The Full Wiki

Isaiah Berlin: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Isaiah Berlin
Full name Isaiah Berlin
Born 6 June 1909
Riga, Latvia
Died 5 November 1997 (aged 88)
Oxford, England
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western Philosophy
School Liberalism
Analytic Philosophy
Main interests Political philosophy
History of ideas
Philosophy of history
Liberalism · Ethics · Marxism · Russian History · Russian Literature · Modern History · Romanticism
Notable ideas Two Concepts of Liberty
Value pluralism

Sir Isaiah Berlin OM (6 June 1909 – 5 November 1997) was a Russian-British philosopher and historian of ideas, regarded as one of the leading thinkers of the 20th century, and as the dominant liberal scholar of his generation.[1] He excelled as an essayist, conversationalist and raconteur; and as a brilliant lecturer who improvised, rapidly and spontaneously, richly allusive and coherently structured material.[1] He translated works by Turgenev from Russian into English and, during the war, worked for the British Diplomatic Service. The Independent stated that "Isaiah Berlin was often described, especially in his old age, by means of superlatives: the world's greatest talker, the century's most inspired reader, one of the finest minds of our time... there is no doubt that he showed in more than one direction the unexpectedly large possibilities open to us at the top end of the range of human potential".[2]

In 1932, at the age of 23, he was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. From 1957 to 1967, he was Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1963 to 1964. In 1966, he helped to found Wolfson College, Oxford, and became its first President. He was knighted in 1957, and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1971. He was President of the British Academy from 1974 to 1978. He also received the 1979 Jerusalem Prize for his writings on individual freedom. The annual Isaiah Berlin Lectures are held at both Oxford and the British Academy each summer. Berlin's work on liberal theory has had a lasting influence.



Sign marking what was once Berlin's childhood house in Riga

Berlin was born as an only child into a wealthy Jewish family, the son of Mendel Berlin, a timber industrialist and direct descendant of Israel ben Eliezer, and his wife Marie, née Volshonok. He spent his childhood in Riga (then part of the Russian Empire; now capital of Latvia), and later lived in Andreapol´ (a small timber town near Pskov, effectively owned by the family business[3]) and Saint Petersburg, witnessing both the February and October Revolutions of 1917.

Feeling increasingly oppressed by life under Bolshevik rule, the family left Saint Petersburg on October 5, 1920, for Riga, but encounters with anti-Semitism and difficulties with the Latvian authorities convinced them to leave, and they moved to Britain in early 1921 (Mendel in January, Isaiah and Marie at the beginning of February), when Berlin was eleven.[4] In London, the family first stayed in Surbiton, then within the year they bought a house in South Kensington, and later Hampstead. His English was virtually nonexistent at first, but he became fluent within a year.[5]

He was educated at St Paul's School (London), then at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he studied Greats (Classics). In his finals examinations, he obtained the highest grades in Oxford University, winning The John Locke Prize for his performance in the philosophy papers, in which he outscored even A.J. Ayer.[6] He subsequently took another degree at Oxford in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics), obtaining a first-class degree after less than a year on the course. He was made a tutor of philosophy at New College, Oxford, but, before the end of the year, was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford.

While still a student, he notably befriended Sir A.J. Ayer (with whom he was to share a friendly rivalry for the rest of his life), Sir Stuart Hampshire, Richard Wollheim, Sir Maurice Bowra, Sir Stephen Spender, J. L. Austin, Christopher Isherwood, and Nicolas Nabokov. Upon graduation, he presented a philosophical paper on the philosophy of language to Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge University. Wittgenstein rejected his paper in discussion, but praised Berlin for his intellectual honesty and integrity. Berlin was, indeed, to remain at Oxford for the rest of his life, apart from a period working for British Information Services in New York from 1940 to 1942, and the British embassies in Washington, DC, and Moscow from then until 1946. Berlin was fluent in Russian, English, French, German, Italian, Latin and Ancient Greek. Meetings with Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad in autumn 1945 and January 1946 had a powerful effect on both of them, and serious repercussions for Akhmatova (who memorialized the meetings in her poetry). He befriended Boris Pasternak, and was responsible for smuggling the first copies of Doctor Zhivago out of Russia. In 1956, he married Aline Halban, née de Gunzbourg, who was from an exiled half Russian-aristocratic and half ennobled-Jewish banking family based in Paris.

