A–Z miscellany of information and opinion

bent twig, the
core, common / central
‘Counter-Enlightenment’, the history of the term
fragments without a name
geography as a guide to pluralism
human horizon, the
illusions, the necessity of
Israel and Palestine
liberty, positive and negative
Marx, Karl, who shall we get to write on?
plumping
pluralism, descriptive / participatory
pluralism hard to accept?
quotations with Berlinian resonance
relativity of relativism, the
Schumpeter
tolerance, radical
what should we be and do?


bent twig, the

This phrase, used by Berlin as a metaphor for nationalism seen as a reaction to interference from outside, seems to come from G. V. Plekhanov, Essays in the History of Materialism, trans. Ralph Fox (London, 1934: John Lane The Bodley Head), p. vii, where Plekhanov writes: ‘When the twig is bent in one direction it has to be bent back to straighten it.’ He is speaking here of correcting misconceptions of the thinkers he is examining, not of nationalism. Berlin cites this book in the bibliography to his Karl Marx (1939). Evidently Plekhanov’s metaphor struck him, and he (later?) attached it to a view of nationalism he associated with Schiller, thereafter misattributing the metaphor, usually to Schiller (plausibly but wrongly), and on one occasion to Diderot (mistakenly). The discovery of the origin of Berlin’s bent twig was made in May 2004 by Joshua Cherniss. 

30 May 2004


core, common / central

See ‘horizon, human’.


‘Counter-Enlightenment’, the history of the term

The following note (2013) appears as AC2 xxv/1, glossing the title of Berlin’s essay ‘The Counter-Enlightenment’:

It is sometimes said that Berlin invented this term in titling this essay. In fact the term was used decades before by Charles Gray Shaw in his The Precinct of Religion in the Culture of Humanity (London, 1908), 9, and in his entry on ‘Culture’ in James Hastings and others (eds), Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics (Edinburgh, 1908–26), iv 358. It also appears before 1973 in Arthur Preston Whitaker and others, Latin America and the Enlightenment, ed. Arthur Preston Whitaker (New York, 1942), 86; in Charles W. Morris, ‘Empiricism, Religion, and Democracy’, in Lyman Bryson and Louis Finkelstein (eds), Science, Philosophy and Religion, 2nd symposium (New York, 1942), 213–41 at 214; in William Barrett, ‘Art, Aristocracy and Reason’, the third item in Richard Chase, Lionel Trilling and William Barrett, ‘The Liberal Mind: Two Communications and a Reply’, Partisan Review 16 no. 6 (June 1949), 649–65, at 663–5, and in the same author’s Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (New York, 1958), 244; in Lewis White Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and His Predecessors (Cambridge, MA, 1969), 8, 11, and in chapter 15, ‘The Counter-Enlightenment’, 362 etc.; and elsewhere. The equivalent German term ‘Gegen-Aufklärung’ dates back at least to Nietzsche’s Nachgelassene Fragmente of 1877 – Friedrich Nietzsche, Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Berlin, 1967), part 4, ii 478, 22[17] – as has been noted by Robert Wokler: see Joseph Mali and Robert Wokler (eds), Isaiah Berlin’s Counter-Enlightenment [Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 93 (2003) part 5], 26, note. (On p. 16 of the latter volume Wokler writes: ‘Now that what passes for civilisation has been transcribed on disk, it might be helpful if some computer hack were to trace every one of [the term’s] published uses prior to 1973. Though I do not aspire to the status of computer hack, I have here endeavoured to take up his challenge.) It is possible that Berlin was unaware of these earlier occurrences, in which case he would have re-invented the term; he himself was uncertain on this point.

Subsequently James Schmidt has found a 1790 use of ‘Gegenaufklärung’: anon. ‘Kritischer Versuch über das Wort Aufklärung (Beschluß)’, Deutsche Monatschrift 3 (November 1790), 233. Here, however, the term has a different meaning, viz. an opposed view of Enlightenment.


human horizon, the

In his delineations of what he believed to be a shared human nature, Berlin used the two conflicting / complementary metaphors of a shared core of quasi-universal values and a horizon limiting what other values were acceptable (or comprehensible? – see next paragraph). I once attempted to portray his views on this topic in a simplified diagram , which he accepted as accurate.

