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