Berlin died in Oxford in 1997, aged 88.[1] He is buried there in Wolvercote Cemetery. On his death, the front page spread of The Independent wrote: "he was a man of formidable intellectual power with a rare gift for understanding a wide range of human motives, hopes and fears, and a prodigiously energetic capacity for enjoyment - of life, of people in all their variety, of their ideas and idiosyncrasies, of literature, of music, of art."[2] The front page of The New York Times concluded: "His was an exuberant life crowded with joys -- the joy of thought, the joy of music, the joy of good friends... The theme that runs throughout his work is his concern with liberty and the dignity of human beings... Sir Isaiah radiated well-being."[7]

His work


"Two Concepts of Liberty"

Berlin is popularly known for his essay "Two Concepts of Liberty", delivered in 1958 as his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford. The essay, with its analytical approach to the definition of political concepts, re-introduced the study of political philosophy to the methods of analytic philosophy. Spurred by his background in the philosophy of language, Berlin argued for a nuanced and subtle understanding of our political terminology, where what was superficially understood as a single concept could mask a plurality of different uses and therefore meanings. Berlin argued that these multiple and differing concepts, otherwise masked by rhetorical conflations, showed the plurality, and incompatibility of human values, and the need for us to analytically distinguish and trade-off between, rather than conflate, them, if we are to avoid disguising underlying value-conflicts.


Three Critics of the Enlightenment

Berlin's writings on the Enlightenment and its critics (especially Giambattista Vico, Johann Gottfried Herder, Joseph de Maistre and Johann Georg Hamann) – for whom Berlin created the concept of the "the Counter-Enlightenment" – contributed to his advocacy of an irreducibly pluralist ethical ontology.[8] In Three Critics of the Enlightenment, Berlin argued that Hamann was one of the first thinkers to conceive of human cognition as language – the articulation and use of symbols. Berlin saw Hamann as having recognised as the rationalist's Cartesian fallacy the notion that there are "clear and distinct" ideas "which can be contemplated by a kind of inner eye", without the use of language – a recognition greatly sharpened in the 20th century by Wittgenstein's Private language argument.[9]

Value pluralism

For Berlin, values are creations of mankind, rather than products of nature waiting to be discovered. He argued, on the basis of the epistemic and empathetic access we have to other cultures across history, that the nature of mankind is such that certain values – for example, the importance of individual liberty – will hold true across cultures, and this is what he meant when he called his position "objective pluralism". Berlin's argument was partly grounded in Wittgenstein's later theory of language, which argued that inter-translatability was supervenient on a similarity in the forms of life, with the inverse implication that our epistemic access to other cultures entails an ontologically contiguous value-structure. With his account of value pluralism, he proposed the view that moral values may be equally, or rather incommensurably, valid and yet incompatible, and may therefore come into conflict with one another in a way that admits of no resolution without reference to particular contexts of decision. When values clash, it may not be that one is more important than the other. Keeping a promise may conflict with the pursuit of truth; liberty may clash with social justice. Moral conflicts are "an intrinsic, irremovable element in human life". "These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are."[10] For Berlin, this incommensurate clashing of values within, no less than between, individuals, constitutes the tragedy of human life.

"The Hedgehog and the Fox"

"The Hedgehog and the Fox", a title referring to a fragment attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, was one of Berlin's most popular essays with the general-public, reprinted in numerous editions. Of the essay, Berlin once said "I never meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously."[11]

Other work

The Isaiah Berlin Quad, Oxford University

Berlin's essay "Historical Inevitability" (1954) focused on a controversy in the philosophy of history. Of the choice, whether one believes that "the lives of entire peoples and societies have been decisively influenced by exceptional individuals" or, conversely, that whatever happens occurs as a result of impersonal forces oblivious to human intentions - Berlin rejected both options and the choice itself as nonsensical. Berlin is also well known for his writings on Russian intellectual history, most of which are collected in Russian Thinkers (1978; 2nd ed., 2008), edited, like most of Berlin's work, by Henry Hardy (in the case of this volume, jointly with Aileen Kelly).