There is, as just hinted, a crucial ambiguity in the notion of the human horizon that afflicts both Berlin’s own writing and that of some commentators. Sometimes this horizon is taken, more widely, to delimit what can be understood as recognisably human activity, so that it includes immoral behaviour, whether it is based on empirical error (as Berlin believed Nazism to be, at least in part) or otherwise misguided, wrong, malign or evil; sometimes it is seen, more narrowly, as circumscribing only what is morally acceptable. In some cases this ambiguity can be cleared up one way or the other without any knock-on effect on the argument in which it occurs; in other cases the argument (however unwittingly) trades on it, and there may be a resulting paradox, or worse, that requires more far-reaching repair, or is even beyond repair. It is highly desirable that the ambiguity should be kept in mind and denied a role in future discussions. To this end we need two distinct labels, each confined to one of the two competing senses of ‘human horizon’. My own proposal would be to use the exisiting term in the broader sense, which seems more naturally fitted to it, and to rename the outer limit of the narrower field – the field of what is both human and acceptable (but not of course mandatory, unless it falls within the core) – perhaps calling this the ‘moral boundary’. In that case we should have at our disposal four progressively more capacious metaphors: the common / central / shared core (also sometime dubbed the moral minimum); the moral boundary; the human horizon; and the amoral, psychopathic realm of the inhuman beyond.

I am grateful to Joshua Cherniss and George Crowder for helping me to formulate the view expressed in the previous paragraph (whether or not they agree with it to any degree).

10 October 2004


illusions, the necessity of

I have long thought that most of us need several deep illusions in order to keep going. As T. S. Eliot observed, we can’t bear very much reality. One such illusion is that we are not going to die. Another is that we have free will. Another, perhaps, is that things in general, or morals in particular, make sense (which is where pluralism has a problem). Some of these illusions can’t be shed without incoherence: e.g. if we don’t have free will, not only can we not praise and blame (as Berlin argued), but we can’t know things either, since the concepts of knowledge and error make no sense, in my submission, without the power to choose between them. [...] So [...] I’d say that pluralism is likely always to remain a heterodox position, and so unlikely ever to become widely accepted. But one may hope: and after all, people do accept the most ludicrous things already [...], so maybe the hope isn’t in vain.

[...]

I don’t think we are irretrievably hard-wired against pluralism, but I do think our hard-wiring makes it damn difficult (for most of us, anyway) to be pluralist, and that it may therefore take a lifetime to work such an outlook into one’s bones.

17 December 2002


Israel and Palestine

The link takes you to Berlin’s well-known statement, made at the end of his life.


liberty, positive and negative

Several writers before Berlin made use of this distinction, implicitly or explicitly. Berlin himself refers to Constant’s discussion in 1819 of  the ‘liberty of the ancients’ versus that of the ‘moderns’. Uses by some other authors are listed below:

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (1788)
Friedrich von Schiller, letter to Christian Gottfried Körner (1793)
Mikhail Bakunin, ‘Trois conférences faites aux ouvriers du Val de Saint-Imier’: see ‘Three Lectures to Swiss Members of the International’, in Mikhail Bakunin, From out of the Dustbin: Bakunin's Basic Writings 1869–1871, ed. and trans. Robert M. Cutler (Ann Arbor, 1985: Ardis), 46
Bernard Bosanquet, The Philosophical Theory of the State and Related Essays (1899)
Guido de Ruggiero, The History of European Liberalism (1925)
John Plamenatz, Consent, Freedom and Political Obligation (1938)
Martin Heidegger, Vom Wesen der Wahrheit (Frankfurt am Main, 1943: Vittorio Klostermann), 16
Franz Neumann, ‘The Concept of Political Liberty’, in The Democratic and the Authoritarian State (1957)

Joshua L. Cherniss has compiled an invaluable list of previous uses of the distinction. I quote from note 37 to a paper he presented at the Harvard Political Theory Workshop on 5 April 2006:

