Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers - Berlin, Isaiah (1909–97)
The Dictionary of Twentieth-Century British Philosophers


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Berlin, Isaiah (1909–97)

Berlin, Isaiah (1909–97)
DOI: 10.5040/9781350052437-0031

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Isaiah Berlin was born in Riga, Latvia on 6 June 1909 and died in Oxford on 5 November 1997. His father, a successful Jewish timber merchant, moved the family to Britain following the Russian Revolution of 1917, which the young Berlin witnessed. Berlin was educated at St Paul’s School, London and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he read Greats and PPE. He was appointed a lecturer at New College, Oxford in 1932, and shortly afterwards was elected a prize fellow of All Souls. During and immediately after World War II he served in the British Information Services, New York, the British Embassy, Washington, DC, and, briefly, the British Embassy in Moscow, before returning to Oxford. He was appointed Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory there in 1957, and knighted the same year; he resigned his professorship in 1967, a year after becoming the founding President of Wolfson College, Oxford, a position which he held until 1975. He was awarded the Order of Merit in 1971, and served as President of the British Academy from 1974 to 1978.

Berlin published only one full-length book, an intellectual biography of Karl Marx, which has remained in print since its publication in 1939. His academic reputation rested heavily, at first, on several essays or lectures, initially published in pamphlet form: The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953, on Tolstoy’s philosophy of history), Historical Inevitability (1954) and Two Concepts of Liberty (1958), Berlin’s inaugural lecture at Oxford, which remains one of the most read and discussed works of political theory of the twentieth century. He also published numerous essays, on the philosophy of history, political theory, epistemology, ethics, Russian intellectual history and literature, and the history of ideas in Europe from the Renaissance to the twentieth century. These essays have, since 1978, been collected, edited and published by Berlin’s unstinting editor, Henry Hardy.

Berlin began his career as a professional philosopher at Oxford in the 1930s. His colleagues included J.L. Austin , whom he particularly admired, A.J. Ayer and his close and life-long friend Stuart Hampshire . It was at Berlin’s suggestion, and in his rooms at All Souls, that these and other young philosophers met and engaged in a regular series of philosophical discussions, based on the analysis of linguistic usage, and focusing on logical and epistemological questions. These discussions laid the foundations for what became known as ‘Oxford philosophy’, and played an important role in the development of Anglo-American analytic philosophy generally. After the war Berlin was instrumental in developing bonds between Oxford and American universities, thus further spreading Oxford philosophy, and also in recruiting other thinkers – such as his friend H.L.A. Hart – to the ranks of Oxford’s philosophers. However, by the time he returned to Oxford, Berlin had determined to give up philosophy as it was understood by his peers. Although he wrote several significant articles in analytic philosophy (republished in Concepts and Categories, 1978), he regarded himself as a second-rate philosopher; he also found his colleagues’ approach increasingly arid. He had from early on been interested in the history of ideas, in literature, in the philosophy of history, and in moral and political questions. During his war service he realized that he found these topics more engrossing than ‘pure’ philosophy as practised at Oxford; and from 1946 he turned increasingly to the history of ideas, and to political and ethical theory.

The works of Berlin’s middle years (roughly 1949–62) are concerned largely with the philosophy of history and the social sciences; the nature and limits of human understanding; the relationship between basic ethical ideas and politics, and particularly with those ideas about ethics, psychology and metaphysics that underlie liberalism on the one hand, and totalitarian ideologies on the other; and with charting the development of all of these ideas from the French Revolution to his own day. Thereafter, Berlin’s works focused primarily on the history of ideas, often using an examination of those he regarded as significant intellectual forebears to elaborate his ideas on the topics that he had explored earlier. Finally, late in his life (from roughly 1980 onwards) Berlin sought to consolidate his work as a whole, and in particular to clarify his doctrine of pluralism.

As a historian of ideas, Berlin’s importance lay primarily in drawing attention to a range of Western European and Russian thinkers who were previously seldom studied in Britain, such as Vico, Herder, Hamann, Fichte, de Maistre, Saint Simon, Moses Hess, Sorel, Belinsky, Herzen and Bakunin; and in exploring neglected dimensions of the works of Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Mill, Tolstoy and Turgenev. He also explored the philosophical significance of cultural and political movements, such as romanticism and socialism.

True to his own warnings against oversimplification and the dangers of systematic theories, Berlin’s thought was unsystematic, sometimes ambiguous and often ambivalent. He wrote essays rather than treatises; his approach was wide-ranging, sweeping, sometimes impressionistic. His most concrete and detailed writing was devoted to expounding the views of other thinkers, with whom he achieved such a level of identification that it is often difficult to tell to what extent he was trying faithfully to convey their distinctive visions, and to what extent he was expressing his own beliefs. Nevertheless, Berlin’s widely diverse works were held together by a set of recurrent concerns, and a view of human thought and action that, while unsystematic, was nevertheless unified.