Wolfson College

Isaiah Berlin was instrumental in the founding, in 1966, of a new college at Oxford University. Berlin founded Wolfson College to be a centre of academic excellence which, unlike many other colleges at Oxford, would also be based on a strong egalitarian and democratic ethos.[12] In Berlin's words, the college would be 'new, untrammelled and unpyramided'.[12]


Major works

All publications listed from 1978 onwards are compilations or transcripts of various lectures, essays, and letters, edited by Henry Hardy. Details given are of first and current UK editions. For US editions see link above.

  • Karl Marx: His Life and Environment, Thornton Butterworth, 1939. 4th ed., 1978, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510326-2.
  • Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, Chatto and Windus, 1976. Redwood Burn Ltd.. ISBN 0-7011-2512-8.
  • The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1953. Phoenix. ISBN 978-075380-867-2.
  • Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969. Superseded by Liberty.
  • Russian Thinkers (co-edited with Aileen Kelly), Hogarth Press, 1978. 2nd ed., Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-144220-4
  • Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, Hogarth Press, 1978. Pimlico. ISBN 0-670-23552-0.
  • Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, Hogarth Press, 1979. Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-6690-7.
  • Personal Impressions, Hogarth Press, 1980. 2nd ed., 1998, Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-6601-X.
  • The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, John Murray, 1990. Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-0616-5.
  • The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and their History, Chatto & Windus, 1996. Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-7367-9.
  • The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays (co-edited with Roger Hausheer), Chatto & Windus, 1997. Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-7322-9.
  • The Roots of Romanticism (recorded 1965), Chatto & Windus, 1999. ISBN 0-7126-6544-7.
  • Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, Pimlico, 2000. ISBN 0-7126-6492-0.
  • The Power of Ideas, Chatto & Windus, 2000. Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-6554-4.
  • Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty (recorded 1952), Chatto & Windus, 2002. Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-6842-0.
  • Liberty (revised and expanded edition of Four Essays On Liberty), Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-19-924989-X.
  • The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture under Communism, Brookings Institution Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8157-0904-8.
  • Flourishing: Selected Letters 1928–1946, Chatto & Windus, 2004. ISBN 0-7011-7420-X. (Published as Selected Letters 1928–1946 by Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-521-83368-X.)
  • Political Ideas in the Romantic Age: Their Rise and Influence on Modern Thought, Chatto & Windus, 2006. ISBN 0-701-17909-0. Princeton University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-691-12687-6.0. Pimlico, ISBN 978-1-844-13926-2.
  • (with Beata Polanowska-Sygulska) Unfinished Dialogue, Prometheus, 2006. ISBN 978-1-59102-376-0/1-59102-376-9.
  • (co-edited with Jennifer Holmes) Enlightening: Selected Letters 1946–1960, Chatto & Windus, 2009. ISBN 978–0–701–17889–5.


  1. ^ a b c Philosopher and political thinker Sir Isaiah Berlin dies, BBC News, November 8, 1997
  2. ^ a b Obituary: Sir Isaiah Berlin The Independent, H.Hardy, Friday, 7 November 1997
  3. ^ Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin, p. 21.
  4. ^ Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin, p. 31.
  5. ^ Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin, p. 33-37.
  6. ^ Isaiah Berlin: A Life, Ignatieff, (London 1998), page 57
  7. ^ Obituary from the "New York Times", November 10, 1997, "Isaiah Berlin, 88, Philosopher and Historian of Ideas", by Marilyn Berger
  8. ^ "Isaiah Berlin", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  9. ^ Bleich, D. (2006). "The Materiality of Reading". New Literary History 37: 607–629. doi:10.1353/nlh.2006.0000. Retrieved 2008-06-19. 
  10. ^ Isaiah Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind', Chatto and Windus, 2007, 238, 11.
  11. ^ Ramin Jahanbegloo, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin (London 2000), page 188
  12. ^ a b Ignatieff, Michael (2000). Isaiah Berlin: A Life. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-026857-x. 

