Isaiah Berlin’s Enlightenment Apologetics

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
17 min readJun 6, 2024

Thursday 06 June 2024 is the 115th anniversary of the birth of Isaiah Berlin (06 June 1909–5 November 1997), who was born in Riga, then part of the Russian Empire, the only son of a timber baron of the Baltic, on this date in 1909.

While being a “public intellectual” is perhaps more common in France than in England, Berlin approximated the role of a public intellectual, which was partly due to his many public speaking engagements. He preferred speaking to writing, and all his books were either dictated directly to secretaries or dictated to a recorder. As a result, his books have a conversational tone — they read like lectures because that’s what they were.

He started out as an Oxford linguistic philosopher, but remade himself as an historian of ideas. In a 1974 panel discussion at a conference on the philosophy of history, Berlin said, “…I have never been an historian and have long ceased to be a working philosopher.” However, Berlin’s thought was pervasively historical even when he was not trying to do philosophy of history. This could also be said of Nietzsche or Foucault, though both were worlds apart from Berlin, and certainly not merely because Nietzsche came before and Foucault came after, but all three had this in common: that understanding demanded a determined and detailed grasp of history, and if you are familiar with Nietzsche’s or Foucault’s work you’ll understand what I mean by this.

Berlin’s historical work focused on the Enlightenment and the romantic reaction to the Enlightenment. Arguably, Berlin was at this best, at his sharpest and most critical and penetrating, in discussing the romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, maybe provoked by those who would dare to question the presuppositions of the Enlightenment. And he came back to these figures time and again in one book after another. If we wanted to be uncharitable, we could say that Berlin made a career from exhibiting his incomprehension of an intellectual tradition to which he was unsympathetic. He stated openly that he didn’t understand Hegel, but this seems pretty obviously to have been a way to poke fun at Hegel. If Berlin couldn’t understand Hegel, could anyone really claim to understand Hegel? There was some justification for this implicit humblebrag, since Berlin’s historical erudition is almost intimidating.

Another thing about Berlin’s lectures is that they were highly entertaining. In this he resembled Bertrand Russell. You can find many of these lectures available online, e.g., there is a Youtube channel called Philosophy Overdose that has made available many of Berlin’s lectures. If you listen to them you’ll find that he is always clear, frequently witty and amusing, and, unlike me, he never trips over a word, and he’s speaking English as a second language. Lecturers who know how to be entertaining have the advantage of being able to get their audience nodding along and the amusement tends to suspend critical judgment. Berlin was a master at exploiting this advantage and so of being very persuasive.

Berlin corresponded with American philosopher Morton White over many years, and for some of those many years they discussed collaborating on a book on philosophy of history, an idea that Berlin first suggested in a letter to White of 04 October 1952. Berlin proposed that they write letters to each other, and that the correspondence be published as their joint volume on philosophy of history, perhaps to be called Letters on Philosophy of History.

Morton White was an American analytical philosopher with sympathies for American traditions like pragmatism, so his views were different enough from Berlin’s that their exchange could have been quite enlightening. The topics of their exchange were to include, according to White:

“…the nature of historical knowledge, the relation between history and the social sciences, the role of value judgments in historical research, the nature of historical explanation and causation, the character of historical language, the similarities and differences between history and the natural sciences, the nature of an adequate historical description of a given culture, period or event, and kindred questions.”

In another of White’s letters to Berlin he laid out for broad areas of discussion, to include:

“…that we distinguish at least four types of questions: (1) The logic of establishing single, singular statements about the past. Not a very interesting question in my opinion, but a manageable one. (2) The logic of establishing causal statements — “so”-statements, “since”- statements, “because’’-statements, “therefore”-statements. (3) The logic of judging the adequacy of narratives. To me the central problem, where a narrative is conceived as a total historical work about a period or place, etc. (4) The logic of judging large, Toynbeesque, Hegelian, Marxist, Spenglerian ‘theories’ of the process of history or civilization.”

Of the project Berlin wrote at one time:

“As for ‘research assistants’, I wonder whether we shall need them or not. The only purpose for which they could be needed would be to dig into and make some kind of précis and reports on some of the more voluminous but nevertheless not unimportant German and French writers whom we are likely to wonder about. I profess great admiration for, for example, Dilthey, whom I have been reading, and even for Weber, and there are various metaphysicians in the nineteenth century who might contain bits of matter of a vaguely stimulating kind. I wonder whether we might profitably not get hold of somebody who reads foreign languages simply in order to tell us what to look for and what kind of things these people discuss in which chapters of their enormous works. I do not think this would represent either much work or much expense, nor really relieve us to an appreciable extent of having to read the stuff ourselves, nevertheless I think some preliminary digging might really be done by somebody else under our direction.”

