The Spectacles of Isaiah Berlin

By Assaf Inbari

The twentieth century's greatest liberal was anything but a pluralist

Honest liberals know that they are not pluralists. They know that the liberal worldview does not recognize the validity of other worldviews, and that it aspires—using all the economic, media, and military means at its disposal—to make itself dominant. Liberalism is not tolerance, liberalism is not pluralism, and admitting this is not a mark against it; it is simply to recognize the difference between the perception of a liberal agenda as the just, indispensable agenda, and “let a thousand flowers bloom.”
But not all liberals are willing to admit this. The greatest teacher of those liberals who are convinced that they are pluralists was Isaiah Berlin. Berlin’s thought, more than any other liberal doctrine formulated in the twentieth century, reveals a conceptual confusion between pluralism and liberalism. At the end of the twentieth century, this confusion did not appear to be critical or potentially dangerous. In the 1990s, with the fall of the Eastern Bloc, with the euphoric rise of capital markets, and with the fashionable post-modernist discourse that flourished in academia, the West celebrated what seemed to be its final victory. For ten years it had no enemies, and when you have no enemies, it is possible to babble on about pluralism, denigrate the “oppressive” culture of the West, and demand that the “voice of the other should also be heard.” The multicultural discourse that flourished at the time did not stand up to scrutiny, because the “other” did not speak. On September 11, 2001, four years after the death of Berlin, we heard the clear voice of the “other.”
Since Osama Bin Laden made his voice heard, every liberal has had to figure out for himself if he really is a pluralist, as he imagined himself to be. This is no longer an academic or theoretical issue. To counter the clear voices of the enemies of the West, the West must speak out clearly, or else it will be defeated. This year, Europe has incurred Muslim riots in France and Muslim unrest in England and Germany; it has enabled the “others” to build mosques in its capitals that nurture hatred of the West. The repercussions of this foolishness in the name of pluralism were foreseeable but are still being denied. French intellectuals were quick to interpret—and justify—the riots in Paris by portraying them as acts of protest by the poor and the downtrodden. They presented the issue as a social struggle, and in so doing exempted themselves from the question of pluralism. When the Muslim “other” is portrayed as oppressed, his true and declared identity as a jihadist soldier is denied, and so the test facing multicultural pluralism in our time is rejected. Understanding Berlin’s philosophical doctrine, therefore, has become a pressing matter for our time.