[Berlin] probably adopted the positive/negative terminology because it was a common one in discussions of liberty. Strangely, Berlin’s forceful deployment of this distinction was acclaimed by many at the time as original, and the many earlier and contemporary uses of the negative/positive distinction (or the closely related distinction between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’) in discussions of liberty have tended to be passed over by subsequent historians and political theorists. It is now well known that the distinction was first made by Bentham (letter to John Lind, 27–8 March–1 April 1776, in Bentham, Correspondence, vol. 1,  310; see also the exposition of a conception of ‘negative’ liberty, in opposition to a paradigmatically ‘positive’ one, in Lind’s Three Letters to Dr Price … [London: T. Payne, 1776]), and subsequently by (among others) Kant (Critique of Practical Reason, 1788, part 1, book 1, chapter 1, section 8, theorem 4), T. H. Green (‘Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract’ [1881] in T. H. Green, Works, ed. R. L. Nettleship, 1888, vol. 3, 372) and Bernard Bosanquet ( The Philosophical Theory of the State and Related Essays, 1899, chapter 6, 3 (b), 127). Less often remarked is the fact that, in the decades leading up to Berlin’s essay, the positive/negative terminology, and/or the freedom from/freedom to distinction, had been used by Guido de Ruggiero ( The History of European Liberalism, trans. R. G. Collingwood, London, 1927, 350–6), Harold Laski (Authority in the Modern State, 1919; The Foundations of Sovereignty and other essays, 1922; A Grammar of Politics, 1925; Liberty in the Modern State, 1930; ‘Choosing the Planners’, in G. D. H. Cole et al., Plan for Britain, 1943, 112–15, etc.), R. G. Collingwood (The New Leviathan, 1942), Dorothy Fosdick ( What is Liberty?, 1938), J. P. Plamenatz ( Consent, Freedom and Political Obligation,1938), Karl Mannheim (‘Planned Society and the Problem of Human Personality’, Essays on Sociology and Social Psychology, 1953; lecture originally delivered at Oxford, 1938), Philip Blair Rice (‘Two Meanings of Liberty’, Journal of Philosophy 37 (1940), 376–82), Erich Fromm, (The Fear of Freedom, 1942), Charles Beard (‘Freedom in Political Thought’, in Ruth Nanda Anshen, Freedom: Its Meanings , 1942, 7–8), Barbara Wooton (Freedom under Planning, 1945, 14–15; Wootton, in turn, cited the use of the positive/negative distinction in Sir Geoffrey Vickers’s governmental report Purpose and Force), Bronislaw Malinowski (Freedom and Civilization , 1947),  Schlesinger (see The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom, 51–2), T. D. Weldon ( The Vocabulary of Politics, 1953, 70–2, 91–2), and Maurice Cranston (Freedom: A New Analysis, 1953) . The ‘freedom from/freedom to’ distinction was, indeed, so commonplace as to appear in a post-war textbook on European history (J. J. Saunders, The Age of Revolution, 1947, 10).

Marx, Karl, who shall we get to write on?

In the early 1930s the editors of the Home University Library were looking for an author to write for the series on Karl Marx. One of Berlin’s favourite stories turned on how he was far from their first choice for the job. See, e.g., L1 67. Other versions appear in his biography and his book of conversations with Ramin Jahanbegloo. None of them is accurate, as I discovered by consulting the surviving letters to and from H. A. L. Fisher, one of the series editors. As Joshua Cherniss puts it in a footnote in his draft D.Phil. thesis (dates of letters omitted here): ‘Each account offers a different list of the others who were asked to write the biography before Berlin: these are variously identified as Harold Laski, Frank Pakenham, later Lord Longford, G. D. H. Cole, Richard Crossman and the Webbs. The real story, as told by the H. A .L. Fisher Papers in the Bodleian Library [in Oxford], is as follows. Fisher first invited Harold Laski to write the book; Laski declined. [Fisher] then discussed asking both A. L. Rowse, then a socialist, and Beatrice and Sidney Webb, with Gilbert Murray, the other editor of the Home University Library. The Webbs also declined, and Fisher considered asking Pakenham, then a conservative; [Sir Tresham] Lever, the publisher at Thornton Butterworth, preferred someone on the Left, and suggested Tawney, but Fisher had already asked Pakenham, who agreed. There is no record of Pakenham withdrawing, though he would later deny ever having seriously contemplated writing the book. Fisher then suggested Berlin to Murray and Lever as preferable to Rowse. Fisher then approached Berlin about writing the book.’ When I mentioned these findings to Berlin, he was not terribly interested in abandoning the version(s) of the story he had become used to.

