The Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin
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The Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin

Johnny Lyons

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The Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin

Johnny Lyons

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'I gradually came to the conclusion that I should prefer a field in which one could hope to know more at the end of one's life than when one had begun.' So thought Isaiah Berlin toward the end of the Second World War, when he decided to bid farewell to philosophy in favour of the history of ideas. In The Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin Johnny Lyons shows that Berlin's approach to intellectual history amounted to the pursuit of philosophy by other means, creating a more original and fruitful engagement with his lifelong subject. By recasting Berlin as a philosopher who took humanity and history seriously, Lyons reveals the underlying unity of his wide-ranging and disparate ideas and throws into sharp relief the enduring moral charm of his outlook. Lyons emphasises aspects of Berlin's thinking that have largely been neglected. These include his recognition of historical contingency and of the importance of truth in human affairs, his scepticism about the so-called implications of determinism for our everyday understanding of freedom, and his deeper reasons for thinking that negative liberty should be valued. This introduction to Berlin's thought, and particularly its examination of these mainly overlooked elements of his outlook, reveals a new Berlin, one with surprising and urgent contemporary relevance to the debates that continue to dominate philosophy, politics and intellectual history today.

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Political thinkers are of two types. There are philosophers with an interest in politics, and political theorists with an interest in philosophy. Notable examples of the former are Plato, Hobbes and Popper; of the latter, Cicero, Machiavelli and Tocqueville. Berlin falls squarely into the first category, and I will therefore examine and evaluate his political theory through a philosophical lens.
I begin with some preliminaries. The first is a concise descriptive summary of Berlin’s renowned version of liberalism, intended for readers unfamiliar with his political thought. I shall then address head-on a number of influential objections to treating Berlin in any kind of systematically philosophical manner before exploring his abiding scepticism about the value of various forms of absolute rationalism or pure reason in practical affairs. I shall end by providing an explanatory outline of the structure and interpretive spirit of the book. These initial steps will, I hope, begin to vindicate my philosophical approach to Berlin’s political thought, and also bring to the surface a number of central themes in his theory, themes that usually receive scant, if any, attention in commentaries on his work.
A summary of Berlin’s political philosophy
The best place to start to get to grips with Berlin’s political philosophy is his most famous essay, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’.1 Delivered in 1958 as his inaugural lecture in the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory at Oxford University, this paper remains the classic statement of Berlin’s liberalism. It begins by making what looks like a purely conceptual distinction between two notions of political liberty. The first of these notions is described as ‘negative liberty’, since it refers to the extent to which I am free from the interference of other individuals or authorities. The specification of ‘other human beings’ is important, since being negatively free does not require or entail that I am free from physical or psychological constraints. It simply refers to the degree of freedom from human interference or coercion. Contrasted with it is ‘positive liberty’, so called because it is the freedom to do something rather than the freedom from something. In many ways this is a far richer, if more nebulous, notion, which ‘derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master’.
So far, one could be forgiven for supposing that Berlin is making a rather obvious distinction between ‘the freedom which consists in being one’s own master and the freedom which consists in not being prevented from choosing as I do by other men’ (L 178). And besides, one might add, are not these distinct notions simply two sides of the same coin? Berlin does not dissent, acknowledging that both concepts appear at ‘no great logical distance from each other’ (L 178). But what distinguishes his seminal essay is the arresting way in which he proceeds to treat these concepts. Rather than following the conventional philosophical method of analysing them in an empirical vacuum, Berlin treats both concepts normatively and historically, showing not only that there is a substantively significant – not merely a logically valid – distinction to be made between negative and positive liberty, but also that the failure to recognize its significance can cause far more harm than mere conceptual confusion.
Berlin begins the central core of his argument by acknowledging that negative and positive liberty respond to real and legitimate human needs and ideals, and that both are essential in a free and tolerant society. Negative freedom has been the beating heart of political liberalism, with its insistence that individuals be left alone to their own devices as long as their actions do not unduly encroach or harm others. Historically, positive liberty has lain at the heart of emancipatory theories of politics from democratic and republican doctrines to those of nationalism and communism.
But Berlin argues that one of the salient lessons of modern history since the French Revolution, and especially in the twentieth century, is just how catastrophically the concept of positive liberty is vulnerable to or exploitable by the worst types of totalitarianism. History has shown how tragically brief the leap can be from a desire for self-realization to the sense of having discovered a real or rational self and ending in the embrace of oppressive forms of despotism. One of the principal factors that have caused such a deformation over the past two hundred years is the enormously influential assumption that harmony among social values is not merely desirable but possible. So, for example, if I know in my heart of hearts or by the light of unaided reason that my true self is a manifestation of what my political party or my nation or humanity as a whole can or should be, the historical record has shown that it can be a short skip and jump before we find ‘the wise’ or ‘the party leaders’ or ‘the chosen few’ having to force the rest of us to be free to bring about ‘the radiant tomorrow’. Experience has shown just how potent this urge can be when it is fuelled by the persistent and still influential belief that the genuine goals of all rational human beings must fit into a single, universal and all-embracing system, a kind of cosmic jigsaw where everything, or at least everything objectively worthwhile, eventually finds its natural, preordained place and fits without remainder.
