Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin (06 June 1909–5 November 1997)

Today is the 113th anniversary of the birth of Isaiah Berlin (06 June 1909–5 November 1997), who was born on this date in 1909.

Berlin focused on the Enlightenment and the romantic reaction against the Enlightenment, writing detailed studies on Vico, Herder, Hamann, Helvétius, Rousseau, Ficthe, Hegel, Saint-Simon, and de Maistre. The collection of essays on the last six names on this list is titled Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty. Since Berlin has placed himself in the role of advocate for the Enlightenment, and has devoted a significant part of his oeuvre to calling out the dangers of counter-Enlightenment, he finds himself allied with the defenders of historical progress, who see humanity on a trajectory of progress toward greater freedom, which ought to put him in a difficult position vis-à-vis his critique of these speculative philosophers of history, but we will get to that in a moment.

Berlin reiterates much of the position of philosophers of history in the tradition of Windelband, Rickert, and Dilthey in arguing that history should not be counted among the natural sciences, but involves a very different kind of inquiry. Given Berlin’s erudition, it is remarkable that he never engaged in a detailed exposition of this neo-Kantian tradition. Windelband in mentioned in his essay on Vico, “Windelband and representatives of other philosophical schools showed some faint interest in him,” and Rickert is mentioned in The Power of Ideas: “Meinecke was brought up in the faith of this movement, and used its own canons, like Dilthey (by whom he was profoundly impressed) and Max Weber and Rickert, to describe and resurrect its origins for scientifically minded generations which had begun to be exceedingly sceptical about its validity.”

Of Dilthey, for whom one might expect Berlin would have a little more sympathy than Windelband or Rickert, he does indeed have a few more words — but only a few. Much like his mentions of Windelband and Rickert, Dilthey appears in lists of names: “…what constitutes a historical fact is not identical for Ranke, Michelet, Macaulay, Guizot, Dilthey.” (Introduction to Vico and Herder) Occasionally, there are some more developed thoughts, like this aside in his essay on Hamann:

“I do not wish to say that Hamann condemns ordinary reasoning, in the sense in which we speak of reasonable people or actions. It seems to me that his idea of the Vernunft which guides ordinary thinking is closer to what we mean by ‘understanding’, Verstehen as opposed to Wissen, which leads to a true sense of reality, God’s creation; an eye for the concrete, the individual, the unique, the flow of living life; the encounter with the real, face to face. It is this that appealed to Jacobi and Goethe: the imaginative or quasi-artistic insight which Wilhelm Dilthey and his followers developed so richly, and which so irritated the great systematiser Hegel, and for that reason alone might have stirred the enthusiasm of Kierkegaard.”

Still, this is only a mention. This is not where we find Berlin’s fundamental orientation. Neither do we find it — especially, I should say, we do not find it — in the implied other, philosophies of history that eschew careful analysis in favor of broad brush strokes characterizing the whole of human history. Much of Berlin’s essay “Historical Inevitability” is devoted to combating the latter school of thought. Thus:

“For Bossuet, for Hegel, for Marx, for Spengler (and for almost all thinkers for whom history is ‘more’ than past events, namely a theodicy) this reality [which transcends empirical experience] takes on the form of an objective ‘march of history’. The process may be thought of as being in time and space or beyond them; as being cyclical or spiral or rectilinear, or as occurring in the form of a peculiar zigzag movement, sometimes called dialectical; as continuous and uniform, or irregular, broken by sudden leaps to ‘new levels’; as due to the changing forms of one single ‘force’, or of conflicting elements locked (as in some ancient myth) in an eternal Pyrrhic struggle; as the history of one deity or ‘force’ or ‘principle’, or of several; as being destined to end well or badly; as holding out to human beings the prospect of eternal beatitude, or eternal damnation, or of both in turn, or of neither. But whatever version of the story is accepted — and it is never a scientific, that is, empirically testable theory, stated in quantitative terms, still less a description of what our eyes see and our ears hear — the moral of it is always one and the same: that we must learn to distinguish the ‘real’ course of things from the dreams and fancies and ‘rationalizations’ which we construct unconsciously for our solace or amusement; for these may comfort us for a while, but will betray us cruelly in the end. There is, we are told, a nature of things and it has a pattern in time…”

Specifically in regard to Hegel, in his essay on Hegel in Freedom and Its Betrayal, Berlin wrote:

“…when we study history, Hegel supposes, we reach a sufficiently rational level, we rise to a certain stage of illumination in which we begin to understand that historical events not merely happened as they did, but had to happen as they did, necessarily; not in the sense of the mechanical causality with which physics deals but rather, for example, in the sense in which we follow the stages of a mathematical argument, where there are rigorous rules; or perhaps even of a symphony, where there are not quite such fixed rules, but we can say that each successive portion is, as it were, inevitable, or, as Hegel might say, a ‘rational successor’ of the previous portion, so that we say the earlier stage ‘does not make sense’ unless the later stage is there to complete it, in the way in which the pattern of the carpet can be traced. When we have learned arithmetic and music in this way, we move freely in the mathematical or musical world. The pattern becomes identified with our own mode of thought and feeling and action. We no longer feel it to be external or oppressive to us, or that there are grim de facto laws hemming us in to which we must adjust ourselves, but which are not part of what we are, what we want — of our own lives.”

