Revisiting Berlin

British Spin suggested that I might comment on this piece on Isaiah Berlin by Hywel Williams in today’s Guardian. I was going to stick this response in Spin’s comments box, but have a memory of his comments box being one of those that chews up long comments or otherwise makes them vanish without trace. So here goes.

Spin: Yes: it’s a stupid article about Berlin. It’s not entirely stupid — I’ll come back to that in a moment — but it contains some ridiculous assertions:

(1) To say of his formulation of the distinction between -ve and +ve liberty, for example, that “On this slender and obvious insight a major self-serving academic industry was built” isn’t really good enough. It’s true that Berlin’s essay has inspired a lot of commentary, but to describe this literature as commentary on a “slender and obvious insight” is foolish, and to dismiss it in a sentence like this is philistine. (I think Williams is also wrong to characterise this distinction as the “core” to Berlin’s teaching, which I — and John Gray, a more reliable guide to Berlin’s thought than Williams — would argue is his teaching of value pluralism.)

(2) To accuse Berlin of erecting “a kind of Classic FM version of the history of ideas” is silly. Berlin’s historiography often has problems, but they aren’t Classic FM-like problems.

(3) It’s slack to refer to his “highly selective anti-totalitarianism” without saying a bit more about just what you mean by this vague claim.

I haven’t seen the new collection of letters, so can’t see how much of his critique Williams is digging out of them. But this article to me reads like a bastardised summary of a much better, much longer article, which is the piece Christopher Hitchens published on Berlin after he died, first in the pages of the London Review of Books as “Moderation or Death” (26.11.1998), then reprinted as “Goodbye to Berlin” in Unacknowledged Legislation, pp.138-164.

And that’s a classic Hitchens hit-piece. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here: I think it’s quite the best thing he’s written, with his 1989 review of Noel Annan’s Our Age in second place. Hitchens covers a great deal of ground, is fiercely, repeatedly, entertainingly critical, and he seems to me to get quite a lot of things right. (But then I never belonged to the Berlin fan club, so perhaps I would say that, wouldn’t I?) But that’s the place to go if you want to read the full charge sheet.

And yes, Berlin was quite the Cold Warrior — if not “just another Cold Warrior”, as Williams suggests. In Hitchens’s words: “In every instance given by Ignatieff [Berlin’s biographer], or known to me, from the Cold War through Algeria to Suez to Vietnam, Berlin strove to find a high ‘liberal’ justification either for the status quo or for the immediate needs of the conservative authorities…” That seems to me to be about right.

But if you want Isaiah Berlin bloggerage, you don’t go to me or to the Timberites, but straight to Josh Cherniss. He’s the Berliniac of the blogosphere, and he’s your man.

P.S. Spin: I don’t much like Vico and Herder at all, at least, not the Vico sections: if memory serves, Berlin spins a story about a Counter-Enlightenment figure, an anachronistic lone genius who’s into relativism and value pluralism, all of which which seems to me to get Vico radically, decisively, implausibly wrong. But what do I know?

0 thoughts on “Revisiting Berlin”

  1. I think Jan Werner Muller puts paid to claims that Berlin was a Cold Warrior or even a ‘Cold war Liberal’. (see:

    TThe fact that the majority of Berlin’s works were published posthumously has also contributed to a systematic forgetting of the political context in which he wrote. Moreover most of his letters published are of the more celebrity-cum-gossip angle of Berlin’s life: good for marketing to publishing houses; not so good for actual scholarship on Berlin. Hopefully when Henry Hardy publishes the next two volumes of his letters later this year, there will be a more holistic picture of Berlin rather his ‘Three strands’ being the sole reference point.

    Ignatieff did a wonderful job in writing his biography. Unfortunately however there is a dearth of writing on the relationship between Berlin’s political philosophy and his particular reading of Russian intellectual history(Gary Hamburg is perhaps the particular exception), particularly in the light of his correspondence with the formidable Andrzej Walicki (doyen of Russian intellectual history) published by an obscure Polish periodical.

    You are right about Cherniss: he has done wonders for Berlinian scholarship, particularly in showing that Berlin’s deployment of two concepts was not very original. I think the geneology of this concept is posted on the IB virutal library.

    p.s. I think Hitchens to be more pugilist minded (more an intellectual bully) rather than a clear-cut rhetoritician. For a good expose of Hitchens’ hypocrisy, see:

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