Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin

Infobox Philosopher
region = Western Philosophy
era = 20th-century philosophy
color = #B0C4DE
name = Isaiah Berlin
birth = 6 June 1909
death = death date and age|df=yes|1997|11|5|1909|6|6
school_tradition = Analytic
notable_ideas = positive and negative liberty Counter-Enlightenment Value pluralism
main_interests = Political philosophy History of ideas Philosophy of history Liberalism· Ethics· Zionism
influences = Bentham· Mill· Marx
influenced = Most contemporary liberal thinkers

Sir Isaiah Berlin, OM (6 June 1909 – 5 November 1997) was a philosopher and historian of ideas, regarded as one of the leading liberal thinkers of the twentieth century. He excelled as an essayist, lecturer and conversationalist; and as a brilliant speaker who delivered, rapidly and spontaneously, richly allusive and coherently structured material, whether for a lecture series at Oxford University or as a broadcaster on the BBC Third Programme, usually without a script. Many of his essays and lectures were later collected in book form.

Born in Riga, now capital of Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire, he was the first person of Jewish descent to be elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. From 1957 to 1967, he was Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1963 to 1964. In 1966, he helped to found Wolfson College, Oxford, and became its first President. He was knighted in 1957, and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1971. He was President of the British Academy from 1974 to 1978. He also received the 1979 Jerusalem Prize for his writings on individual freedom.

Berlin's work on liberal theory has had a lasting influence. His 1958 inaugural lecture, "Two Concepts of Liberty", famous for its distinction between positive and negative liberty, has informed much of the debate since then on the relationship between liberty and other values.


Berlin was born as an only child into a wealthy Jewish family, the son of Mendel Berlin, a timber merchant, and lineal descendant of Israel ben Eliezer, and his wife Marie, "née" Volshonok. He spent his childhood in Riga (now Latvia), and later lived in Andreapol´ and Petrograd, witnessing both episodes of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The family moved to Britain in 1921, when Berlin was twelve. In London, he lived in South Kensington and later Hampstead. He was educated at London's St. Paul's school, then at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he studied Greats (Classics) and PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). As an undergraduate, he notably befriended A. J. Ayer (with whom he was to share a friendly rivalry for the rest of his life), Stuart Hampshire, Maurice Bowra and J. L. Austin. He was to remain at Oxford for the rest of his life, apart from a period working for British Information Services in New York from 1940 to 1942, and the British embassies in Washington, DC, and Moscow from then until 1946. In 1956, he married Aline Halban, "née" de Gunzbourg.

Berlin died in Oxford in 1997, aged 88. [ [ Philosopher and political thinker Sir Isaiah Berlin dies] , BBC News, 8 November 1997. URL accessed 21 May 2006.] He is buried there in Wolvercote Cemetery.

His work

"Two Concepts of Liberty"

Berlin is best known for his essay "Two Concepts of Liberty", delivered in 1958 as his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford. He defined negative liberty as the absence of constraints on, or interference with, agents' possible action. Greater "negative freedom" meant fewer restrictions on possible action. Berlin associated positive liberty with the idea of self-mastery, or the capacity to determine oneself, to be in control of one's destiny. While Berlin granted that both concepts of liberty represent valid human ideals, as a matter of history the positive concept of liberty has proven particularly susceptible to political abuse.

Berlin contended that under the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel (all committed to the positive concept of liberty), European political thinkers often equated liberty with forms of political discipline or constraint. This became politically dangerous when notions of positive liberty were, in the nineteenth century, used to defend nationalism, self-determination and the Communist idea of collective rational control over human destiny. Berlin argued that, following this line of thought, demands for freedom paradoxically become demands for forms of collective control and discipline – those deemed necessary for the "self-mastery" or self-determination of nations, classes, democratic communities, and even humanity as a whole. There is thus an elective affinity, for Berlin, between positive liberty and political totalitarianism.Fact|date=July 2007

Conversely, negative liberty represents a different, perhaps safer, understanding of the concept of liberty. Its proponents (such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill) insisted that constraint and discipline were the antithesis of liberty and so were (and are) less prone to confusing liberty and constraint in the manner of the philosophical harbingers of modern totalitarianism.Fact|date=July 2007 It is this concept of Negative Liberty that Isaiah Berlin was a proponent of. It dominated heavily his early chapters in his third lecture.

This negative liberty is central to the claim for toleration due to incommensurability. This concept is mirrored in the work of Joseph Raz.

Other work

Berlin's essay "Historical Inevitability" (1954) focused on a controversy in the philosophy of history. In Berlin's words, the choice is whether one believes that "the lives of entire peoples and societies have been decisively influenced by exceptional individuals" or, rather, that whatever happens occurs as a result of impersonal forces oblivious to human intentions. Berlin is also well known for his writings on Russian intellectual history, most of which are collected in "Russian Thinkers" (1978; 2nd ed., 2008), edited, like most of Berlin's work, by Henry Hardy (in the case of this volume, jointly with Aileen Kelly).

Berlin's writings on the Enlightenment and its critics – for whom Berlin used the term "the Counter-Enlightenment" – and particularly Romanticism, contributed to his advocacy of an ethical theory now usually termed value pluralism. [ [ "Isaiah Berlin"] , "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy".] For Berlin, values are creations of mankind, rather than products of nature waiting to be discovered, though he also argued that the nature of mankind is such that certain values – for example, the importance of individual liberty – will hold true across cultures, which is part of what he meant when he called his position "objective pluralism". With his account of value pluralism, he proposed the view that moral values may be equally, or rather incommensurably, valid and yet incompatible, and may therefore come into conflict with one another in a way that admits of no resolution without reference to particular contexts of decision. When values clash, it may not be that one is more important than the other. Keeping a promise may conflict with the pursuit of truth; liberty may clash with social justice. Moral conflicts are "an intrinsic, irremovable element in human life". "These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are." [Isaiah Berlin, "The Proper Study of Mankind', Chatto and Windus, 2007, 238, 11.]