Berlin, then, definitely rejects the speculative or substantive philosophy of history that everyone has come to associate with Hegel, and he simply neglects the analytical or formal philosophy of history that has its origins in Windelband, Rickert, and Dilthey (and which has subsequently taken on so many diverse forms). What remains, one may wonder, of philosophy of history at this point. We have seen in the work of Descartes, Jacob Burckhardt, Karl Löwith and Simone Weil, inter alia, that a non-philosophy of history sometimes substitutes for a philosophy of history — an approach that is critical of philosophies of history only, without attempting to fill the void left by the critique — but the human mind no less than nature abhors a vacuum, and an epistemic vacuum will be filled eventually, whether or no we acknowledge that content which seeps its way into the recently vacated realm of thought.

When Berlin participated in a panel discussion at a 1974 conference on the philosophy of history, titled “Is a philosophy of history possible?” his answer was suitably circumspect:

“Let me begin to say something quite modest in order to try to build a bridge between two very different points of view — between the analytical philosophers and the others, far removed from them, which has occurred in the course of these discussions. It seems to me that there exist apparently quite routine, but in fact very rich, topics towards which the philosophy of history could attract the attention of both: for example, the examination of how certain key concepts are used by historians. This would involve them in the philosophy of history in the most direct and central fashion.” (Philosophy of History and Action, p. 219)

But Berlin is above all remembered for his engagement with the “big questions” of western intellectual life, and this is implicitly recognized by Kas Mazurek in his paper, “Isaiah Berlin’s Philosophy of History: Structure; Method; Implications. Philosophy & Social Criticism,” in which Mazurek notes both Berlin’s engagement with these questions and his ambiguous attitude to them:

“Berlin supports a Kantian notion of freedom as it combines ’shared patterns’ in the form of universal phenomenological categories with genuine limits to knowledge (everything outside these shared patterns is ’metaphysical’ and cannot be proven), while retaining true freedom of choice (within the limits of knowledge we can exercise our individual will). He praises Vico’s concept of history as Vico shows the way toward an understanding of how history can develop while recognizing that successive epochs have basic foundational similarities which enable us to truly empathize with past societies. Berlin’s ‘obscurities’ arise from the simple fact that, unlike Vico and Kant, he is not bold enough to define and delineate — he merely hints and asks us to believe.” (pp. 403–404)

Berlin’s interest in questions of liberty and freedom may be the key to his conception of history. While he implicitly positions himself with the Enlightenment philosophers of history — Condorcet, Kant, Lessing, Schiller, and Herder among them (the latter being a transitional figure, and so belonging as much to romanticism as to the Enlightenment) — he has at the same time so immersed himself in the counter-Enlightenment critique that he sees the limitations of Enlightenment philosophy of history, but he retains the hope that the Enlightenment can ultimately overcome these failures.

Berlin, as a man of the twentieth century, who witnessed the turmoil and violence of its world wars, perhaps perceived Enlightenment ideals as beleaguered and in need of a champion. For Berlin, then, Enlightenment freedom is aspirational — not yet attained, certainly not yet secure — so that the movement of history toward greater freedom (i.e., “progress” for Enlightenment thinkers) is always threatened by the enemies of liberty, who may, at any moment, overturn whatever gains have been made, returning humanity to an earlier condition of bondage.

In his essay “From Hope and Fear Set Free” Berlin defines liberty as he sees it:

“True liberty consists… in self-direction: a man is free to the degree that the true explanation of his activity lies in the intentions and motives of which he is conscious, and not in some hidden psychological or physiological condition that would have produced the same effect, that is, the same behaviour (posing as choice), whatever explanation or justification the agent attempted to produce. A rational man is free if his behaviour is not mechanical, and springs from motives and is intended to fulfil purposes of which he is, or can at will be, aware; so that it is true to say that having these intentions and purposes is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for his behaviour.” (Concepts and Categories, p. 228)

We can see from this passage that what Berlin elsewhere calls “historical inevitability” is the enemy of liberty, and that dragon must be slain in order to mankind realize and enjoy his freedom. Thus Berlin’s work may be considered a part of the great libertory imperative that informed so much of twentieth century thought and which indeed authentically has its origins in the Enlightenment and its concern to liberate humanity from its self-imposed limitations — but Berlin’s conception of liberation is liberation in the context of historical evitabilism. Progress in freedom is not inevitable, but it is possible. The historical inevitibilists like Marx that Berlin criticized were ultimately engaged in the same liberatory project as Berlin himself, but from the other side of the division between necessity and contingency (i.e., there is a modal distinction between Berlin and Marx), hence the ambiguity of the advocacy of liberation in the twentieth century.

In addition to his many books, Berlin also delivered many talks on the BBC, including an eighteen minute talk in philosophy of history (the Philosophy Overdose channel on Youtube has uploaded many of Berlin’s talks).

Further Resources


Mazurek, K. (1979). Isaiah Berlin’s Philosophy of History: Structure; Method; Implications. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 6(4), 392–406. doi:10.1177/019145377900600403



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