From this we can see that the scope of the project remained wide open as they batted it back and forth in letters over many years, including after White published his The Foundations of Historical Knowledge in 1965. It’s unfortunate that this joint work on philosophy of history was never written. There is a paper about this, An unrealised project? — Isaiah Berlin and the philosophy of history” by Renzhi Li, but I haven’t yet obtained a copy of it. However, some of this correspondence appears in Morton White’s autobiography, A Philosopher’s Life, and some of it in Berlin’s collected correspondence, and that’s where I found these quotes. Their correspondence is filled with philosophical gossip, much of it unflattering to great figures, and seems to have been pretty informal and free-wheeling. Berlin skewers almost everyone in his letters, and that fact that he shared all of these opinions with Morton White is a testament to how close they were, which would have made their collaboration on a book a live option.

Here’s one more quote from Berlin on what he imagined as the content of their unrealized joint project, from a letter to Morton White 04 October 1954:

“I should like to add what is, in my mind, one of the most important of these [themes], namely, the nature of historical understanding — that is to say of what is meant when it is said that historians understand a period well or badly, that they are good historians or poor, or profound or shallow, or that their accounts are plausible or unconvincing. You partly cover this by your term ‘historical explanation’, but not perhaps quite. I have been lecturing on this subject at Oxford, and have had very interesting reactions to the view which I have expounded, which is somewhat different to official positivist views, from historians who have come to these lectures, and in particular from the eminent Professor of Latin — just retired — Eduard Fraenkel, who explained to me why it was that he had declined to write the life of Mommsen when requested to do so by Wilamowitz and taught me a great deal about German historicism in the process. He came to all the lectures and generally took a great deal of lively interest in the whole thing. The nature of the logic of the human studies, in general, for example, the reconstruction of the classical past, the technique of emendation of historical and literary texts, and the relationship of historical imagination to rigorous canons of inference, as used, for example, by palaeographers, seems to me to be highly relevant to our study.”

These are interesting problems that have not attracted much attention from philosophers of history. And I agree with Berlin that the issues he is urging are not adequately covered by White’s conception of historical explanation. In particular, I am intrigued by the possibility of historical knowledge being profound or shallow, and this is something that I may follow up. Berlin revisits this question in a short paper from 1978, Is a philosophy of history possible?

“Neither depth nor greatness, incidentally, are concepts much mentioned by philosophers, although I daresay it would be a good thing if they were; for they are not mere rhetorical flourishes. ‘Deep’ is a metaphorical expression — a metaphor drawn from wells, perhaps. What does it mean? What is meant by saying (whether or not this is true) that Pascal is a profounder thinker than Descartes, or that Mommsen or Fustel de Coulanges are greater historians than industrious compilers or the authors of patriotic textbooks?”

However, in the same short paper Berlin concludes with the judgment:

“…I cannot help thinking that the most useful task — indeed, the main one — for philosophers of history is the analysis of the logic of historical explanation. This means the analysis of the use of such words as ‘because’, ‘therefore’, ‘in due course’, ‘it was not surprising that’ and so on, which act as connecting links between various propositions about the past, and bind them into logical structures (so it seems to me) in a fashion different from that in which such logical cement is used in the natural sciences.”

The very title of this brief essay, by the way — Is a philosophy of history possible? — implies that we might reasonably argue in the affirmative or the negative, that the question was for Berlin an open one.

Berlin’s judgment that the logic of historical explanation ought to be the main task of philosophers of history, and in particular how he here formulates the task, offers us some insight into his denial of the possibility of scientific history. In his paper “The Concept of Scientific History” Berlin writes in the final paragraph:

“…to be unscientific is to defy, for no good logical or empirical reason, established hypotheses and laws; while to be unhistorical is the opposite — to ignore or twist one’s view of particular events, persons, predicaments, in the name of laws, theories, principles derived from other fields, logical, ethical, metaphysical, scientific, which the nature of the medium renders inapplicable? For what else is it that is done by those theorists who are called fanatical because their faith in a given pattern is not overcome by their sense of reality? For this reason the attempt to construct a discipline which would stand to concrete history as pure to applied, no matter how successful the human sciences may grow to be — even if, as all but obscurantists must hope, they discover genuine, empirically confirmed, laws of individual and collective behavior — seems an attempt to square the circle. It is not a vain hope for an ideal goal beyond human powers, but a chimera, born of lack of understanding of the nature of natural science, or of history, or of both.”

