04 November 2022

Remembering Isaiah Berlin,
Jewish philosopher and opponent
of extremism and fanaticism

A plaque honouring the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin in the cloister in All Souls Collge Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

In recent days, I have been writing about All Souls College, Oxford, including its chapel, its library, and how is responding to the legacy of slavery. In the cloister that links the chapel and the library, there are plaques honouring many fellows of All Souls College, including the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, who died 25 years tomorrow, on 5 November 1997.

Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was a philosopher, historian of ideas, political theorist, educator, public intellectual and moralist, and essayist. He was renowned for his conversational brilliance, his defence of liberalism and pluralism, his opposition to political extremism and intellectual fanaticism, and his accessible writings on people and ideas.

His essay Two Concepts of Liberty (1958) contributed to a revival of interest in political theory in the English-speaking world, and remains one of the most influential and widely discussed texts in that field: admirers and critics agree that Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty remains a basic starting point for discussions of the meaning and value of political freedom.

Although he became increasingly averse to writing for publication, his improvised lectures and talks were sometimes recorded and transcribed, and many of his spoken words were converted into published essays and books, both by himself and by others, especially his principal editor from 1974, Henry Hardy

He was born on 6 June 1909 in Riga, now the capital of Latvia but then a part of the Russian Empire. He moved to Petrograd, Russia, at the age of six, where he witnessed the revolutions of 1917. In 1921, his family moved to the England, and he was educated at Saint Paul’s School, London, and Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

In 1932, at the age of 23, Berlin was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, considered one of the highest accolades in British academic life. He was the first unconverted Jew to achieve this fellowship at All Souls. In addition to his own prolific output, he translated works by Ivan Turgenev from Russian into English, and during World War II he worked for the British Diplomatic Service in New York and Washington.

His election to a research fellowship at All Souls in 1950 allowed him to devote himself more fully to his historical, political and literary interests, which lay well outside the mainstream of philosophy as it was then practised and taught at Oxford.

He was Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford from 1957 to 1967. He was president of the Aristotelian Society in 1963-1964. In 1966, he played a critical role in creating Wolfson College, Oxford, and became its founding President. Berlin was appointed a CBE in 1946, knighted in 1957, and appointed to the Order of Merit in 1971. He was President of the British Academy in 1974-1978.

He also received the 1979 Jerusalem Prize for his lifelong defence of civil liberties. When he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws at the University of Toronto in 1994, he prepared a ‘short credo’ – as he called it in a letter to a friend – now known as ‘A Message to the Twenty-First Century’, to be read on his behalf at the ceremony.

Berlin’s work on liberal theory and on value pluralism, as well as his opposition to Marxism and Communism, has had a lasting influence. He was more sensitive than many classical liberal or libertarian thinkers to the fact that genuine liberty may conflict with genuine equality, or justice, or public order, or security, or efficiency, or happiness, and therefore must be balanced against, and sometimes sacrificed in favour of, other values.

His liberalism includes both a conservative or pragmatic appreciation of the importance of maintaining a balance between different values, and a social-democratic appreciation of the need to restrict liberty in some cases so as to promote equality and justice, and to protect the weak against victimisation by the strong.

An annual Isaiah Berlin Lecture is held at the Hampstead Synagogue, at Wolfson College, Oxford, at the British Academy, and in Riga.

Professor BĂ©atrice Longuenesse of New York University is delivering the 2022 Isaiah Berlin Lectures in Oxford. Her four lectures are on the theme of ‘Kant and Freud on the Mind,’ with the first lecture next Wednesday (9 November 2022) on ‘Conflicting Logics of the Mind.’ Her other lectures are: ‘Kant on Consciousness and its Limits’ (16 November), ‘Freud’s Concept of the Unconscious’ (17 November), and ‘The “Morality System”’ (24 November).

The 20th Isaiah Berlin Annual Lecture at Hampstead United Synagogue was delivered on Sunday 11 September by Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University, on the theme of ‘The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the common good?’

The focus of his lecture was a critique of meritocracy: ‘The principle that says “if chances are equal the winners deserve their winnings”.’ For Professor Sandel this is ‘the heart of the meritocratic ideal.’ He went on to show how chances are far from being equal in society today, and then examined the far-reaching consequences of this inequality – political, societal, and economic.

Previous lecturers have include Gordon Brown, Philippe Sands, Baroness Hale and the former Chief Rabbi, the late Lord (Jonathan) Sacks.

Meanwhile, Weidenfeld & Nicolson have published a new edition of The Hedgehog and the Fox, Berlin’s 1953 essay ‘on Tolstoy's view of history.’ It is edited by Henry Hardy, with an introduction by Michael Ignatieff, who writes:

‘This essay asks basic questions of anyone who reads it: What can we know? What does our ‘sense of reality’ tell us? Are we reconciled to the limits of human vision? Or do we long for something more? If so, what certainty can we hope to achieve one day? Because these are enduring questions of human existence, this great essay will last as long as people come seeking answers.’

Whenever Isaiah Berlin was described as an English philosopher, he always insisted that he was not an English philosopher, but would forever be a Russian Jew: ‘I am a Russian Jew from Riga, and all my years in England cannot change this. I love England, I have been well treated here, and I cherish many things about English life, but I am a Russian Jew; that is how I was born and that is who I will be to the end of my life.’

Shabbat Shalom

The cloister links the chapel and the library in All Souls College, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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