The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library

Review of The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin

Edited by Mark Lilla, Ronald Dworkin and Robert B. Silvers

New York Review Books, 2001

Henry Hardy

This is an uncut version of a piece that appeared with cuts in the Times Higher Education Supplement on 30 November 2001, pp. 24–5
At the end of October 1998, a year after Isaiah Berlin died, a group of his friends and critics gathered in Manhattan, under the auspices of the New York Institute for Humanities, for a conference on his intellectual legacy. This volume comprises the resulting proceedings, in which eleven brief papers, presented in three linked groups, are followed by transcripts of the discussion they provoked. There are some top-quality minds on top form here, and it is exhilarating to see them in action.

The focus is on aspects of Berlin’s ‘objective pluralism’, his unsettling view that ultimate human values are objective but irreducibly multiple, and that their demands sometimes clash in ways that resist rational resolution. In these circumstances we have to make a choice that is bound to flout one value or the other, so that we cannot avoid a tragic loss of what the overridden value cherishes. Whatever we decide will be wrong from one binding perspective. George Bush please note.

Versions of this phenomenon occur within individuals and societies, and also between cultures, which embody mutually exclusive value-systems. Of course, most mature cultures share certain core values – the prohibition of cruelty and avoidable violence, for instance – just as the foundations of buildings as distinct as the Taj Mahal and Westminster Abbey may be much the same. But even though we need satisfactory foundations to avoid architectural and social collapse, we cannot inhabit mere substructures. We need superstructures too. Even here the range of options is limited, since the laws of mechanics must be respected and the rain kept out. But within this limiting horizon the variety is lush.

The three pluralist themes which group the papers are the Counter-Enlightenment, pluralism considered head-on, and Jewish nationalism. Within the present narrow confines it is possible only to gesture selectively at some of the riches on display.

The first and longest of the contributions is by Aileen Kelly, co-editor of Berlin’s Russian Thinkers. She earns her prominence. Second to none in her fidelity to Berlin’s three-dimensional intellectual personality, she refuses, as he did, to separate moral investigation from the concrete personal or social circumstances that alone give it its point. She is also exceptionally knowledgeable about the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia, which enables her to keep up with, and build on, Berlin’s encounters with its members. She provides refreshingly new data relevant to the contentious issue of whether Berlin’s pluralism undermines his liberalism by drawing on his Russian essays, especially those on Herzen, Tolstoy and Turgenev. This fertile and important source is usually ignored in the literature on this topic. I don’t go all the way with her strongly particularist interpretation of pluralism, but her widening of the debate is welcome.

‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one big thing.’ Berlin made Archilochus’ line famous by using it as a metaphor to distinguish (I put it crudely) single-issue fanatics from those who welcome MacNeice’s ‘drunkenness of things being various’. Steven Lukes offers a typology of Berlinian hedgehogs and foxes and places Berlin within it as ‘an empiricist, realist, objectivist, anti-irrationalist, anti-relativist fox’. Fair enough, though the endless discussion of where precisely to place Berlin on the erinaceous/vulpine continuum is, to quote Berlin’s own description of the result of pressing the distinction too far, ‘artificial, scholastic, and ultimately absurd’.

Mark Lilla eloquently records his appreciation of Berlin the man, but then disagrees fairly deeply with his characterisation of the historical figures he wrote about. Developing a familiar criticism, he tells us in effect that these figures are a lot less in tune with Berlin than Berlin paints them. There is truth in this complaint, but it misses the important point that what is exciting and valuable in Berlin is the product of his encounters with these figures, however much he misconstrues them. Had he been scrupulously accurate and balanced, the outcome might have been better as straight intellectual history, but it would have been no substitute as an illumination of human life. Berlin’s pluralism is exemplified by the nature of his own gifts: we could have had a dutiful attempt at reliable history in place of creative engagement with an eclectic personal reading of the past, but not both. It would have been a waste for one who could give us the second to settle for the first.

Ronald Dworkin captures the heart of Berlin’s pluralism with exemplary clarity, but then suggests that if we understand our values properly we can after all harmonise them. He seeks to define liberty in such a way that it does not conflict with equality – thus begging the question, though he denies doing so. Berlin endorses Joseph Butler’s dictum that ‘Every thing is what it is, and not another thing’, and applies this to human values: ‘Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.’ Dworkin’s attempted evasion of this principle is ingenious, but does not carry conviction, in ways that Bernard Williams, Thomas Nagel and Charles Taylor instructively explain.

Robert Silvers, Avishai Margalit, Richard Wollheim and Michael Walzer speak revealingly on Israeli nationalism, even if they raise more questions than they answer, as seems inevitable in this agonisingly troubled area. Margalit, as often, is a specially wise counsellor. One of his paragraphs should be hung in large type over the desk of every over-formalistic philosopher, in particular this adaptation of a remark by Kant: ‘Though feelings without ideas are blind, ideas without feelings are dead.’ The deeply felt vision that permeates Berlin’s oeuvre testifies to the importance of this truth.

Margalit also speculates about Berlin’s last words. So far as I know, these were (characteristically enough) ‘And where do you come from?’, addressed to the nurse attending him at the time of his death. The need for an answer to this question, asked in a deeper sense, is for Berlin among those that are of primary importance for human beings. This was especially true for the Jews of the diaspora; and it was the justification of Berlin’s Zionism that the only acceptable answer for many of them was ‘Israel’.

Because of its origins the whole book has an unusual informality and approachability. This means that newcomers to Berlin as well as seasoned Berlinians will gain much from reading what these experts have to say. The tone is respectful but happily not hagiographical. Most of the speakers are exceptionally lucid in substance and style, though there are isolated defaulters on both counts.

The three editors (who confusingly appear in different pecking-orders on jacket and title page) have on the whole done a good job of removing the superficial irritations of a verbatim transcript, but without losing the sense of occasion that makes the text distinctive. Just two grumbles: the absence of an index is a trahison des clercs; and the footnotes would have been more useful if the references given for quotations had been standardised, both bibliographically and as to presence or absence.

Otherwise, full marks all round. This is a really valuable addition to the as yet brief list of good books on Isaiah Berlin. As such, it is a contribution to the legacy it examines.

The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library