Isaiah Berlin: Against dogma

Isaiah Berlin: Against dogma

Henry Hardy considers the hostility to oversimplification that motivated Berlin’s work

By Henry Hardy

A simple list of Isaiah Berlin’s principal beliefs, stripped of the rich detail and nuance that he always supplied, may strike the reader as so obvious as to be banal; yet his positions have not always been taken as obvious. Berlin occasionally defined genius as the ability to turn a paradox into a platitude, and part of his own genius was to effect such a transformation about matters central to human self-understanding, which he saw as the fundamental objective of philosophy. “Know thyself”, as the ancient maxim has it. Consider the summary of Berlin’s views that follows: how many of them were once, or still are, considered controversial?

Definitive, universal answers to most moral and political questions are in principle impossible, so that the attempt to impose such answers, especially by force, is never justified. There is often more than one right answer, partly because human values and the cultures they variously contribute to are irreducibly distinct from one another – cannot be translated into the terms of a common denominator. Nor, therefore, can either values or cultures be ranked in an objective hierarchy.

Not all needs, desires and values are shared by everyone, but many are common to the great majority of human beings, whatever time, place or society they belong to. If it were not so, we could not understand, assess and communicate with others. One of our shared needs is to belong to a community whose language and form of life we can effortlessly negotiate, recognizing them as a central part of our identity. This is the basis of cultural nationalism, a peaceable cousin of political nationalism, and one we should not aspire to eliminate in favour of cosmopolitanism, which Berlin called “the shedding of all that makes one most human”.

Science cannot completely explain human behaviour, but needs to be supplemented by the capacity for empathy with other humans that we all naturally possess. Empathy underpins personal and political judgement – Berlin’s “sense of reality” about human affairs. Without it, the study of mankind is incomplete, and this is also why undiluted managerialism is an inhumane tool for controlling human society.

Free choice is of the essence of human nature, and without it our conceptual world would collapse. People should freely make their own decisions about what to be and do, without interference from or dictation by others. The ultimate source and touchstone of morality is the individual, not the collective, let alone the unknowable divine.

These are all key beliefs held by Isaiah Berlin (1909–97), one of the major thinkers of the twentieth century. Born in Riga to Jewish parents and brought up in Russia and England, he spent his professional life as an Oxford don. He was both a philosopher and a historian of ideas, as well as a public moralist and intellectual. He was also a wise and remarkable person (not a perfect one, of course), a mesmerizing talker, a masterly writer of English prose and a consummate essayist. His principal contributions to our contemporary intellectual landscape issue from his investigations into the ideas of past thinkers, which he re-presented to us in a clarified and intensified, enriched and improved form. His ideas are increasingly relevant and urgent in our own time, with its growing globalization and migration. Far from being homogenizing forces, these phenomena uncover and exacerbate the ethical differences that divide humanity, bringing to centre stage just those issues of multiculturalism and mutual cultural (in)tolerance that Berlin illuminated.

If his contributions to thought share a motivation, it is hostility to oversimplification and scientism in the human arena. This hostility was already apparent in his early contributions to analytic philosophy, which resist attempts by logical positivists to force ill-fitting straitjackets on to linguistic phenomena whose rich complexity and variety invite an equally rich theoretical response.

Berlin’s absorption in the history of ideas dates back almost to the beginning of his academic career. In 1933 he was commissioned to write a book on Karl Marx, which was published in 1939 and is still in print today. His reading of Marx and Marx’s predecessors, especially the philosophers of the Enlightenment, and even more their opponents, the “Counter-Enlightenment” as he called them, fuelled his thought for the rest of his life.

In the Enlightenment he finds the most complete expression of a philosophical view that he traces back at least to Plato: the view that, properly managed and understood, human life and society can be harmonious and coherent, all moral and political questions finally answered, all values frictionlessly reconciled, and conflict and misery eliminated. (The enormous implausibility of such a view testifies to the ability of philosophers to espouse beliefs known to be false by anyone with a modicum of common sense.) In the eighteenth century this belief was reinforced by the success of the scientific revolution, which created the expectation that human affairs, like the natural world, could be explained in scientific terms. Scientism is the belief that science can answer all questions, and Berlin rejected it, though he was not anti-scientific, holding that science can and should solve the problems proper to its domain – which does not include the whole of human understanding.

Berlin’s most distinctive idea was what he called pluralism – what other thinkers tend to call value pluralism. Pluralism holds that the goods we honour, the ends we pursue, the values we endorse are plural – multiple and distinct – and cannot be interpreted as different manifestations of a single super-objective such as utility or happiness. Sometimes different goods conflict with one another: they can be incompatible, and also incomparable or incommensurable – that is, cannot be measured against one another on a common scale in order to determine a fixed rational priority among them. When they clash, are we to prefer freedom or equality? Happiness or knowledge? Spontaneity or organization? Justice or mercy? There can also be conflict within values, for example, between freedom of speech and freedom from abuse.

The same is true of the holistic constellations of values that we call cultures – this is cultural pluralism. It is not better to be Danish than Portuguese, or vice versa. This does not mean that anything goes (relativism), but that more than one thing goes, and no one thing can be systematically privileged. This is a complex vision, unappetising to grands simplificateurs, but one that is truer to life than the uniformitarian monism against which it is ranged. Berlin’s distinction, inspired by a fragment of Archilochus, between the monist hedgehog (the single-issue fanatic) and the pluralist fox (who welcomes variety and untidiness), and his celebration of what Kant called “the crooked timber of humanity”, out of which “no straight thing was ever made”, have entered the vocabulary of modern culture.

