The Unique Liberalism of Isaiah Berlin

By Walters, Colin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 26, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Unique Liberalism of Isaiah Berlin


Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The mention of Isaiah Berlin's name these years prompts such thoughts of high civility, good nature and even gentleness that one regularly is suprised anew, encountering the profound subversiveness of his critiques of both classical Western tradition and Enlightenment thinking.

His reading of history and its implications for moral and political philosophy have, necessarily, collided with those of other influential thinkers over the course of an intellectual career spanning 65 years. Leo Strauss called him a relativist, and more recently Michael Sandel, as quoted by John Gray, argued that he "comes perilously close to foundering on the relativist predicament."

Charles Taylor, a philosopher of more optimistic, Benthamite inclination, is a critic, as also have to be mainstream liberals as a class and among whom John Rawls' is the best-known contemporary name. As to other thinkers - conservative thinkers, intuitionists, communitarians and certainly Marxists and other totalitarians - the distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford, is bound to be the target of any and all of them at least some of the time.

It may be, however, that none of these critics will succeed in bringing the daring of his thinking so clearly into view as has Mr. Gray in this intellectual study, "Isaiah Berlin." For the past 20 years a devoted student and enthusiast, Mr. Gray, who is a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, also has written on John Stuart Mill, from whose thinking his present subject departs on, for example, the issue of rational will, preferring his own, Romantic rather than classical liberal, notion of radical will.

Mention of the Romantics conjures what Isaiah Berlin has called the Counter-Enlightenment. This was the attack by 18th-century critics on the French philosophes' three-legged stool constructed upon the efficacy of reason, belief in the continuing improvability of human nature and the prospect of universal civilization. The Berlin biography of one such critic, the German J.G. Hamann, came out two years ago and was reviewed in this space.

Perhaps the feistiest of that crowd, though, was Joseph de Maistre, "whose insights into the character of language as the embodiment of unconscious historical memory make those of Edmund Burke seem superficial and Whiggish, and whose grasp of the peaceless ferocity of the human animal, and its capacity for and disposition toward self-immolation, renders Hobbes' account of man tame and bland." The sentence is a good example of Mr. Gray's spirited way of putting these things.

A seeming paradox in his subject's thought is in seeing roots of 20th-century totalitarianism in the monist doctrines of the Enlightenment while, contrarily, discerning in Romantic and Counter-Enlightenment notions of mystery and the ineffable (which also gave us Friedrich Nietzsche and D.H. Lawrence) "a major source of modern conceptions of toleration." Mr. Gray saves this for the crescendo closing his chapter on the Counter-Enlightenment, which is the fifth of the book's six, preceded by an introduction in which he argues for what he calls his subject's "value-pluralism" and "agonistic liberalism."

It is value-pluralism with which Mr. Gray begins by explicating the idea's parts: that in the end human values or goods, though objective, are irreducibly diverse, often uncombinable and at times incommensurable. His subject's debts to Giovanni Vico and Johann Herder are well-known to readers, but a shortcut to the subversive heart of his thought is to recall Niccolo Machiavelli's apprehension that it is not always possible for a man both to behave morally and do his duty.

The notoriously pragmatic Florentine yanked Western man out of his prior commitments, whether to Platonic ideal, Aristotelian golden mean or Christian faith in the solubility of problems by reference to God. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Unique Liberalism of Isaiah Berlin
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.