Berlin was an empiricist in denying that there was any source of knowledge other than experience, and a sceptic in denying that there was any such thing as absolutely certain knowledge; indeed he summed up the message of his work as ‘distrust of all claims to the possession of incorrigible knowledge … in any sphere of human behaviour’ (Russian Thinkers, p. viii). As he wrote,

the total texture [of experience] is what we begin and end with. There is no Archimedan point outside it whence we can survey the whole and pronounce upon it… the sense of the general texture of experience … is itself not open to inductive or deductive reasoning: for both these methods rest upon it.

 --(Concepts and Categories, pp. 114–15)

Berlin was also deeply influenced by Kantian philosophy, and emphasized throughout his works the importance of basic and often subconscious concepts, models and constellations of beliefs about the world in shaping people’s views of reality. He insisted that it was impossible to view reality without the aid of any conceptual assumptions because reality was too complex, varied and dynamic to be fully understood by the human mind. But he also insisted that it was possible to become more aware of these assumptions, and more critical and lucid in the selection, application and modification of our theories about reality in light of our experience of the world. The goal of philosophy was to remind human beings of the limits of their knowledge, to make their thinking more self-aware and critical, and so ‘to assist men to understand themselves and thus operate in the open, and not wildly, in the dark’ (Concepts and Categories, p. 11).

The main theses that Berlin’s early works advance are, first, that not all meaningful statements need be either about direct sensory experience or purely formal; and, second, that not all statements about the world are translatable into a single kind of statement – that is, there is no single model for all true statements. Berlin’s belief that there is no single model for understanding experience, and that the misapplication of dogmatically held theories to phenomena that they do not properly fit is the source of mistakes in theory, and errors and crimes in practice, would remain central to his later work.

One of the confusions with which Berlin was most concerned was the tendency of both philosophers and social scientists to apply the standards and techniques of the natural sciences to the human sciences. Berlin insisted that the human sciences were fundamentally different, and demanded a different approach, in terms both of what they study, and of what they seek to discover. The natural sciences are concerned with discovering general laws that can explain a wide range of phenomena: they search for similarity and regularity. While some of the human sciences (such as economics and most schools of psychology) have similar aims, others (history foremost among them) seek, on the contrary, to identify and explain what is unique in phenomena rather than what they have in common. Such studies look to differences rather than similarities, particularities rather than generalities.

The other difference between the human and natural sciences, according to Berlin, is that of the relationship of the inquirer to what is being studied, and, related to this, the different sorts of knowledge at which they aim. Natural scientists study phenomena external to human beings: they aim at knowledge from the outside, and can acquire no other kind. The human sciences consist of the study of human beings by human beings; they necessarily involve, and should aim at, knowledge from the inside. We experience our own existence and actions, and the events around us, as purposive, thinking, feeling beings; and the actions and intentions of other human beings will only make sense to us if we understand them in the same way. Also, we naturally and properly identify with other human beings in a way that we cannot with natural phenomena. It would be nonsensical, or a sign of confusion and error, to speak of understanding the law of gravity as it understands itself, or studying geological change ‘from the inside’, in terms of that phenomenon’s own beliefs and intentions. But we can achieve such knowledge of other human beings; and unless we do so (Berlin insisted), we cannot understand them.

Furthermore, the natural sciences, being concerned with external knowledge, demand objectivity, dispassion and critical scepticism towards accepted ideas, and trust in the validity of the methods they employ. The human sciences, on the contrary, require acceptance of human assumptions about experience and reality, and a non-dogmatic flexibility in the application of methods of study. Furthermore, ‘internal’ understanding requires the faculty of empathy – the capacity for entering into human outlooks different from one’s own, understanding the beliefs and experiences of others as they did themselves, and so understanding why they act as they do.

Finally, because of our similarities to others, we identify with them and their actions, as we do not with natural phenomenon. Just as we cannot reasonably identify with the sun or the force of gravity or the law of inertia, we cannot regard the effects of these phenomena in moral terms; whereas moral evaluation necessarily enters into, and should enter into, our consideration of the actions of other human beings.

The assertion that our moral evaluations rest on a view of people as choice-making agents was central to Berlin’s critique of determinism. He did not claim that determinism was false; indeed, he acknowledged that the human capacity for freely willed choice was probably far more limited than had once been believed. But he insisted that the terms in which we think and speak about human experience presuppose at least a limited capacity for choice. If human beings are compelled to act as they do by forces beyond their control, the notions of responsibility and culpability, of deserved praise and blame, become incoherent. If we truly and thoroughly accept the doctrine of determinism, we must dramatically alter the way we think and speak about, and treat, one another.