Philosophically, the most gripping feature of ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ is the rejection of what its author calls moral monism, a view that he maintains has informed so much of Western philosophy since Plato and which at times has had such an appalling impact on peoples’ lives. Berlin counters the ‘ancient faith’ or what he sometimes calls the ‘Ionian fallacy’ of moral monism by arguing that our most basic and objective values and ideals such as liberty, equality, justice, compassion, friendship, patriotism do not form part of some integrated and harmonious rational system but are in permanent and often tragic conflict with each other. His contention is not to be conflated with the old bromide that things can never be perfect in an imperfect world, that we are condemned to living in a universe that is morally suboptimal as a result of fundamentally avoidable pragmatic constraints. Rather, it is the far more philosophically radical view which holds that genuine human values and ends conflict in principle, that deep and pervasive ethical disagreement is theoretically as well as practically inescapable. And the reason why our different ideals and divergent ways of life are locked in perpetual conflict is not due to the mere absence of an objective yardstick to measure and balance their relative worth. For even if per impossibile there were a magical moral yardstick, it would simply reveal the existence of genuine and irreconcilable conceptions of the good. Furthermore, it would also show that such differences are indeterminate and incommensurable in the sense that they could not be systematically and ordinally ranked on some single scale of value. Berlin calls this unconventional and disruptive view the pluralism of values or simply pluralism. It stands for his conviction that ‘the world we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realisation of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others’ (L 213–14).
The historical fact and putative philosophical truth of pluralism, the idea that human values and ways of life are in conflict with one another and not reducible to one another or translatable into the terms of some overarching system such as utilitarianism or deontology, forms the basis of Berlin’s anti-utopian defence of a tolerant, liberal society. As he states near the end of ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’:
Pluralism, with the measure of ‘negative’ liberty that it entails, seems to me a truer and more humane ideal than the goals of those who seek in the great disciplined, authoritarian structures the ideal of ‘positive’ self-mastery by classes, or peoples, or the whole of mankind. It is truer, because it does, at least, recognise the fact that human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another. … It is more humane because it does not (as the system-builders do) deprive men, in the name of some remote, or incoherent, ideal, of much that they have found to be indispensable to their life as unpredictably self-transforming human beings. (L 216–17)
With little exaggeration Berlin’s entire philosophical career after the Second World War can be viewed as a prolonged clinical assassination of each of the various elements that combine to form value or moral monism. The main reason why his demolition job could not be completed more efficiently is that moral monism takes many forms, requiring multiple murders. Indeed, moral monism never really dies, as its basic ideals and assumptions rarely if ever cease to prove alluring, particularly among hyper-rationalistically minded souls and their disciples. Philosophers are particularly prone to overestimating the power and reach of reason, which helps explain the persistent attraction and influence of a theory such as moral monism. But it would be wrong to assume that once philosophers are taken out of the equation, Berlin’s battle with monism amounts to little more than tilting at windmills. The violent and tragic record of much of the recent past is hardly bereft of evidence that this particular philosophical myth is not limited to the abstract minds of solitary thinkers but exists in various, if largely implicit, guises behind the utopian thoughts and actions of countless dictators and ordinary people.
But there is also a more positive if under-appreciated element informing Berlin’s fidelity to liberalism. Underlying his more explicitly political vision that a liberal society is one which safeguards a person’s right to be left alone to follow his or her own way of life is the principle that the freedom to be or rather become who we are is an ultimate good in itself. For Berlin, negative liberty derives its value from providing us with a right or opportunity to pursue our own ideals, to freely engage in our own creative experiment of living. In this respect, Berlin has a great deal in common with his like-minded forbear, John Stuart Mill, who also saw liberalism not just as a formal political arrangement but, more fundamentally, as a free way of life, the realization of which is viewed as ‘more precious than life itself’ (L 251). Both thinkers shared the belief that there must be limits to political authority and power since they were more interested in and put far greater value on what people can do when they are free not to have to concern themselves with the relatively narrow, if necessary, matter of political life. But what gives Berlin’s defence of liberalism its real philosophical twist is that individual freedom becomes even more precious in a world where there is a prevalent and irreducible diversity of human values and ways of life without an objective moral hierarchy.2 In Berlin’s account of our situation, the freedom to put our own shape on our own lives derives its vindication not merely from the value we attribute to personal autonomy but from the pluralist insight that there is no uniquely right way of living – though there are surely wrong and wasteful ways of living one’s life.