What Berlin is saying here is not that the attempt to formulate a scientific history is beyond us at present, but that the very idea of it is incoherent. As with the idiographic/nomothetic distinction, to which he alludes in the paper, but from which he does not draw in any significant way, there is a parallelism between what scientists do and what historians do, but that parallelism at the same time assures us that there parallel tasks will never converge or coincide: they must remain parallel and separate. Berlin could have argued, as Windelband and Rickert argued, that scientific explanation and historical explanation are co-equal as sciences, despite their distinct methods. Instead, Berlin argued that the logic of historical explanation is the task of philosophy of history, implying that historical explanation itself is the task of historians, and asserting that this is no science at all because it is distinct from explanation in the natural sciences.

Despite the apparent similarity of Berlin’s view to Windelband and Rickert, he doesn’t choose to follow their lead. But loosely associated with Windelband and Rickert was Wilhelm Dilthey. Dilthey agreed with some of the critiques of Windelband and Rickert, but he also criticized them in turn, and took his own direction in the legitimation of historical knowledge and its differentiation from the knowledge of the natural sciences. In an above quote Berlin explicitly expressed his admiration for Dilthey, and in another the letter to Morton White he wrote:

“No English and no American writer seems to me to have been particularly illuminating on this subject — nor any Frenchman, not even Taine, or Marc Bloch. But Dilthey — wrongly accused of being a metaphysical muddler and a Hegelian, whereas he is merely both empirical and imaginative and a practising historian, and a man of very great gifts — particularly in the matter of historical generalisation, superior not merely to Toynbee but to Whitehead — seems to me to have talked a great deal of highly luminous sense on the subject.”

I would classify Dilthey as a non-philosopher of history along with Descartes, Jacob Burckhardt, Karl Lowith, and Simone Weil. In his Introduction to the Human Sciences, Dilthey pursues of line of argument similar to that of Löwith, assimilating philosophy of history to providential thought. Roughly, non-philosophers of history hold that philosophy of history is not a legitimate intellectual enterprise, for any number of reasons, or that it cannot deliver on its promises, whatever those promises might be. A non-philosophy of history, as I am using the idea, is 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 whatever it is that seeps its way into the recently vacated realm of thought. By my interpretation, then, Berlin admired non-philosophy of history, and we have to imagine that, if he had written the planned book with Morton White, he would have pressed home this non-philosophy of history and his interpretation of Dilthey.

Another element of significance is that Berlin’s conception of historicism was close to that of Popper’s, which makes him an outlier. If we take this conception of historicism along with Dilthey’s non-philosophy of history and the identification of the elucidation of historical explanation as the task of the philosopher of history, we get a picture of Berlin’s conception of history, and we find that it is not all that different from what we would expect from Anglo-American analytical philosophy. This helps us to understand Berlin’s affinity for Morton White and Berlin’s interest in writing a book on philosophy of history together with White. To be honest, Berlin’s project as I have described it here is not much different from Patrick Gardiner’s project in The Nature of Historical Explanation, which appeared the same year that Berlin suggested that White collaborate on a book with him on philosophy of history.

The conception of history I have described isn’t what we might have expected from Berlin, given his lifetime of work in humanistic scholarship. Berlin’s humanistic scholarship allowed him to neatly cleave Enlightenment philosophy of history from post-Enlightenment philosophy of history. He returned time and again to the post-Enlightenment and romantic figures that he regarded as being a lesson and a warning to us all. His book Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of the Enlightenment, covers Helvetius, Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon, and Joseph de Maistre. In this book Kant and Fichte serve as the representative caricatures of the Enlightenment conception of freedom and the counter-Enlightenment conception of freedom:

“…Kant, with his respect for human nature and its sacred rights, and Fichte’s identification of freedom with selfassertion, with the imposition of your will upon others, with the removal of obstacles to your desires, and finally with a victorious nation marching to fulfil its destiny in answer to the internal demands given to it by transcendental reason, before which all material things must crumble… These are the two notions of liberty which were spread over Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century; to ask which of them is true, and which of them is false, is a shallow and unanswerable question. They represent two views of life of an irreconcilable kind, the liberal and authoritarian, open and closed, and the fact that the word ‘freedom’ has been a genuinely central symbol in both is at once remarkable and sinister.”

Berlin further wrote studies on Vico and Herder that were collected in a volume titled Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, and Berlin wrote The Magus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism. This was eventually included with the essays on Vico and Herder. We can see the strong language he is using here to speak of these figures as enemies of freedom and as being as the root of irrationalism. Usually it’s Fichte and Hegel who are the villains of the piece.