30 May 2004


plumping

From time to time, though not in his formal publications, Berlin used the verb ‘plump’ to refer to a type of decision-making that has been taken by some commentators to be arbitrary in rational terms, like sticking a pin into a menu blindfold to choose what to eat in a restaurant. Berlin’s plumping has been called ‘radical choice’ (by John Gray, for example), which is to highlight its unguidedness at the expense of any other features it may possess. There is something in this view, but it is probably not the whole story. An examination of Berlin’s actual uses of the term (see below) suggests that another element in its meaning for him is that a commitment is being made; that is to say, it is the force of the choice, and its consequences, that are at stake as much as the basis upon which it is made. In this respect, if not in others, it bears a certain similarity to the kind of self-defining choice favoured by at any rate some brands of Existentialism.

Another possibility to bear in mind is that when we plump, we may be guided by instinct and / or taste; in that case, although we may not immediately be able to rationalise the direction of our choice, since it is not made for reasons that we formulate explicitly to ourselves at the time, there may be unconscious reasons at work (if one may speak so), reasons that we may be able to uncover with the benefit of hindsight, or by reflection from a point of view other than the one we adopted at the time of making the choice.

One or both of these two considerations may suggest that Berlinian plumping is a somewhat more complex process than it is sometimes taken to be. And the second of them may provide the germ of one kind of argument against the view that his notion of plumping reduces his pluralism to relativism.

Berlin’s uses of the verb ‘plump’ [‘decide definitely in favour of (one of two or more possibilities’ – OED ]
‘Tolstoy over-simplified perhaps: but fundamentally he, & even the Victorian conventionals are right: people give themselves wholly & lose nothing irrecoverable: & unless one does, & has confidence, & is deceived, & generally plunges, plumps, commits, a close subterranean atmosphere will continue to enclose & enervate all attempts at stabilizing oneself at this or that level, nothing will ever be anything rather [than] something else, one will endlessly slip and lose grip.’ L1 243

‘The [US] newspapers are terrifically pro-us: success is what they admire: if the R.A.F. go on like this they will plump soon.’ L1 338 (1940, waiting for the US to join the war)

From interviews with Michael Ignatieff:
‘That’s typical of me, not accepting responsibility. I sit on the fence. I don’t plump. I’m not a crusader.’

‘[Salisbury] was once asked under what circumstances one goes to war, to which he said, “Well, we never can tell. You come out of your front door and you look, you wonder whether to take an umbrella or not; you look at the sky, it may rain it may not, you decide either to take an umbrella or not to take it. That’s when one goes to war. You have to make up your mind, you have to plump.” ’

‘That is your argument. If that doesn’t work, in the end you plump and then you have to say: No, I am for this and you’re for that [...]’

‘What do we do when they collide? Why, you plump, and whatever we do, we mind, whatever we do, we suffer shame and loss in such a case.’

‘The question is, why do you decide as you do? Because you decide that way, that’s what I believe, that’s what nobody will agree with me about, that’s quite wicked on my part, a real piece of capricious immoralism: but in the end you do plump, that’s when people try and criticise me and say, no there is a rational solution, there must be. We may not be perfect but there is such a thing as arriving at a rational solution, you weigh the factors and in some way you can establish some kind of solution that can be defended by argument.’