See also

Further reading

Academic offices
Preceded by
New creation
Founder-President of Wolfson College, Oxford
Succeeded by
Sir Henry Fisher


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Sir Isaiah Berlin (June 6, 1909 – November 5, 1997) was a political philosopher and historian of ideas, regarded as one of the leading liberal thinkers of the 20th century.



Berkeley’s External World, unpublished lectures, Hilary Term 1947

  • What is Life?
    • (1) Tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
    • (2) Dictionary definition in biology (chemical process within organic entities involving metabolism etc.)
    • (3) Mrs Woolf: ‘Life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.’
    • (4) Series of actual and hypothetical behavioural data which differ in certain assignable ways from data defining dead or inanimate entities.
    • (5) That which the Lord infused into Adam. See Genesis 1. 4 [sc. 2. 7].
    • Which?
    • Mental Cramp.

Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century (1950)

  • Injustice, poverty, slavery, ignorance – these may be cured by reform or revolution. But men do not live only by fighting evils. They live by positive goals, individual and collective, a vast variety of them, seldom predictable, at times incompatible.

Two Concepts of Liberty (1958)

  • Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.
  • But to manipulate men, to propel them towards goals which you - the social reformer - see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them.
  • All forms of tampering with human beings, getting at them, shaping them against their will to your own pattern, all thought control and conditioning is, therefore, a denial of that in men which makes them men and their values ultimate.
  • The very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past.
  • I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others. If I am prevented by others from doing what I could otherwise do, I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved. Coercion is not, however, a term that covers every form of inability. If I say that I am unable to jump more than ten feet in the air, or cannot read because I am blind, or cannot understand the darker pages of Hegel, it would be eccentric to say that I am to that degree enslaved or coerced. Coercion implies the deliberate interference of other human beings within the area in which I could otherwise act.
  • If, as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict — and of tragedy — can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social. The necessity of choosing between absolute claims is then an inescapable characteristic of the human condition. This gives its value to freedom as Acton conceived of it — as an end in itself, and not as a temporary need, arising out of our confused notions and irrational and disordered lives, a predicament which a panacea could one day put right.

Five Essays on Liberty (1969/2002)

  • The fundamental sense of freedom is freedom from chains, from imprisonment, from enslavement by others. The rest is extension of this sense, or else metaphor.
  • Those who have ever valued liberty for its own sake believed that to be free to choose, and not to be chosen for, is an inalienable ingredient in what makes human beings human.
  • Those, no doubt, are in some way fortunate who have brought themselves, or have been brought by others, to obey some ultimate principle before the bar of which all problems can be brought. Single-minded monists, ruthless fanatics, men possessed by an all-embracing coherent vision do not know the doubts and agonies of those who cannot wholly blind themselves to reality.
  • The simple point which I am concerned to make is that where ultimate values are irreconcilable, clear-cut solutions cannot, in principle, be found. To decide rationally in such situations is to decide in the light of general ideals, the overall pattern of life pursued by a man or a group or a society.

The Hedgehog and the Fox

  • There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision ... and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory ... The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes.


  • "Philosophers are adults who persist in asking childish questions." — quoted in The Listener, 1978.

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

ISAIAH BERLIN (1725-1799), an eminent rabbi of Breslau; he was the author of acute notes on the Talmud which had their influence in advancing the critical study of that work.

<< Goetz Berlichingen

Berlin, Germany >>

Simple English

Sir Isaiah Berlin was born on June 6 1909 in Riga, Latvia. At that time Riga was a part of the Russian Empire. He died on 5th November 1997. He was a Jew. He was the first Jew to win a prize. The prize gave him a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, England.

Isaiah Berlin was an important person of the 20th century. People see him as an important thinker of Liberalist ideas. He obtained an Order Of Merit and was a professor at the University of Oxford. He made a distinction between positive liberty and negative liberty. His most famous work is probably called Two Concepts of Liberty (where he introduced this distinction.) He died November 5, 1997.


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address