Sir Isaiah Berlin OM (June 6, 1909 – November 5, 1997) was a political philosopher and historian of ideas, born in Riga, now in Latvia.
Life and work
A fellow of All Souls College, he was only the third Jew elected a fellow in Oxford University, as well as being the first President of Wolfson College, Oxford (1966-75), Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford (1957-67), and President of the British Academy (1974-8).
Berlin spent his childhood in Riga and St Petersburg (then called Petrograd), where he witnessed both of the Russian Revolutions of 1917. He arrived in Britain in 1921, and was educated at St Paul's School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He remained at Oxford for the remainder of his life, with the exception of a period working for the British Government in the U.S. during World War II. Berlin was awarded the Order of Merit in 1971, and also received many other honours, including a Knight Bachelorship in 1957. In 1956 he married Aline Halban, nee de Gunzbourg.
His famous essay "Two Concepts of Liberty" (1958), in which he distinguished between positive and negative liberty, also called positive and negative freedom, has informed much of the debate on liberty since then.
His essay "Historical Inevitability" (1953) has proved a very influential discussion of one crucial controversy in the philosophy of history. In Berlin's words, the choice is whether one believes that "the lives of entire peoples and societies have been decisively influenced by exceptional individuals" or, rather, that whatever happens occurs as a result of large impersonal forces oblivious to human intentions. Berlin is also well known for his writings on Russian intellectual history, most of which are collected in Russian Thinkers (1978; edited, like most of Berlin's work, by Henry Hardy), his writings on the Enlightenment and its critics, and particularly Romanticism; and his advocacy of an ethical theory he termed value pluralism. This holds that genuine human values are many, and often come into conflict with one another. Berlin insisted that, at least with some cases, such conflicts are irresolveable, because conflicting values may be both equally valid and incompatible. This view of moral experience led Berlin to insist on the importance of allowing variety and disagreement, and the impossibility of achieving perfection in human life. His pluralism has been among the most controversial aspects of Berlin's work.
Isaiah Berlin died in Oxford, England, on November 5 1997.
- "Karl Marx: His Life and Environment"
- "Russian Thinkers"
- "Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays"
- "Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas"
- "Personal Impressions"
- "The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas"
- "The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and their History"
- "The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays"
- "The Roots of Romanticism"
- "The Power of Ideas"
- "Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty"
- "Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder"
- "The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture Under Communism"
- "Letters, 1928-1946"
Irving Berlin was once confused with Isaiah Berlin by Winston Churchill who invited the former for lunch, thinking he was the latter.
"Liberty for wolves is death to the lambs." - Isaiah Berlin
"Philosophers are adults who persist in asking childish questions." - Isaiah Berlin, quoted in The Listener, 1978.
- Berlin virtual library at Wolfson (http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/)
- BBC obituary (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/24540.stm)
- Tribute from Chief Rabbi at his funeral (http://www.chiefrabbi.org/speeches/berlin.htm)
- Anecdote (http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/tribute/2berlins.htm) from Wolfson College's tribute page (http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/tribute/)
- Entry on Berlin in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://www.seop.leeds.ac.uk/entries/berlin)