected from
history and from the human lives lived in historical contexts. An
initial opening of Berlin's interest to the whole area of the
history of ideas, and of their influence, arising through his
becoming familiar with the work of the Russian philosopher and
revolutionary Alexander Herzen.
Herzen's writings about the history of social and political
ideas made a tremendous impression on Isaiah Berlin and he
increasingly involved himself in far-reaching related
Sir Noel Annan, who wrote the introduction to Sir Isaiah's
1980 book, "Personal Impressions," observed:-
"Nobody in our time
has invested ideas with such personality, given them a corporeal
shape and breathed life into them more than Isaiah Berlin; and he
succeeds in doing so because ideas for him are not mere
abstractions. They live ... in the minds of men and women,
inspiring them, shaping their lives, influencing their actions
and changing the course of history."
Sir Isaiah came to believe in the overriding importance of
ideas. "When ideas are neglected by those who ought to attend to
them -- that is to say, those who have been trained to think
critically about ideas -- they often acquire an unchecked
momentum and an irresistible power over multitudes of men that
may grow too violent to be affected by rational criticism," he
wrote in "Two Concepts of Liberty." He added:-
"Over a hundred
years ago, the German poet Heine warned the French not to
underestimate the power of ideas: philosophical concepts nurtured
in the stillness of a professor's study could destroy a
civilization. ... If professors can truly wield this fatal power,
may it not be that only other professors, or, at least, other
thinkers (and not governments or congressional committees) can
alone disarm them? Our philosophers seem oddly unaware of these
devastating effects of their activities."
A staunch advocate of pluralism in a century in which
totalitarians and utopians claimed title to the one, single
truth, Sir Isaiah considered the very notion that there could be
one final answer to organizing human society a dangerous illusion
that would lead to nothing but bloodshed, coercion, and
deprivation of liberty.
The theme that runs throughout his work is his concern with
liberty and the dignity of human beings, and he sought to
emphasize that at all times, difficult, even tragic, tradeoffs
had to be made. It was his view that man must forever choose
among incommensurable and often incompatible values, that
equality, for example, must at times be sacrificed to
Sir Isaiah did however believe that the "great man" can bring
about significant historical change. He was also a critic of the
concept of 'historical inevitability' and of a 'determinist
interpretation of human affairs' :-
"Principally it seems to me to spring from a desire
to resign from our responsibility, to cease from judging provided
we be not judged ourselves and, above all, are not compelled to
judge ourselves; from a desire to flee for refuge to some vast
amoral, impersonal, monolthic whole, nature or history, or class,
or race, or 'harsh realities of our time,' or 'the irresistible
evolution of the social structure' ..."
As an exponent of the history of ideas Sir Isaiah was awarded
the Erasmus, Lippincott and Agnelli prizes and was also awarded
the Order of Merit, Britain's highest honour for intellectual
Sir Isaiah was interested in the arts and was at various times
Chairman of the Trustees of the National Gallery, a Trustee of
the British Museum and a Director of the Royal Opera House,
He was also a supporter of Zionism holding that Jews living as
religious minorities in many states often effectively lived on a
basis of compromise where they were tolerated, to varying
degrees, rather than fully accepted as integral to the life of
the state. Outside a Jewish state citizens who were Jewish by
faith were thus usually denied a full living of their lives "in
the light of day."
Sir Isaiah Berlin, philosopher and noted exponent of the
history of ideas, revered for his intellect and cherished for his
wit and his gift for friendship, died on Wednesday night,
November 12th, 1997, of a heart attack in Oxford, England. He was
Since Sir Isaiah's death his literary trustees have continued
to make available books that are assembled from the many essays,
lectures, and articles that are attributable to him. Two of these
being 'Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty'
and 'Liberty' this last being an expansion upon Sir Isaiah's
"Four Essays on Liberty."
Popular European History pages
The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy
of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is
illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by
nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest,
the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every
faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in
appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact;
all the facts of history pre-exist in the mind as laws. Each law
in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of
nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole
encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in
one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie
folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp,
kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application
of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.