Berlin finds the first stirrings of pluralism in Machiavelli’s support, in the sixteenth century, for “republican” virtues against those of Christianity. Those who seek political power (Machiavelli has in mind Cesare Borgia in particular) will not succeed if they follow the values of the Church, “humility, acceptance of suffering, unworldliness, the hope of salvation in an afterlife”. They must instead be ruthless, courageous, bold, manipulative. Machiavelli did not wish to deny that Christian virtues were virtues; but he did argue that they were incompatible with the qualities needed for political success. This Berlin identifies as an embryonic form of moral dualism, from which moral pluralism is only one further step.

More developed forms of cultural pluralism are offered in the eighteenth century by another Italian thinker, Giambattista Vico (the inventor of the modern notion of culture), and the German philosopher J. G. Herder (who stressed the universal need to belong), two of Berlin’s intellectual heroes. In the Romantic movement that followed, pluralism reaches its apotheosis – indeed, for Berlin, goes too far. The Romantics regard all values and cultures as free, arbitrary creations of the human spirit, ignoring the common human nature that sets limits to their indefinite multiplication and so curbs the destructive potential of inhumane ideologies. But the insights of the Romantics, in a less undisciplined form, have become part of any mature understanding of human life and human societies.

A key plank in this understanding is the rejection of any claim to have answered once and for all the basic questions of human life: what to do, what to be, how to live. There is and can be no ultimate solution for us to discover, but instead a permanent need for balancing contradictory claims, for careful trade-offs between conflicting values, toleration of difference, consideration of the specific factors at play when a choice is needed, not reliance on an abstract blueprint claimed to be applicable everywhere, always, to all people. Berlin passionately rejects such panaceas: “Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals or groups (or tribes or states or nations or Churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth”. Human beings are constitutionally disposed to look for such universal answers, whether religious or political, and the battle against them, which needs an intellectual justification, will never be over.

In a world in which fanatics terrorize free societies in the name of an allegedly single true creed, and dictators force their subjects into conformity with a repressive ideology, these are not merely abstract considerations. Having witnessed the Russian Revolution as a child, Berlin had a particular horror of political violence, the sacrifice of real people today in the name of an imaginary state of future felicity. It was a cardinal error, for him, to prioritize an unknown future over a known present. He quoted another hero, the radical nineteenth-century Russian thinker Alexander Herzen: “The purpose of life is life.” And the pluralist worldview serves the cause of life, having the potential to turn terrorists into diplomats, despots into democrats.

Vico had another major idea which Berlin also made his own. When we wish to explain human behaviour, we have a form of understanding at our disposal quite different from that offered by the natural sciences, which accumulate empirical data as the building-blocks of their theories. We have a privileged “inside view” of human action, a capacity for direct empathy with the intentions and purposes that drive human behaviour. We therefore understand other people more deeply than we understand objects in nature – rocks, rivers, plants, even other animals. Our view of such objects is external, but our view of other humans is also, and more importantly, internal, and for this reason penetrates further into the springs of their conduct than our understanding of the natural world.

Human understanding looks for what is unique, particular, individual, unrepeatable; the sciences abstract from the particular and look for generalities. This is a strong rebuttal of scientism in the humanities, including management theory, to whose excesses Berlin drew attention. Indeed, he spoke of a “divorce” between the sciences and the humanities, inaugurated by Vico in the teeth of the tendencies that gave birth to the Enlightenment. The differences highlighted by this separation are often overlooked today, for example by behavouristically inclined sociologists.

One more central idea of Berlin’s occupies pride of place alongside his pluralism, and that is his liberalism, which stems in part from his encounters with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, whose ideas he enriched with pluralist insights. The root of a liberal outlook, for him, is that the most important distinguishing feature of human beings is freedom of the will, which enables us to make choices and so build our own unique identities. Any dogma or political system that constrains or forbids our choices, requiring instead compliance with some authoritarian dispensation, degrades and denies our human essence, and is to be resisted with all the means at our disposal. The most basic principle of Berlin’s liberalism is the Millian rule that every individual should be free from the interference of others, free to choose his or her own path in life, except in so far as restraint is needed to protect the same right for others. This is called “negative liberty” because it is based on an injunction not to impede another’s freedom.

This is not a principle honoured throughout history, and it is always under threat from totalitarians of various stripes. Berlin locates its first emergence in the Greek world in the early third century BC, by contrast with the collectivist political temper that preceded it. He finds it contrasted, in modern times, especially in the work of Benjamin Constant, with “positive liberty”, which is to be freely in charge of the active formation of one’s life and moral personality. This latter freedom, Berlin argues in his famous inaugural lecture, “Two Concepts of Liberty”, has been traduced in our own time by a piece of intellectual imposture with its origins in the collectivism of the Romantics, replacing the everyday self with a supposed higher “real self”, which is then identified with a collective such as the state as the true bearer of political freedom. The dictates of positive freedom are thus generated not by individuals, but by experts or authorities who claim to know our “real” wishes better than we do ourselves. Hence the appalling tyranny of, above all, Communism, and also of Fascism.

All these ideas are different ways of resisting an apparently permanent human impulse to simplify, to universalize, to generalize, to claim certainty where it cannot be had. In the realm of humanistic ideas there is an endless battle between this tendency and the more realistic intellectual personality that stands against it, and of which Isaiah Berlin was a peerless example.

Henry Hardy is a Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, and a trustee of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust; his memoir In Search of Isaiah Berlin: A Literary Adventure is published by I. B. Tauris

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