Isaiah Berlin

…he made readers appreciate “the charisma of the intellect. Nicholas Kristof

A few years ago I took an online course on the philosopher Isaiah Berlin offered by an Oxford University instructor. As a former philosophy student, Berlin had always interested me. I also took the course to get an idea of what online instruction was like and how it compared to taking a class in person.

The course consisted of a collection of Berlin’s writings and periodic discussions with the instructor and other students (N = 6). The readings were terrific; the online discussions were very strange, a series of rather awkward written comments, with none of the spontaneity of a classroom discussion and a maddening delay responding to a comment you or another student might have made a couple of minutes ago.

I haven’t taken another online course but I have continued to read about Isaiah Berlin and from time to time one of works. On the occasion of the recent publication of Berlin’s Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960, Nicholas Kristof writes about Berlin in the February 25th issue of The New York Review of Books.

Berlin was born in Russia, the only child of a wealthy Jewish family that eventually migrated to England. He was educated at Oxford, during the era of analytic philosophy, and remained there for the rest of his life. I cannot begin to do justice to the range of topics he wrote and spoke about (he was uniformly regarded as an utterly charming conversationalist, witty, effervescent, scholarly)—political theory, concepts of liberty, epistemology, the history of ideas, ethical thought and values, etc. Instead, I will note a couple of ideas touched on by Kristof who befriended Berlin when he was at Oxford as a law student.

Berlin never thought of himself as a philosopher claiming that its lack of progress “led him to move away from philosophy to become a historian of ideas.” In reality, what that meant was that he was never part of the analytic philosophy tradition that conceived the discipline as primarily concerned with language and logic.

Kristof then asks, “What exactly is Berlin’s legacy in philosophy? To me, it is his emphasis on the “pluralism of values,” a concept that suggests a non-ideological pragmatic way of navigating an untidy world.”

That is also why Berlin finds a sympathetic ear with me. He was skeptical of the grand theories, the single generalization, the paramount value, arguing instead for the acceptance and tolerance of a pluralism of values, values that are often times competing and incompatible with each other.

Kristof wonderfully compares Berlin’s view to a Chinese metaphor, mozhe shitout guo he, that is roughly translated as “as fording a river by feeling for the stones with your feet.” Kristof later describes this programmatic approach to problem solving as “a matter of feeling for the next stone and finding what feels comfortable, honest and just. That entails recognizing that there may not be a single best place to ford the river, and that others may prefer different stones—yet that tolerance should not extend to the ruler who tries to cross by building a bridge of corpses.”

Berlin argued that one has to recognize the one is often wrong, that most situations are complex and that mistakes are often made in groping our way through the these complexities. What is important is to make the mistakes as quickly as possible, “without letting appreciation of nuance emasculate one’s capacity to make strong moral judgments.”

Kristof finds Berlin’s approach a philosophy for adults in today’s uncertain world and concludes that “Berlin’s world view is that we are fated to grope our way along, making constant compromises, revising priorities, living with contradictions, trying to reduce suffering where we can.”