That, in very rough summary, is Berlin’s political philosophy. While it encapsulates the bare bones of his argument, it comes nowhere near doing justice to the immense volubility and vitality of his thought. Nor does it convey the conceptual subtlety, historical allusiveness and literary flair that distinguish his approach to political thought and practice. These are virtues of his work that nobody can pretend to imitate or summarize. They can only be appreciated by reading Berlin’s writings directly.
Some objections to treating Berlin as a political philosopher
The first and perhaps most common argument against identifying Berlin as primarily a political philosopher is that by his own admission he gave up on philosophy relatively early in his academic career. In the preface to Concepts and Categories, the second of four volumes initially published in 1978–80 as Selected Writings, Berlin gives a clear and explicit account of his decision to bid farewell to philosophy in favour of a different field of study – namely, the history of ideas. The reason he gives for switching his focus to history is that in contrast to philosophy he felt that it offered at least the possibility of ‘know[ing] more at the end of one’s life than when one had begun’ (CC2 xxvii). But the superficiality of treating him first and foremost as a historian of ideas emerges the moment we start reading ‘The Purpose of Philosophy’, the very first essay in Concepts and Categories. What it makes abundantly clear is that he had simply found a new and more engaging way of doing philosophy. His approach to intellectual history became the pursuit of philosophy by other means.
And yet Berlin’s decision to abandon the subject was entirely genuine on one level. He was, indeed, waving goodbye to philosophy, but it was philosophy of a very specific, if dominant, kind. It was the genre of philosophy that enjoyed its high noon in Oxbridge in the period directly before and after the Second World War, a style exhibited by logical positivism in the 1930s and by its successor, linguistic analysis, between the 1940s and the early 1960s. While there are important differences between these two philosophical schools, which we will come to shortly, they do share a broadly similar view of the nature and value of political philosophy, a view that proved increasingly uncongenial to Berlin after the war.
According to both logical positivism and linguistic analysis, the only legitimate role for philosophers interested in evaluative thought – to which traditional political philosophy naturally belongs – was to investigate the meaning and status of moral concepts. The general term that was commonly used to describe this particular and essentially piecemeal form of intellectual activity was meta-ethics, an expression that was intended to suggest that those engaged in such an enterprise were not so much taking part in ethics as engaging in the study of ethics. This distinction was crucial, as both logical positivists and linguistic analysts were adamant that meta-ethics should be a value-free intellectual inquiry. They also shared the view that philosophy, like poetry, makes nothing happen in the sense that neither it nor its practitioners possess any kind of special, first-order moral expertise and authority. The main difference between then and now is not so much that meta-ethics has lost its foothold as that it is no longer seen as the only viable way of pursuing ethical enquiry. It is clear from Berlin’s writings during this period that he had little patience with this purely second-order, putatively value-neutral analysis of moral and political concepts. It is likely that he would have been sympathetic at the time with the later withering assessment of post-war moral philosophy expressed by his philosophical colleague and friend Bernard Williams (1929–2003), that it had ‘found an original way of being boring, which is by not discussing moral issues at all’.3 Indeed, one is tempted to describe logical positivism and linguistic philosophy as conceptual palette cleansers: they served to remove the metaphysical smog of Hegelianism and other forms of obscurantist thought which still held sway in parts of academic philosophy in the Anglophone world but they were peculiarly incapable of filling the void when their negative (and necessary) project was done.
But what is significant for our purposes is that Berlin managed to break free of the academic straitjacket imposed by the prevailing schools of philosophy of the time, and discovered a new and more engaging way of thinking about our human experience, one which affirmed and exemplified the possibility of rational debate about substantive moral and political values and ideals. In this respect Berlin fulfilled as indispensable a role as other major thinkers of his time, including Herbert Hart (1907–92), John Rawls (1921–2002) and Robert Nozick (1938–2002), in bringing about the resurgence of evaluative or normative political philosophy.
A second, less obvious, objection to treating Berlin in any kind of stridently philosophical way is that his writings do not lend themselves to such an interpretative approach. According to this influential view, his thought is too opaque and fragmented to warrant a systematic treatment of his writings.4 Anyone who is familiar with Berlin’s writings will have a natural sympathy for this prevailing viewpoint. There is no doubt that Berlin could be demure about stating his political theory in direct form, preferring to present his own ideas indirectly through his treatment of various historical thinkers and their thoughts. The experience of reading Berlin is of a very different kind from that of reading more mainstream exemplars of contemporary analytic political theory. His writings do not conform to the formal and detached style of compressed argumentation that still dominates analytical political theory. Rather, it is happily free of the characteristic vices of the analytic genre. Berlin presents his ideas in a far more engaging, loose and impressionistic manner – in a way, he is a non-philosopher’s philosopher. He is also the archetypal fox, expressesing his views obliquely and allusively through the accumulation of numerous digressions and subordinate clauses and thereby rendering any definitive int...

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Citation styles for The Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin
APA 6 Citation
Lyons, J. (2020). The Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Publishing. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Lyons, Johnny. (2020) 2020. The Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Harvard Citation
Lyons, J. (2020) The Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin. 1st edn. Bloomsbury Publishing. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Lyons, Johnny. The Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin. 1st ed. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.