Unfinished Dialogue

‘Niedokończony dialog’, review of Isaiah Berlin and Beata Polanowska-Sygulska,
Unfinished Dialogue
(New York, 2006: Prometheus Books)
Przegląd Polityczny
No 79/80 (2006), 104

Translated from the Polish by Beata Polanowska-Sygulska and Henry Hardy

Historians of ideas, even those dealing with contemporary thought, rarely have an opportunity to interrogate their heroes in detail and confirm the validity of their interpretations of the views that they are elucidating. More than one of them would find this unnecessary anyway, convinced that they themselves know best what a particular author had in mind.

Beata Polanowska-Sygulska – a well-known scholar of liberalism – does not have such self-confidence, so while she was working on her dissertation on Sir Isaiah Berlin’s views, she felt the need to make contact with him, possibly in person. She was lucky enough not only to have met him a number of times, which was never too difficult for anybody visiting Oxford, but also to have formed an intellectual relationship with him which made possible much more than a conventional exchange of opinions.

It is a good thing that the by no means negligible record of their personal contact, which lasted almost until Berlin’s death, has not remained the private property of the scholar from Krakow, but has been made available as a book for those who are interested. The book – published in an exemplary form in 2006 and with a Foreword by Henry Hardy, who perhaps knows most about the legacy of the author of Two Concepts of Liberty – is entitled Unfinished Dialogue, and includes – apart from Dr Polanowska-Sygulska’s memoirs of Berlin – her correspondence with him (1983–1997), two interviews conducted in 1991, a record of their conversations (1986–1995), and several articles on Berlin by herself.

Not all the contents of the book are a novelty. [Some of the material has appeared elsewhere, mostly in Polish: BP-S.]  But we have not previously been able to get to know either the full correspondence published here or, in particular, the record of the conversations, which I regard as the most interesting part of the book. I do not intend to belittle the value of the other sections, but to point to the one that I personally find most enriching.
An additional, and really exceptional, virtue of Unfinished Dialogue is the evident fact that it is actually a dialogue, which not only enables us to improve our understanding of the ideas it addresses, but also to meet two interesting personalities. Although the Polish author puts herself in the shade of the great inlerlocutor, and adopts – perhaps too often – the attitude of a well-brought-up pupil, yet she is permanently present and makes him say more than he would have done if she had not been there. There is nothing surprising about this, since she asks him questions about Polish experiences and the reception of his thought in Poland.

The question obviously arises whether the book under review modifies in any essential way our image of Isaiah Berlin. One must, I think, answer such a question in the negative. But there is no doubt that the book enriches this image, and renders the service to the reader of making him realise the relevance of Berlin’s liberalism (or, perhaps, liberalism in general) at a time when so many people arrive at what seems to me the hasty conclusion that we have finally reached the post-liberal era. The reason why the Oxford sage is still relevant has been best elucidated by John Gray in an article written (also in connection with the publication under review) for the New York Review of Books.

The enrichment of our image of Berlin that we owe to Unfinished Dialogue consists mainly in adding a number of details to his – in general only sketchily known – biography. It also consists in providing his own commentaries on the views he has expressed on other occasions on a whole spectrum of topics, not necessarily connected with his conception of freedom, which quite understandably interested his interlocutor most. Had the conversations been steered by somebody else, the topics of, say, Russia, or romanticism, or something else, would have been tackled; but, in any event, a large number of themes are taken up. To find out whether Berlin modified any of his views in the course of these conversations, a detailed analysis, which I am not able to undertake here, would be required.

But this would not be important for the reader who is not a specialised student of Berlin’s ideas. What would count for such a reader would primarily be the fact that these conversations read extremely well. Berlin appears here once more as a brilliant interlocutor and an acute thinker, who is also capable of speaking about everything with crystal clarity – not so often a virtue of philosophers. I say ‘philosophers’ because Berlin remained a philosopher, though he appeared to have ceased to be one long before, having chosen the role of a historian of ideas. As such a historian he has indeed enormous achievements to his name (for example, nobody else has characterised more accurately the European Enlightenment and its first critics), but most of all he is irreplaceable as an exemplar of an undogmatic style of thinking, and of plain wisdom.

Beata Polanowska-Sygulska’s book belongs to a rather scarce species of scholarly literature whose main virtue is not the originality of this or that thesis, but the presentation of a thinking human being in an encounter with another thinking human being, who, though the latter belongs to a different social world, is nevertheless absorbed in the same great issues. And this is what the illuminating value and the unquestionable charm of the book in question consists in.

Jerzy Szacki is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of Warsaw