In three respects, Berlin deserves our profound esteem.
The first relates to his contribution to the discipline known as “the history of ideas.” Hegel had already been as much a historian of philosophy as he was a philosopher of history. But unlike Hegel, Berlin wrote in a fluent and communicative style that could hold readers spellbound. He gave us guided tours of the mid-nineteenth-century Russian scene;1 he rescued from oblivion thinkers such as Joseph de Maistre and Johann Georg Hamann, and he shed new light on others, like Machiavelli, Vico, Herder, and Montesquieu. As distinct from classical political history or economic-sociological history, he wrote spiritual-cultural history. Departing from the ahistorical teaching method practiced in philosophy departments, he rooted every philosophical doctrine in the historical context that gave rise to it. Today, this approach seems obvious, but it became so thanks to him.
Second, Berlin revived the debate on the great moral and political questions in a period when logic was all the rage. Oxford, where he studied and taught, was then the capital of analytic philosophy. A serious philosopher was thought to be a kind of linguistic surgeon, prohibited from stepping outside the operating room. That was the philosophical climate when Berlin was taking his first steps, and at the beginning of his journey he tried to be accepted by the club. He wrote several papers on logic, but lost interest in it towards the middle of the century. In 1950 he was still publishing technical articles with titles like “Empirical Propositions and Hypothetical Statements” and “Logical Translation,” but in the same year he also published “Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century” and “Socialism and Socialist Theories,” essays that marked his assault on the great questions and the wider educated public.2 In his rebellion against Oxford thinking, he became an oasis in the analytic desert.
Third, Berlin was a gifted writer. It is a pleasure to read him. He dictated most of his essays, endowing them with a narrative, flowing quality. As Michael Ignatieff said, with Berlin “the way he writes and the way he talks are identical: Ornate, elaborate, old-fashioned, yet incisive and clear…. Words come at his bidding and they form into sentences and paragraphs as quickly as he can bring them on.”3 That is why Berlin’s sentences are syntactically long and complex—ready to burst, replete with attributive clauses that modify every argument. “He outlines a proposition and anticipates objections and qualifications as he speaks, so that both proposition and qualification are spun out in one.”4 His style of presenting his thoughts in flight is a virtuosic improvisation—a lively voice, not a stiff one. Few are the writers who have achieved this quality. Deep scholarship and charismatic writing hardly ever meet; they meet in his essays.
Yet these achievements, great as they may be, are irrelevant to an appreciation of Berlin’s philosophical doctrine. As one who was widely considered one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century, he demands we discuss him on his own terms. A philosopher is not judged by his eloquence; Hegel, as we know, wrote dreadfully, and no one would say that Leibniz, or Kant or Husserl, for instance, excelled at writing. It is the greatness of Berlin as a philosopher, not as a writer, that needs to be assessed.
Romanticism, nationalism, pluralism: These are Berlin’s three great subjects. He established his fame as a commentator on Romanticism, as a liberal who recognized the importance of nationalism, and as a philosopher who raised the banner of pluralism. These are the three basic principles of his doctrine, and they are intertwined and together form a triangle at the apex of which is pluralism. Pluralism was The Topic, the epicenter of his thinking; the other two served only as a means of presenting his pluralistic arguments. Of course he also wrote on other subjects,5 but our interest is not in a review of all his writings but in an understanding of the essence of his doctrine.
Berlin divided the intellectuals who molded Western culture into monists, whom he nicknamed “hedgehogs,” and pluralists, whom he dubbed “foxes.” The hedgehogs are the bad guys, and the foxes the good guys. Plato, Hegel, and Nietzsche are hedgehogs, whereas Aristotle, Montaigne, and Goethe are foxes.6 It is irrelevant what each of them professed, or the theoretical or literary genre in which each expressed himself—only the general mentality, the hedgehoginess or the foxiness, so to speak, is important. From this ethereal perspective, Berlin dealt with Europe’s ideological history. The Enlightenment philosophers interested him as hedgehogs, whereas Machiavelli, the Romanticists, and the nineteenth-century Russian thinkers interested him only as foxes. There was no philosophical, ideological, or cultural stream that Berlin did not assign to one of the two cages. He did not acknowledge the existence of other animals.7
The reason for his fixation was in large part biographical. He grew up in the shadow of the rise of the totalitarian regimes—a Jew born in Latvia, he fled the Bolsheviks at the age of eleven, and thirty years later those of his relatives who had remained there were murdered by the Nazis. He belonged, therefore, to the same generation of refugees (Jews and others) as Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek, Vladimir Nabokov, Hannah Arendt, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Jacob Talmon, who had first-hand experience of the totalitarian trauma, and liberals such as Albert Camus and George Orwell, who watched in horror from the wings. World War II led to a philosophical and literary mobilization to expose and uproot totalitarianism, and Berlin was one of the first to enlist.
The question that troubled Berlin, Popper, Talmon, and their like was this: What is it about the Western way of thinking that gives rise to totalitarian regimes? Their working assumption was that these regimes arose not just as a result of the economic, social, and political problems that had been created at the beginning of the twentieth century, but also, and for the main part, because they encompassed a totalitarian way of thinking that had been a part of Western culture for hundreds of years. Talmon identified the beginning of totalitarianism with the French Revolution, Horkheimer and Adorno saw its roots in the Enlightenment, and Popper and Berlin found its origins as far back as Plato.8 Popper drew a straight line from Plato to Hegel and from him to Marx—the three greatest enemies of “the open society”9—and Berlin filled in this line with many other names that he felt represented the monistic, dogmatic, “hedgehog” way of thinking that we must rid ourselves of lest the totalitarian regimes rise again from within us.

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