There is a persistent tendency to treat Fichte and Hegel as proto-totalitarians specifically for their views on philosophy of history, and not only in Berlin’s work. I talked about this in my episode on Fichte in relation to George Santayana’s book Egotism in German Philosophy, quoting some of what Santayana wrote about Fichte. Berlin gives us the more elegant and suave version of the same idea, also displaced into the second half of the twentieth century so as to take account of the second world war in addition to the first. Popper belongs in this company as well, and his The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism both invoke Hegel as their bête noire. The more I think about this the more I realize that this idea deserves analysis on its own merits, partly because it is so widely held and so persistent, and partly because the truth or falsity of this claim would be interesting in its own right.

But Berlin wants to press his caricatures of philosophers into action. The Enlightenment cowboys all wear white hats and the counter-Enlightenment cowboys all wear black hats. When they have their inevitable gunfight at Berlin’s OK Corral, the inevitable result is that the cowboys in white hats win they day and save the damsel — i.e., Western history, which has been bound and left on the railway track — from the perilous danger in which she was left by the villains of the piece. The day is saved and the heroes ride into the sunset.

This might be a ridiculous way to present Berlin’s philosophy of history, but I’m putting it this way to make a point. Let me try to explain. It is difficult to get a proper perspective on the history in which we are immersed. It may be that we have a better chance of understanding events not of our own time as compared to being able to understand events not of our time, but there is admittedly something paradoxical about this. In my episode on Giovanni Gentile I talked the difference between knowledge from lived experience, which we have of our own time, and propositional knowledge, i.e., knowing that such-and-such is the case. Here I am implying that having the lived experience of our own times is an impediment to historical understanding, though maybe it would be better to say that lived experience is an impediment to dispassionate clarity and scientific detachment.

I’m not going to try to construct an argument about this, at least not right now, but I’m going to point out some differences between thinking about the past and thinking about the present, and that part of history with an immediate stake in the present. Consider that philosophy of history has its origins in the work in St. Augustine. Augustine was provoked to write his City of God by the sack of Rome in 410 AD. Part of his interest in writing City of God was to set the historical record straight from a Christian point of view. Rome had been the capital of the known world for all practical purposes, and had not been taken by force for eight hundred years. It was a shock to the people in the 5th century that Rome could be sacked.

The traditionalists said that Rome was sacked as a punishment for the Roman people abandoning the traditional gods and converting to Christianity. Augustine’s purpose was to demonstrate that this argument was false, and that it was rather the falseness of traditional Roman religion that had led to the sack of Rome. We can now see these events with 1600 years of hindsight. We know that the sack of Rome in 410 AD was the beginning of the end for the Western Roman Empire, but those who lived through the sack, or who simply were alive at this time, did not and could not have known that this was the case.

How is this related to Isaiah Berlin and this understanding of the Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment critics? The Enlightenment and its consequences are still unfolding in our time. Our world is the world of the Enlightenment; our lived experience is that of the Enlightenment after three hundred years of development. Because we are still living in the Age of Enlightenment, our understanding of the Enlightenment is distorted by our being too close to it.

When Rome was sacked, Christianity had been growing for four hundred years. Our relationship to the Enlightenment in time is similar, as Enlightenment ideology has been developing for about 300 years. Thus far into the development of the Enlightenment, we encountered a great crisis. The catastrophe that the 20th century was for Western civilization is analogous to the sack of Rome in 410 AD, which was a crisis in the civilization of classical antiquity. As the Romans of the 5th century AD debated whether the sack of Rome was due to the old Roman gods or due to Christianity, we can debate whether the catastrophe of the 20th century was due to the Enlightenment, or the traditionalists and the counter-Enlightenment.

Berlin effectively argued that the irrationalism and the violence and the chaos of the twentieth century was the fault of the traditionalists and the counter-Enlightenment. He is a true believer in the new faith and its new God, the Enlightenment, and so he argues, like Augustine, that the real fault lies with those who still worship the old gods. But we can just as well argue, as many argued after the sack of Rome, that it was the abandonment of the old gods that led to that catastrophe.

And we can argue that the Enlightenment contained the seeds of its own destruction from its inception. In the chapter on Fichte in his book Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of the Enlightenment, Berlin says that the Enlightenment conception of freedom is exemplified by Thomas Paine, Benjamin Constant, and Condorcet, and he quotes Constant to make his point. It’s worth pointing out the Condorcet wrote his great work on freedom and progress — Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind — while on the run from the revolutionary guard, while hiding in safe houses. He was eventually captured and died shortly thereafter in prison. Even at its inception, the Enlightenment, like Saturn, was consuming its own children.

We can say of the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic wars that this wasn’t the real Enlightenment, and we can say of the 20th century that that wasn’t the real Enlightenment, and that the real Enlightenment hasn’t yet been tried. That is something that only a true believer says. Anyone with no prior commitment to Enlightenment ideology will have no reason whatsoever to believe this.