4 July 2004


From an interview with Steven Lukes (in a discussion of Weber on taking sides):
Lukes: In the end he said you had to take a side.
Berlin: Like Carl Schmitt. You plump.
Lukes: Yes, in the end.
Berlin: Of course, in the end. You take sides. Well I don’t disagree with that either. I believe that too.
6 October 2004

pluralism, descriptive / participatory

Co-existence between cultures which are not aware of one another – or, if aware, not in a position to come into conflict – is hardly pluralist in character, except in the descriptive sense that might be adopted by the observing social anthropologist: if he describes ‘primitive’ or ‘pre-contact’ cultures in a spirit that approves their variousness he might be described as having a pluralist attitude to these cultures; but the pluralism is in him, not in the cultures, at any rate as far as their own view of themselves is concerned. A self-consciously pluralistic attitude to one’s own cultural imperatives is a late flower of civilisation (some would regard it, wrongly in my view, as the first intimation of decadence); and since it cannot be entertained by a monist, it is not neutral with regard to the cultures that actually exist today.

From ‘Taking Pluralism Seriously’


pluralism hard to accept?

Why do some find pluralism harder to accept? That used to be called a difference of temperament – some like tidy gardens, some a wilderness. Is that not a sufficient answer in an academic context? The whole human race shares a temperament that likes to make sense of things, perhaps, but in a wide of range of different strengths. The pluralist comes at the wilderness end, liking loose ends, untidiness, open questions (as Berlin did); at the other end is the obsessively lawn-mowing, edge-trimming spirit who likes to docket everything in a system that has a definitive slot for everything, even the ‘Pieces of String that are Too Short to Use’ (the label allegedly found on one of a deceased old lady’s tins).

Taken more generally (i.e. beyond the realm of values) pluralism challenges the whole human assumption that there is comprehensive sense to be made. That things make comprehensive sense is one of the sanity-protecting illusions, perhaps, of which I spoke [above], and monism may be seen as a particular, and particularly damaging, manifestation of this illusion.

26 December 2002


quotations with Berlinian resonance

Bogus freedom
‘Our life is determined for us – and it makes the mind very free when we give up wishing, and only think of bearing what is laid upon us, and doing what is given us to do.’
George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss , book 5, chapter 1

True relativism
‘their moral notions, though held with strong tenacity, seem to have no standard beyond hereditary custom’
George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss , book 4, chapter 1

 ongoing: begun 26 July 2004


relativity of relativism, the

Much of the trouble with relativism arises from the strange fact that users of the term ‘relativism’ don’t answer the question ‘Relative to what?’ Relativism is itself relative – to the level at which it is applied. At one extreme everything is relative, at the other, nothing. Let me explain. 

In a Berlinian context, what I mean by the first extreme (let us call it the ‘highest level’) is the level of human nature. At that level, all values are relative, since if human nature was different, there would be different values. Values, says Berlin, are just the ends that humans pursue for their own sake. And it is a matter of fact (empirical fact, as philosophers say to distinguish it from logical fact) that most humans, in most places, at most times, have agreed on the core values that they accept (even if they sometimes fall short of them). These are among the values that the pluralist describes as ‘objective’, i.e. matters of fact, and their being objective just amounts to the fact that most people accept them. They are not ‘subjective’, i.e. just adopted at a whim, or as a matter of taste, as my preference for chocolate over coconut might be described. They are rooted in human nature and human needs, in what makes human society work best. Nor are they ‘relative’, and here this term is being applied at a lower level, to mean relative to a particular historical period, or a particular society, or a particular part of the world. 

Of course, this is a factual claim that may be mistaken, and that is why Berlin has been described as a ‘philosophical anthropologist’, meaning that he looks at a wide range of human cultures and arrives at (among much else) the hypothesis that their members all share a common human nature and (as a result) common values. The way the common values look and work in practice may differ more or less superficially in different places and times and cultures, may be relative to those differing circumstances, but they can be seen to be the same underneath. 

Once one adds to this view the idea of incommensurability, one has the essence of what I understand Berlin to mean by ‘objective pluralism’ – the view that values are both objective and plural, and not relative to sub-groups of humanity of one kind or another. If they were so relative, there would be a barrier of incomprehension between these groups, and for Berlin there isn’t. That’s why he lays such stress on our capacity to understand, albeit with great difficulty, alien cultures. It’s important to him that we are all part of a single moral community. If we weren’t, we should have nothing to say to those who break our most sacred rules, e.g. against murder or arbitrary cruelty. 