Berlin argued that the doctrine of ‘historical inevitability’ rested on the assumption that history is ruled by larger forces endowed with the agency, and even the intentions, that are usually attributed to individuals; and on the need to believe that history has a purpose or direction which can be understood and predicted. Berlin regarded these assumptions and aspirations as deluded. He also charged that belief in historical inevitability was morally dubious, providing an ‘alibi’ for both fatalistic acceptance and passivity, and for the inhumane and pitiless use of force and the crushing of minorities, dissenters and deviants. This focus on the doctrine of historical inevitability, and opposition to its consequences, was clearly shaped by Berlin’s response to communism, and to totalitarian regimes and movements more generally.

Berlin’s most widely read work is probably Two Concepts of Liberty, which distinguishes between two different conceptions of (political) liberty, which Berlin depicts as distinct, and potentially conflicting. The first, negative liberty, is conceived as the absence of external, humanly imposed obstacles blocking or constricting human action. Negative liberty is freedom from, the absence of constraint, the opposite of imprisonment or constriction. Berlin’s account of positive liberty is more complicated, and has inspired confusion and misinterpretation. This is partly because at the heart of this account are two logically distinct definitions of liberty. One is liberty as opportunity, or the ability to achieve desired results – that is, freedom to as opposed to negative liberty’s freedom from. The other is liberty as self-rule or self-determination, the opposite of dependence on, or control by, others.

Many readers have been confused, too, about Berlin’s attitude towards positive and negative liberty. Berlin defended the negative concept of liberty, and criticized the use of a version of positive liberty by communists, nationalists and others to justify oppression. But he did not attack or dismiss the claims of positive liberty, which he regarded as a genuine value, though one distinct from, and not necessarily compatible with, negative liberty. Rather, he argued that the nature of the positive concept of liberty had made it prone to perversion over time, culminating in the defence of political violence and oppression in the name of liberation.

The grounds for this perversion were twofold, following from the two aspects of positive liberty. First, the identification of liberty with the accomplishment of certain goals gave rise to the claim that, if inherently desirable goals are achieved, this must be equivalent to the achievement of liberty, even if such achievement involves coercion. Second, Berlin argued that the meaning of all conceptions of liberty depends on the vision or definition of the human self that is at liberty, especially when liberty is defined as self-mastery or self-rule. So long as the self was defined in terms of the self-perceptions and conscious thoughts and sentiments of individual human beings, all was fairly well. But, Berlin recounted, in the early nineteenth century theorists of positive liberty replaced this empirical and individualistic conception of the self with metaphysical and collectivist theories of the ‘true’ self. Such doctrines defined self-mastery not as the ability of individuals to make decisions for themselves and live according to their own lights, but as the realization and achievement of what the individual’s ‘true’ self desired – that is, what the individual would desire if she realized what was best for her, what her true nature and purpose were.

Berlin associated the doctrine of the ‘true’ self with monism. This he defined as the belief that for all genuine questions there must be one, and only one, true answer; that there must be a correct path that will lead any clear thinker to this answer; and that all genuine answers are compatible with one another, and together form a coherent and harmonious system.

Against this, Berlin advocated pluralism. Berlin came to emphasize pluralism as a doctrine about the nature of human values, often calling his position ‘value pluralism’, even though pluralism, like monism, can involve wide-ranging claims about human knowledge and reality in general. Value pluralism holds that genuine human values are many; that they are intrinsically valuable and demanding rather than means to some larger end or part of a larger system; that they are not necessarily compatible with one another, but may, and often do, conflict; and that there is no single measure, no paramount goal or universally applicable rule of conduct, that can be applied in deliberating between values (so that, for instance, both utilitarian and deontological ethics, as well as the absolutism of Plato and the teleology of Aristotle, are misguided). Conflicts of values must be addressed on a case-by-case basis, using practical reason, which is itself uncertain and fallible. Sometimes compromises or trade-offs between values are possible; in other cases one value will, in the context in question, clearly take priority. But often conflicting values must simply be chosen between, and there is no such thing as a single right answer; such cases involve real and often tragic moral sacrifice and loss.

Berlin connected the ethical theories of monism and pluralism to political positions. Monism, he charged, holds that there is one right way to live; moral knowledge is as possible as factual or logical knowledge. As a result, moral ‘experts’ – those who have discovered the correct way to live, the true answers to human problems – are justified in dictating the choices of others, imposing their own vision of the truth and the good, and crushing those who disagree as being morally misguided. Monism easily generates a dangerously ruthless political utopianism: ‘the search for perfection’, Berlin wrote, ‘seem[s] to me a recipe for bloodshed’ (The Crooked Timber of Humanity, p. 18).

