Authors: Isaiah Berlin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English essayist and philosopher

Author Works


Karl Marx: His Life and Environment, 1939, 1959, 1963, 1978

The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History, 1953

Historical Inevitability, 1954

Two Concepts of Liberty, 1958

Four Essays on Liberty, 1969

Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, 1976

Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, 1978 (Henry Hardy, editor)

Russian Thinkers, 1978 (Hardy and Aileen Kelly, editors)

Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, 1979 (Hardy, editor)

Personal Impressions, 1980, expanded 2001 (memoirs)

The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, 1990 (Hardy, editor)

The Magus of the North: J. G. Hamann and the Origins of Modern Irrationalism, 1993 (Hardy, editor)

The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History, 1996 (Hardy, editor)

The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays, 1997 (Hardy and Roger Hausheer, editors)

The Roots of Romanticism, 1999 (Hardy, editor)

The Power of Ideas, 2000 (Hardy, editor)

Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, 2000 (Hardy, editor)

Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, 2002 (Hardy, editor)


First Love, 1950 (of Ivan Turgenev)

A Month in the Country, 1981 (of Turgenev)

Edited Text:

The Age of Enlightenment: The Eighteenth Century Philosophers, 1956


In writings that earned for him a position as one of the most remarkable political thinkers of his age, Isaiah Mendelevich Berlin demonstrated an unusual and sweeping grasp of related disciplines, summoning intellectual history, moral philosophy, and literary criticism to support an essentially liberal view of historical and social values in the twentieth century. Berlin was born in 1909 in Riga, Latvia, when that country was part of the Russian Empire; his parents were Jewish, and his father, Mendel Berlin, was a prosperous timber merchant. Early impressions of Russian life may have affected Isaiah Berlin’s cultural proclivities, but in 1920 his family settled in England.{$I[AN]9810001156}{$I[A]Berlin, Isaiah}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Berlin, Isaiah}{$I[geo]LATVIA;Berlin, Isaiah}{$I[geo]RUSSIA;Berlin, Isaiah}{$I[tim]1909;Berlin, Isaiah}

Isaiah Berlin

(Library of Congress)

After attending St. Paul’s School in London, Berlin received a scholarship that allowed him to enroll at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He graduated with first-class honors in two subjects, and in 1932 he became a Fellow of All Souls College. He began his teaching career as a lecturer in philosophy at New College. By that time, he had already published some short articles, including music reviews; among subsequent essays were studies of induction and philosophical verification.

Although he did not at this stage feel impelled to produce academic writings in quantity, Berlin found the company of other scholars and thinkers both congenial and stimulating. It would seem that he considered the companionship of J. L. Austin, an analytical philosopher, diverting and rewarding; when other commitments did not impinge upon them, he and Austin spent hours at a time, day and night, pondering the relative merits of logical positivism, linguistic analysis, and other movements that had transformed their discipline. Other concerns were also significant to Berlin, and in his full-length work Karl Marx: His Life and Environment he set forth the philosophical sources for the ideas of the well-known socialist thinker. As an intellectual biography, this study is regarded by many as provocative and useful, though some critics have reproached Berlin for neglecting the economic elements of Marx’s theories.

Berlin spent much of World War II in the United States; in 1941, he was assigned to a branch of the British Information Service in New York, and during the four years that followed he served as first secretary of the British embassy in Washington, D.C. He was, in effect, charged with evaluating information about political developments and America’s intentions during the conflict, and he composed working drafts of the great majority of dispatches that were received in London from this office. The quality of Berlin’s reports was widely recognized by members of the wartime government, including, it has been said, Winston Churchill, and indeed, in 1946 Berlin was made Commander, Order of the British Empire.

Because of his background and his knowledge of Russian, Berlin was also called into service for a certain period in 1945-1946 at the British embassy in Moscow; during his travels, he met important writers such as Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova. A return visit to the Soviet Union, in 1956, fortified Berlin in his convictions that literary and cultural traditions remained vital matters under the Soviet state. Upon his resumption of university work, Berlin returned to Oxford; in 1949, he became a visiting professor at Harvard University, where he lectured during subsequent terms as well. Other appointments of this sort, which he received intermittently over the years, brought him to Bryn Mawr College, the University of Chicago, Princeton University, and the City University of New York. In 1956, he married Aline de Gunzbourg. At Oxford, he was appointed the Chichele Professor of Political and Social Theory in 1957, and in that same year he was knighted by the British Crown.

Many of Berlin’s most influential writings originated as public lectures or as scholarly articles; rather than pursue single lines of investigation in exhaustive depth, he dealt with a series of central questions or evocative themes which in turn cast light upon various adjacent concerns. For that matter, it has been relatively rare for Berlin to undertake any inquiry within the confines of an individual discipline, and many of his most renowned efforts show a markedly eclectic approach both to philosophical and literary trends and to intellectual movements and schools of thought.

Berlin presented the more strictly philosophical element in his thought in works such as Historical Inevitability, Two Concepts of Liberty, and various articles, some of which have been gathered together in later compilations. As his views on political theory became more definite, it appeared that Berlin grew restive with the more rigid and unyielding categories that had been applied in other areas by linguistic and analytical philosophers. The nature of history and the meaning of ethics and political justice could not, he has maintained, be grasped in the same sense that empirical truths found in the exact sciences may be understood.

