Isaiah Berlin's approach to the study of philosophy was strikingly different from that taken by practitioners of the technical disciplines of analytic philosophy. In the style of analytic philosophy, a study should consist of pure abstract arguments to be assessed on the basis of their apparent logical cogency. Berlin was more interested in treating philosophical ideas in their particular historical and intellectual settings, and to probe the ways in which those ideas contributed to the ability of human beings to make sense of the world in which they lived.
A good example of Berlin's style of philosophizing is found in his introduction to The Age of Enlightenment. (Here is a link to an online version of the book; link.) The extensive essays in the volume are devoted to Locke, Hume, and Berkeley, with shorter pieces on other writers. Berlin organizes his treatment around a reflective discussion of how philosophical questions are different from empirical or logical questions.
Philosophical problems arise when men ask questions of themselves or of others which, though very diverse, have certain characteristics in common. These questions tend to be very general, to involve issues of principle, and to have little or no concern with practical utility. But what is even more characteristic of them is that there seem to be no obvious and generally accepted procedures for answering them, nor any class of specialists to whom we automatically turn for the solutions. Indeed there is something peculiar about the questions themselves: those who ask them do not seem any too certain about what kind of answers they require, or indeed how to set about finding them. (1)
But unlike the philosophers of the Vienna Circle who advocated for the verificationist principle of significance and therefore categorically rejected questions like these, Berlin believes these questions are meaningful and worthy of study.
The history of such questions, and of the means employed to provide the answers, is, in effect, the history of philosophy. The frame of ideas within which, and the methods by which, various thinkers at various times try to arrive at the truth about such issues – the very ways in which the questions themselves are construed –change under the influence of many forces, among them answers given by philosophers of an earlier age, the prevailing moral, religious and social beliefs of the period, the state of scientific knowledge, and, not least important, the methods used by the scientists of the time, especially if they have achieved spectacular successes, and have, therefore, bound their spell upon the imagination of their own and later generations. (2)
Berlin construes the development of philosophy throughout the Enlightenment as the efforts of philosophers like Locke, Hume, and Berkeley to find resources for analyzing these kinds of problems in a rigorous way -- e.g. mathematics or Newton's mechanics. But ultimately these efforts were rejected by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason.
The heroic attempt to make philosophy a natural science was brought to an end by the great break with the traditions both of rationalism and of empiricism as they had developed hitherto, inaugurated by Kant, whose philosophical views are the source of much of the thought of the nineteenth century, and are not included in the compass of this volume. (15)
So here we have Berlin, acknowledging the oddness of philosophical questions but respecting the reflective efforts of philosophers to find rigorous ways of approaching them using the best thinking of their times. Whether he would have used this language or not, Berlin treats this tradition as a "bootstrapping" effort to move from challenging but indefinite questions to questions amenable to rational reflective analysis.
Consider next Berlin's treatment of anti-Enlightenment philosophers (Vico, Herder, and J.G. Hamann) in Three Critics of the Enlightenment. Here is how Berlin distinguishes between the philosophical perspective of Herder and that of the philosophers of the Enlightenment:
Herder’s fame rests on the fact that he is the father of the related notions of nationalism, historicism and the Volksgeist, one of the leaders of the Romantic revolt against classicism, rationalism and faith in the omnipotence of scientific method – in short, the most formidable of the adversaries of the French philosophes and their German disciples. Whereas they – or at least the best known among them, d’Alembert, Helvétius, Holbach and, with qualifications, Voltaire and Diderot, Wolff and Reimarus – believed that reality was ordered in terms of universal, timeless, objective, unalterable laws which rational investigation could discover, Herder maintained that every activity, situation, historical period or civilisation possessed a unique character of its own; so that the attempt to reduce such phenomena to combinations of uniform elements, and to describe or analyse them in terms of universal rules, tended to obliterate precisely those crucial differences which constituted the specific quality of the object under study, whether in nature or in history. (208)
Berlin undertakes to probe more deeply into the particularism and historicism that is commonly attributed to Herder. He begins by attempting to trace some of the intellectual and philosophical lineage of Herder's views, and identifies a line of development from Voltaire and Montesquieu through Schlözer, Gatterer, and Vico (second hand), along with a number of other writers of the seventeenth century. Notably, Berlin finds that the "historicism" attributed to Herder was familiar in these earlier writers as well. Even one of Herder's central ideas, "spirit of the nation", has clear and evident precedents:
The notion of the spirit of a nation or a culture had been central not only to Vico and Montesquieu, but to the famous publicist Friedrich Karl von Moser, whom Herder read and knew, to Bodmer and Breitinger, to Hamann and to Zimmermann. (213)
So far, then, Herder is a synthesizer, although a gifted one:
If Herder had done no more than create a genuine synthesis out of these attitudes and doctrines, and built with them, if not a system, at any rate a coherent Weltanschauung destined to have a decisive influence on the literature and thought of his country, this alone would have been a high enough achievement to earn for him a unique place in the history of civilisation. Invention is not everything. (217)
So what, then, were Herder's distinctive contributions, according to Berlin? Berlin highlights three ideas: populism (the value of belonging to a group); expressionism (the capacity of art to express the individual or group's identity); and pluralism (the idea of the multiplicity and sometimes "incommensurability of the values of different cultures" (218). Berlin argues that these three ideas are new, and they are at odds with the doctrines of the Enlightenment. And Berlin's strongest philosophical ideas about Herder take the form of development of these three ideas, and their significance for later generations. And Berlin finds encapsulated in these ideas an impassioned advocacy for freedom and against centralized tyranny.
The German mission is not to conquer; it is to be a nation of thinkers and educators. This is their true glory. Sacrifice – self-sacrifice – not the domination of one man over another, is the proper end of man. Herder sets his face against everything that is predatory, against the use of force in any cause but that of self-defence. The Crusades, no matter how Christian in inspiration, are hateful to him, since they conquered and crushed other human communities. (229)
Another important and distinctive contribution contained in Herder's work is his emphasis on the importance and historicity of language:
Hence Herder’s stress on the importance of genetic studies and the history of language, and hence, too, the great impulsion that he gave to studies of comparative linguistics, comparative anthropology and ethnology, and above all to the great philological movement that became the pride of German scholarship towards the end of his life and in the century that followed. His own efforts in this direction were no less suggestive or speculative than those of Vico. After declaring, in language borrowed from Lavater, that the ‘physiognomy of languages’ is all-important, he insisted, for example, that the languages which preserved genders (such as Russian, with which he came into contact during his Riga years) implied a vision of a world different from the world of those whose languages are sexless; so too did particular uses of pronouns. (239)
There is much more of interest in Berlin's treatment of Herder. What is particularly striking is the breadth of Berlin's own knowledge of the intellectual and philosophical context within which Herder worked, and his ability to work out in detail the implications of some of Herder's central ideas. This is not "Herder for dummies"; rather, it is a profound and extended seminar that seeks to explicate Herder's ideas and place Herder's thought into an ongoing intellectual history.
Berlin's philosophical writings show some very appealing intellectual qualities -- exactness of observation, ability to place variation in context, and a broad knowledge of the intellectual context of a given philosopher's work. The thinker from Riga has left a permanent and always enlightening legacy.
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Michael Michael Ignatieff's Isaiah Berlin: A Life is outstanding. Here is a link to the Berlin Virtual Library at Oxford (link), which contains a number of interesting secondary materials.