Isaiah Berlin

By: Mark Kingwell
June 6, 2010

Latvian-born English political theorist ISAIAH BERLIN (1909-97) was a man of parts. He secured a prestigious fellowship at All Souls, Oxford, at the age of 23, but abandoned pure philosophy as done in the mid-century English style — the “analytic” approach of A. J. Ayer or J. L. Austin — when he realized that he was not good enough to pursue it to lasting effect. Berlin turned instead to the history of ideas — in his own words, “a field in which one could hope to know more at the end of one’s life than when one had begun.” Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive liberty is justly famous. Negative liberty means absence of constraint, or freedom “from”; positive liberty means ability to pursue a specified end, or freedom “to.” For a pure liberal such as Berlin, positive liberty was the great danger of perfectionist social theories, especially the Marxist-inflected ones he was at pains to criticize throughout his life. The only real liberty is the liberty to determine one’s own ends. Whether the distinction sustains hard scrutiny is doubtful. What cannot be doubted is that Berlin, brilliant improviser at lectures and diverting gossip at social events, was an excellent social observer. His large volume of personal letters, recently published in three volumes — missives to, among others, Elizabeth Bowen, Felix Frankfurter, Bertrand Russell, Stephen Spender, Noam Chomsky, T. S. Eliot, and Jackie Kennedy — is far more entertaining, and in some sense more important, than his scholarly efforts. Such documents are, after all, the living record of the history of ideas.

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