March 13, 2004

Isaiah Berlin: Over-Rated Philosopher?

Posted by Ed

Every so often, I make an effort to read the works of Isaiah Berlin, everyone's favorite Latvian-born British philosopher. He has a reputation as a sort of secular saint of liberal philosophy; my impression, from the Berlin essays I've read and the biographies I've browsed in, is that he was a fascinating man and a delightful writer. Nevertheless, whenever I actually try to read his writings in depth, I end up feeling frustrated, underwhelmed, and unimpressed. As much as I enjoy reading his essays ("The Hedgehog and the Fox" is an especially fun read), I simply don't understand his reputation as a deep thinker.

I was struck, then, by the first sentence in this review of a new volume of Berlin's letters: "Isaiah Berlin liked to claim that he had been lucky enough to be over-estimated all his life, drily adding 'Long may it continue!'" Berlin presumably didn't intend this quotation to be taken seriously--the Irish historian Roy Foster, who wrote the review, clearly does not--but I think it says something interesting about him. Berlin, at his best, is unquestionably clever and lively. (This quotation demonstrates his charm.) But is he a profound thinker? I haven't read enough of his writing to know, but what I've read has never convinced me that his reputation (in certain circles) is defensible. If any of my readers can enlighten me on this point (or refer me to Berlin's best writings), then I'd be interested in finding out more.

Special bonus: Here's an excerpt of Isaiah Berlin's recollections of the time that Winston Churchill accidentally had lunch with Irving Berlin (thinking he was the Latvian-British philosopher.)

Posted by Ed at March 13, 2004 04:10 PM

Very good point - albeit just a hunch, but a hunch is usually right. Some people have an innate gift coupled with luck, to stir the waves and create profound social impression - maybe they're just incredibly gifted socialites. That would probably be Berlin's case. To wit, Berlin is an icon of a certain cultural establishment - at this point it doesn't even matter whether he's over-rated or not. To dismantle this particular reputation would amound to dismantling a part of that establishment. Good luck to you :)

Was Shakespeare such an overwhelmingly great writer? He was a tremendous writer - but really... And so on.

[ I am not of academia so please disregard lack of supporting references ]

Posted by: akim at March 14, 2004 09:46 AM

Part of this is fair enough, but part of it is also a problem that a class of philosophers have--certain liberal thinkers and pragmatists--that the core of their philosophy is a kind of conscious kludgy muddle and avoidance of extreme propositions that ends up sounding terribly banal because it's relatively commonsensical. Look at Anthony Giddens' social theory, which is not widely used outside sociology, and I think that's because some of it is just sort of...well, correct, without being particularly inspiring.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at March 14, 2004 04:25 PM
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