Berlin argued that pluralism, on the other hand, promotes the recognition of the value of individual liberty, and thus supports a moderate and humane liberal politics. Berlin’s pluralism holds that choice is a central and essential element in human life: it is in making choices that human beings define themselves as individuals. Furthermore, since in many cases, there being no single right answer, there is no good reason for forcing people to make choices about their own lives, rather than allowing them to decide for themselves. At the same time, while Berlin’s pluralism led him to place special value on liberty as both intrinsically good, and a necessary condition for the pursuit of the full range of human values, it also led him to recognize the need to balance liberty with respect for other values, such as justice and equality. Thus, despite his strong opposition to bureaucratic control and ‘social engineering’, Berlin’s liberalism is less dogmatically opposed to all forms of government intervention, or all limitations placed on individual liberty on behalf of other values, than that of some contemporaneous liberal and libertarian thinkers.

Berlin’s pluralism, humanism and scepticism also informed his views on the ethics of political action. There is no final solution or ultimate goal, everything is imperfect and involves compromise, and our knowledge both of good or right and of the consequences of our actions is uncertain: ‘The one thing that we may be sure of is the reality of the sacrifice, the dying and the dead’. There is therefore no valid justification for sacrificing living human beings to abstract ideals, for causing present pain in the hope of future felicity: ‘holocausts for the sake of distant goals … [are] a cruel mockery of all that men hold dear’ (ibid., p. 16).

Berlin’s contributions to philosophy are of two different sorts. One consists of the doctrines and interpretations that he advanced. These remain provocative, attractive and fruitful, but have also often proven problematic. Berlin’s rearticulation of liberalism, analysis of the idea of liberty, and exposition of value pluralism are major contributions to political and ethical theory which continue to attract readers and commentary; but they are unsystematic, and beset by ambiguities and omissions, while his interpretations of the history of ideas, particularly his accounts of the Enlightenment and its critics, are disputed by many scholars, even as they are praised by others.

The other source of Berlin’s significance lies in the approach or style of his work, and the conception of philosophy that this reflects. Berlin’s work fuses, often through sheer force of personality and intensity of intellectual engagement, a number of usually divergent intellectual activities and traditions. At different points – and sometimes at the same moment – Berlin wrote as an analytically minded British philosopher, seeking to clarify thinking about ordinary human experience; a deeply learned and adventurous savant engrossed in the history of ideas; and a forceful and conscientious but undogmatic proponent of a pragmatic, humane politics of moderation. Perhaps most importantly, he was acutely perceptive and sensitive about human moral experience, drawing on the morally impassioned tradition of the Russian intelligentsia, but combining it with the caution and discernment of a Jewish emigre, and the ironic detachment characteristic of his adopted country. The intellectual career that united all of these elements was bound together by Berlin’s conviction of the importance of philosophical concepts to the most pervasive and pressing problems of human life, and particularly those involving ethics. Philosophy was for him, ultimately, an inquiry into what we are, how we came to be so, and what we might, and should seek to, be and do. This dimension of Berlin’s conception of philosophy set him apart from most other British philosophers of his time.


Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (1939; 4th edn Oxford, 1978).

Four Essays on Liberty (1969); inc. in Henry Handy (ed.), Liberty (Oxford etc., 2002).

Vico and Herder (1976); inc. in Henry Handy (ed.), Three Critics of the Enlightenment (2000).

Concepts and Categories , ed. Henry Hardy (1978).

Russian Thinkers , ed. Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly (1978).

Against the Current , ed. Henry Hardy (1979).

The Crooked Timber of Humanity , ed. Henry Hardy (1990).

Other Relevant Works

The Age of Enlightenment (Boston, 1956).

Personal Impressions , ed. Henry Hardy, 2nd edn (1998)

The Magus of the North , ed. Henry Hardy (1993); inc. in Henry Handy (ed.), Three Critics of the Enlightenment (2000).

The Sense of Reality , ed. Henry Hardy (1996).

The Proper Study of Mankind , ed. Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer (1997).

The Roots of Romanticism , ed. Henry Hardy (1999).

The Power of Ideas , ed. Henry Hardy (2000).

Freedom and its Betrayal , ed. Henry Hardy (2002).

Flourishing: Letters, 1928–1946 , ed. Henry Hardy (2004); published in the USA as Letters 1928–46 (New York, 2004).

The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library, , accessed October 2004.

Further Reading

Crowder, George, Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism (Cambridge, 2004).

Galipeau, Claude, Isaiah Berlin’s Liberalism (Oxford, 1994).

Gray, John, Isaiah Berlin (1995).

Ignatieff, Michael, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (1998).

Lilla, Mark, Ronald Dworkin and Robert B. Silvers, The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin (New York, 2001).

Lukes, Steven, Liberals and Cannibals (2003).

Mali, Joseph and Robert Wokler (eds), Isaiah Berlin’s Counter-Enlightenment (Philadelphia, 2004).

Margalit, Avishai and Edna Ullmann Margalit (eds), Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration (1991).

Ryan, Alan (ed.), The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honour of Isaiah Berlin (Oxford, 1979).