" a cautious, Sober Love Affair with Humanity:" Humanism in the Thought of Isaiah Berlin

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A Cautious, Sober Love Affair with Humanity:”

Humanism in the Thought of Isaiah Berlin

Joshua L. Cherniss

The following was written as a senior essay in Political Science at Yale University, from which the author expects to receive his B.A. in May of 2002. It remains very much a work-in-progress. Any comments on it would be most welcome, and may be conveyed by writing the author at joshua.cherniss@yale.edu
© Joshua L. Cherniss 2002
Not to be cited without the author’s permission

This text was prepared by the author and no responsibility is taken for the substance or form of its its content by the website manager

A Cautious, Sober Love Affair with Humanity:”1

Humanism in the Thought of Isaiah Berlin

A. Opening Reflections

Isaiah Berlin occupied a curious place in the intellectual life of his day, and is proving hard to categorize posthumously. Not exactly a philosopher, political theorist, historian, or literary critic, he was a little of each. He has been described as conventional and radical, brilliant and mediocre, an exemplar and defender of the Enlightenment and a spokesman for its opponents; a man shaped by and representative of his time, and a figure from another, earlier age. Long viewed as a prolix and protean “general intellectual,” he is now seen by some as a serious thinker whose work articulates a powerful central doctrine; but whether that doctrine is pluralism or liberalism is a matter of dispute, and this debate has come to dominate discussions of Berlin’s thought.

I believe that these attempts to pigeonhole Berlin misrepresent the nature of his achievement, and miss the main value of his work. Berlin himself believed that all thinkers are driven by an inner core of commitment, and that their explicit doctrines are outworks erected to protect an “inner citadel” of belief, a fundamental perception of the world.2 In seeking to understand thinkers “it is more important to grasp this central notion or image … than even the most forceful arguments with which they defend their views and refute actual and possible objections.”3 To understand Berlin we must penetrate to this ‘inner citadel’, which gave form and force to his varied ideas. Berlin’s work is best understood not as a systematic doctrine, but as a set of (often closely inter-related) ideas held together by a unifying, animating sensibility. In attempting to understand the nature and motivation of Berlin’s work, as well as the lessons that we may derive from it, we would do best to follow Berlin’s own approach: to identify the recurrent and predominant emotional commitments and moral ideals that ran through and shaped his thought, and from which his work derived its urgency and importance.

In the essay that follows I attempt to focus on what is arguably the innermost room in Berlin’s inner citadel: Berlin’s humanism. I here use the term “humanism” to describe not a single philosophical position or doctrine, but a cluster of closely associated beliefs and commitments which, I argue, underlay, formed, and guided Berlin’s more familiar and explicit positions.

I have chosen to focus on Berlin’s humanism both because I regard it as of central importance to the development of his thought; and because it has been neglected in many of the discussions and debates about Berlin’s project and legacy which have taken place over the past decade. Most recent studies of Berlin have focused on his articulated philosophical positions, especially his doctrines of liberalism and pluralism.4 These aspects of Berlin’s work are of genuine and considerable importance, and an investigation of each can render much insight into the nature of Berlin’s intellectual project.

However, many of the studies focusing on these aspects of Berlin’s work miss something important. There is a tendency, when discussing the thought of any philosopher, to focus on the logical at the expense of the psychological, the conceptual at the expense of the emotional, the formal at the expense of the personal. To try to fit Berlin and his thought, for instance, into the conceptual abstractions of “liberalism” and “pluralism” is to misunderstand Berlin. It is also to fail to heed one of the most vital and useful lessons of a thinker who taught us to beware of the sacrifice of what is human to abstractions, and to attend to the value of what is particular and personal.

Berlin’s humanism was “personal” in two ways: it was both a matter of personal conviction and sentiment, and a way of viewing the world that treated individual people – persons – as being of primary importance. The central sentiments that motivated all of Berlin’s mature writings was an interest in persons and a commitment to their value. His thought as a whole is best seen as an attempt to defend the worth, freedom and dignity of individual, living, striving, suffering human beings from the “degradation of human personality that we have witnessed in our time”5 by totalitarian governments, fanatically dogmatic movements, and simplistic, reductionist explanatory schemes. Against these enemies of human complexity, vitality and variety, Berlin sought to create a greater awareness and appreciation of human beings as free, rich and diverse creatures; to understand human beings, and help them to understand themselves.

The approach I have taken in this study, reflecting the concerns that motivate it and the goals at which it aims, is also “personal:” while my main focus is on the content of Berlin’s thought articulated in his writings, I have sought with identifying the concerns and commitments, values and vision, which lie behind, and are expressed through, his words.6 Although this essay remains a study of Berlin’s thought more than of his character, I believe that the former cannot be separated from, or considered without reference to, the other, without grave distortion occurring.

This essay is also “personal” in second sense: though it strives for fidelity to Berlin’s thought above all else, it is very definitely written from a very personal point of view, focusing on what I find most appealing in Berlin’s thought. Nietzsche once wrote that the truth is like a valley, which may be viewed from multiple points in the hills; standing in different places will render different perspectives, some clearer and more comprehensive, others more limited or distorted, but all of them giving at least a partial glimpse of the same truth. Similarly, Berlin himself declared that “Life may be seen through many windows, none of them necessarily clear or opaque, less or more distorting than any of the others.”7 I have here chosen what I think is a particularly well-placed perspective in the hills, or a particularly clarifying and illuminating glass, to achieve a better and clearer view of some of the most important, though not necessarily the most noticed, portions of the valley of Berlin’s thought. But I make no claim to be able to depict – or even understand – the valley as a whole. Nor would I ever wish to suggest that this window alone is the correct one. Any such claim would clearly be a failure to understand, and learn from, Berlin’s life’s work.

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