* [ More details of the books listed below]

Major works:

All publications listed from 1978 onwards are compilations or transcripts of various lectures, essays, and letters, edited by Henry Hardy. Details given are of first and current UK editions. For US editions see link above.

*"Karl Marx: His Life and Environment", Thornton Butterworth, 1939. 4th ed., 1978, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510326-2.
*"Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas", Chato and Windass, 1976. Redwood Burn Ltd.. ISBN 0-7011-2512-8.
*"", Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1953. Phoenix. ISBN 978-075380-867-2.
*"Four Essays on Liberty", Oxford University Press, 1969. Superseded by "Liberty".
*"Russian Thinkers" (co-edited with Aileen Kelly), Hogarth Press, 1978. 2nd ed., Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-144220-4
*"Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays", Hogarth Press, 1978. Pimlico. ISBN 0-670-23552-0.
*"Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas", Hogarth Press, 1979. Pimlico. ISBN 0–7126–6690–7.
*"Personal Impressions", Hogarth Press, 1980. 2nd ed., 1998, Pimlico. ISBN 0–7126–6601–X.
*"The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas", John Murray, 1990. Pimlico. ISBN 0–7126–0616–5.
*"The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and their History", Chatto & Windus, 1996. Pimlico. ISBN 0–7126–7367–9.
*"The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays" (co-edited with Roger Hausheer), Chatto & Windus, 1997. Pimlico. ISBN 0–7126–7322–9.
*"The Roots of Romanticism" (recorded 1965), Chatto & Windus, 1999. ISBN 0–7126–6544–7.
*"", Pimlico, 2000. ISBN 0–7126–6492–0.
*"The Power of Ideas", Chatto & Windus, 2000. Pimlico. ISBN 0–7126–6554–4.
*"Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty" (recorded 1952), Chatto & Windus, 2002. Pimlico. ISBN 0–7126–6842–0.
*"Liberty" (revised and expanded edition of "Four Essays On Liberty"), Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-19-924989-X.
*"The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture under Communism", Brookings Institution Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8157-0904-8.
*"Flourishing: Selected Letters 1928–1946", Chatto & Windus, 2004. ISBN 0-7011-7420-X. (Published as "Selected Letters 1928–1946" by Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-521-83368-X.)
*"Political Ideas in the Romantic Age: Their Rise and Influence on Modern Thought", Chatto & Windus, 2006. ISBN 0-701-17909-0. Princeton University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-691-12687-6.0. Pimlico, ISBN 978–1–844–13926–2.
*(with Beata Polanowska-Sygulska) "Unfinished Dialogue", Prometheus, 2006. ISBN 978-1-59102-376-0/1-59102-376-9.


ee also

*Contributions to liberal theory
*The Hedgehog and the Fox
*The Trap (television documentary series)

Further reading

* [ Isaiah Berlin and the history of ideas] .
* [ The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library] , Wolfson College, Oxford.
* [ A podcast interview with Henry Hardy on Berlin's Pluralism] .
* [ A recording of the last of Berlin's Mellon Lectures] , Wolfson College, Oxford.
* [ BBC obituary] .
* [ Biographical information on Sir Isaiah Berlin]
* [ Tribute from Chief Rabbi at his funeral] .
* [ Anecdote] from [ Wolfson College's tribute page] .
*sep entry|berlin|Isaiah Berlin|Joshua Cherniss and Henry Hardy
* [ Letter to Berlin from Tony Blair] , 23 October 1997.
* [ Obituary by Henry Hardy] .
*John Gray. "Isaiah Berlin", Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-691-04824-X.
*Michael Ignatieff, "Isaiah Berlin: A Life", New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1999. ISBN 0-8050-6300-5. Authorised biography.
*Charles Blattberg, "From Pluralist to Patriotic Politics: Putting Practice First", Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-19-829688-6. A critique of Berlin's value pluralism.
*George Crowder, "Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism", Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004. ISBN 0-7456-2476-6.
*Joshua Cherniss, 'Isaiah Berlin: A Defence', [, "The Oxonian Review of Books"]
*Claude Galipeau, Isaiah Berlin's Liberalism, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. ISBN 0-19-827868-3.
*Ned O'Gorman, 'My dinners with Isaiah: the music of a philosopher's life - Sir Isaiah Berlin' - includes related article on Isaiah Berlin's commitment to ideals of genuine understanding over intellectual mastery, [ "Commonweal", 14 August 1998]
* "Conversations with Isaiah Berlin," Ramin Jahanbegloo (1992)

NAME=Berlin, Isaiah
SHORT DESCRIPTION=British political philosopher and historian of ideas; liberal thinker; Professor of Social and Political Theory; wrote on positive and negative liberty, value pluralism, Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment
DATE OF BIRTH=6 June 1909
PLACE OF BIRTH=Riga, Russia (now Lithuania)
DATE OF DEATH=5 November 1997
PLACE OF DEATH=Oxford, Oxfordshire, England

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  • Isaiah Berlin — [Isaiah Berlin] (1909–97) a British writer and ↑philosopher, born in Russia. He was made a ↑knight in 1957 and a member of the ↑Order of Merit in 1971 …   Useful english dictionary

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