According to Berlin, it should be possible to reconcile postulates of determinism and historical causation with notions of human responsibility and freedom even where limits on the scope of individual action may be recognized and delimited. Thus even when its plausibility has been acknowledged, some accommodation may be made with determinism without undermining concurrent beliefs in some measure of human liberty. By contrasting conceptions of freedom from coercion (that is, negative freedom) with freedom to act as the instrument of one’s rational will (positive freedom), Berlin upheld the liberal tradition in Western thought by maintaining that the absence of constraints, rather than the effort to assert collective values, must be accepted in free societies. Further to complicate (though possibly also to enliven) matters, Berlin has expressed a profound skepticism about the extent to which moral principles may resolve differences among such competing principles as liberty, equality, and utility.

Whereas in his philosophical works Berlin had rendered a distinctly positive evaluation of John Stuart Mill and his ideas, in other contributions to intellectual history he dealt with thinkers as diverse as Niccolò Machiavelli, Giambattista Vico, and Johann Gottfried Herder; Berlin maintained that in such figures from earlier ages fundamentally pluralistic patterns of reasoning and belief may be discerned. Indeed, his interpretation of salient issues in the thought of Vico and Herder, to the effect that both of them, to a greater extent than others of their times, recognized that diversity had characterized the development of human societies, has generally been well received among intellectual historians.

In a special category are Berlin’s studies of Russian thought and literature. The most famous of such works almost certainly would be his essay on Leo Tolstoy’s philosophy of history, which recasts the distinction between monists and pluralists as (in the telling image of the poet Archilochus) the difference between the hedgehog and the fox. This expression, which has now become almost commonplace, could on its most basic level serve, for example, to place on one side Plato and Fyodor Dostoevski and, on the other, Aristotle, William Shakespeare, and Alexander Pushkin. Yet this dichotomy, which would separate those with a unitary conception from those for whom multiplicity and exceptions were essential to their views, could be applied only with difficulty in some cases, and therein lay the fascination of Tolstoy’s own beliefs. He professed a singlemindedness even while his inner nature pursued much more divergent approaches to the apprehension of historical reality. Other works by Berlin have presented strikingly original and artfully articulated assessments of other nineteenth century thinkers such as the literary critic Vissarion Belinsky and the social philosopher Aleksandr Herzen.

During his later years, Berlin received many honors and awards, including honorary doctorates from universities in Great Britain, the United States, and Israel; in 1966, he became, for nine years, the president of Wolfson College, Oxford, and he was presented with the Order of Merit in 1971. The appearance of his selected writings in four volumes–Russian Thinkers, Concepts and Categories, Against the Current, and Personal Impressions–which brought together publications from many periods of his career, did much to sustain interest in his ideas. Indeed, his autobiographical sketches in Personal Impressions, which document his thoughts on political figures and academic associates, in an array of essays on individuals as diverse as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Chaim Weizmann, and Aldous Huxley, cast light as well upon portions of his own life by illuminating the qualities and characteristics of other important personages. In recognition of his accomplishments, he was also honored with the Jerusalem Prize in 1980, the Erasmus Prize in 1983, and, in 1988, the Giovanni Agnelli Prize. Berlin died in November, 1997, at the age of eighty-eight.

BibliographyBerlin, Isaiah, and Ramin Jahanbegloo. Conversations with Isaiah Berlin. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992. In a question-and-answer format, Berlin discusses a wide range of topics, including his personal history, intellectual development, and opinions on philosophy and philosophers. Berlin’s responses to questions on such topics as “two kinds of liberty” are direct and lucid, and the biographical sections, especially those dealing with Berlin’s life as a young boy in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, are fascinating.Cohen-Almagor, Raphael, ed. Challenges to Democracy: Essays in Honour and Memory of Isaiah Berlin. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. A tribute. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Galipeau, Claude. Isaiah Berlin’s Liberalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A thoughtful consideration of Berlin’s version of liberalism and how it differs from and yet is linked to the traditions of classical liberalism. Galipeau is especially good at placing Berlin’s thought in relationship to modern world politics, the excesses of which were often in direct, if not brutal, conflict with his more humane and humanitarian stance.Gray, John. Isaiah Berlin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. A thoughtful examination of Berlin’s belief in the existence of values that while different are equally important. The central thesis of the book is that Berlin’s work is based on a principle that might be called “value-pluralism,” meaning that ultimate human values are objective but diverse and may often conflict.Ignatieff, Michael. Isaiah Berlin: A Life. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998. A biography. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Lilla, Mark, Ronald Dworkin, and Robert Silvers, eds. The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin. New York: New York Review Books, 2001. Examines Berlin’s contributions in political science.Margalit, Edna, and Avishai Margalit, eds. Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991. This collection draws together essays that touch on the wide range of Berlin’s interests, from opera to political science to philosophy. Although a number of the pieces included here are valuable, the essay by celebrated legal scholar Ronald Dworkin on “Two Concepts of Liberty” is especially illuminating for those wishing to understand the full impact of Four Essays on Liberty.Ryan, Alan, ed. The Idea of Freedom: Essays in Honor of Isaiah Berlin. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1979. A useful collection of essays that shed light on Berlin’s philosophy of history and his views on the history of philosophy.
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