There are all sorts of complications to be added to this central idea, but they don’t, I hope, undermine it. One of the main ones is that we don’t all have to adopt all the objective values there are. Indeed, we simply couldn’t, for various reasons. Rather, human nature defines a set of possible values – perhaps 72, as Berlin says, or 122, or however many it may be. A subset of these are central, and essential to any decent society; others are more peripheral, but their relationship to human nature is such that, even if we don’t adopt them ourselves, we can empathise with those who do. Any alleged values that fall outside the larger set aren’t really human values at all: those who insist on following them are inhuman or mad. 

25 October 2002


Schumpeter

‘To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian.’ Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (London, 1943), p. 243

... sticking firmly to one of a number of possible value-menus without claiming that it’s the only sustaining diet ...

The pluralist [...] is aware that (some of) his choices have the characteristic that they were not rationally compelling, so that other possible choices might have been of no less merit. And yet, once the choices are made, they become incorporated into the identity of the chooser, to whom the alternative choices then become decreasingly available. At the time I choose a life-partner, perhaps, I might have made other choices, but the longer I am with that partner, the more the initial decision becomes built into my personality. So, unless I stray, I ‘stand … unflinchingly’ by a decision which I nevertheless recognise to have been ‘relative’ in the sense that it was not the only ‘correct’ decision available to me when I made it. Different temperaments handle this situation in different ways [...]: some suppress the ‘relativity’ of their choice, finding it more helpful to regard it as uniquely right: hence notions of ‘Mr / Miss Right’, perhaps. Others are content or even delighted to remember that they took one of several possible turnings, and in so doing set out on the path to becoming one of a number of possible people – a path from which there is no (full) turning back, frustrating as this may be if it tuns out to be a blind alley.

This may be connected with something Berlin said to me once when I asked him what he felt about people who said that, in not writing a ‘great book’, he had not fulfilled his potential. Did he feel that he might have achieved this ambition had he made different choices? Not at all, he said: people do what they do, and it’s nonsense to say they might have turned out differently if they had only pulled themselves together, or whatever. On the face of it, perhaps, this contradicts what I have said in the previous paragraph, since it sounds almost fatalistic; if it does, it’s another example of the way in which it may be impossible to knit all Berlin’s ideas together into a coherent structure. But I think he was concerned less with the pluralist idea that we make our own identities by choosing – which he certainly did believe – than with the desire to eliminate a source of fruitless regret or disappointment about the way our lives turn out.

19 December 2002

[I]t is the whole point of the Schumpeter quotation at the end of ‘Two Concepts’ that the civilised person adopts firm principles for him / herself without holding them monistically.

25 December 2002


tolerance, radical

The tolerance exhibited by monists is quite different from that required of pluralists towards other pluralists. A monist tolerates, patronisingly, views he regards as mistaken, hoping that one day they will be discarded in favour of the truth. A pluralist tolerates, open-endedly, the pursuit of values whose claims he recognises, at least in some cases, to be no less strong than those of his own values. If one wanted a label, one might call the latter variety of tolerance ‘radical tolerance’, to mark the fact that it calls on deeper reserves of flexibility, and does not see itself as ideally temporary. The tolerance extended by the pluralist to the monist is not ‘radical’ in [this sense]. Just as the monist hopes that the pluralist will see the light and embrace the unique truth, the pluralist looks for the abandonment by the monist of his overweening and exclusive certainty. There is this much truth – and no more – in the gibe that pluralism is just another form of monist intolerance: as a second-order, meta-ethical view pluralism does not exemplify the same restrictiveness as a monism claiming that all men should subscribe to a particular, definite morality. Indeed it is only if some form of pluralism is true that monisms are bound to be unduly restrictive as such.

From ‘Taking Pluralism Seriously’

In progress; suggestions for additions welcome

Most of the items dated October–December 2002 are taken from informal comments posted during the first online course on Berlin offered by the now defunct AllLearn