by Kevin Currie-Knight
Try as I might, I cannot recall when I was first introduced to the ideas of Isaiah Berlin. But he is one of the philosophers — intellectual historians, really — who I keep going back to. For the last two-plus weeks, I have been on yet another binge of his works. I should explain to you who he was and why I find his thought so valuable. Because I tend to most appreciate philosophers who helped me articulate — at some time — things I was starting to intuit myself, part of this will take an autobiographic form.
Isaiah Berlin was a 20th century intellectual historian who started his career as an analytic philosopher. The story goes that aside from his growing distaste for analytic philosophy’s obsession with linguistic analysis, he realized that to understand a thinker’s ideas could best be done by studying their history – things like who and what the thinker was responding to. For the rest — most — of his career, then, he wrote essays and lectures on the history of ideas, doing philosophy but representing it more as a chain of ideas in conversation.
The ideas for which he is best known are (a) his ideas on “negative” and “positive” liberty and (b) — the idea that most resonated with me — his idea of value pluralism. Value pluralism, as Berlin sketched it, was the idea that values can simultaneously be objectively good and conflicting. Liberty and security, for instance, can both be objectively good values — equally worth pursuing and beneficial — but conflict with one another such that the more one has of one the less one has of the other.
What either led him to, or served as a vehicle for his articulating, his value pluralism is his almost singular historical focus on the tension between the French and German enlightenments on the one hand and romantic (what he termed) “counter-enlightenment” reactions on the other. As he depicted it (in the essay “The Decline of Utopian Ideals in the West”) the French and German enlightenments envisioned the world as a sort of jigsaw puzzle, where the more knowledge we gained (through science and reason) the more the knowledge would fit together and the jigsaw puzzle pieces depicting the world would come into clear view:
The point I wish to make is that all sides assumed that these questions could be answered. The all but universal belief which this amounts to is that these answers are, as it were, so much hidden treasure; the problem is to find the path to it. Or, to use another metaphor, mankind has been presented with the scattered parts of a jigsaw puzzle: if you can put the pieces together, it will form a perfect whole which constitutes the goal of the quest for truth, virtue, happiness. That, I think, is one of the common assumptions of a great deal of Western thought.
What Berlin became convinced by — in thinking about those who criticized this vision of the world — is that a messier pluralism was the more likely explanation of how the world worked. It was more likely that:
[t]here are many objective ends, ultimate values, some incompatible with others, pursued by different societies at various times, or by different groups in the same society, by entire classes or Churches or races, or by particular individuals within them, any one of which may find itself subject to conflicting claims of uncombinable, yet equally ultimate and objective, ends. Incompatible these ends may be; but their variety cannot be unlimited, for the nature of men, however various and subject to change, must possess some generic character if it is to be called human at all.
Before reading Berlin, I don’t think I’d ever read anyone seriously advocate for this kind of view, but by this time, I’d likely been intuiting things that primed me for it. In my early twenties, when I’d just discovered philosophy, I started, as many do, with Ayn Rand. Rand offered a seemingly closed system that, if followed the way she sketched it, promised all the truths about metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics in a consistent world picture. The idea of such a system, and that I could understand it, enamored me (as I’m sure it does many who come to her work, or the work of other system-builders).
But I also recall that my sense of edification and empowerment from this all-encompassing view was accompanied by doubts that would only grow stronger the more I entertained them. First, Rand bases her system on a naïve realist metaphysics whose foundation is the simple but tautologous maxim “A is A.” Reality is what it appears to be, existence exists. If one tries to refute this, one ends up confirming it (as one apparently cannot deny that our senses track reality as it is without assuming the validity of those senses to so track).
My doubt about this started when I read Randian philosopher Leonard Peikoff write something (I cannot recall where, but I think it was in a brief blurb endorsing Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene) about evolution and how its process dovetails with Rand’s sort of realism, that we see reality as it is. That didn’t make sense to me. All evolution guarantees us is that we evolve senses fit to help us survive, and while it seems like this would entail accuracy, there is no necessary reason why it must. Anyhow, how could we know if we perceive reality “as it is”? What unmediated idea of reality can we compare our sense data to (besides other sense data) to know how accurate our picture is? And — here’s why this helped me cast doubt on the idea of Rand’s system being a complete account of reality — if you and I disagree on what our senses say about reality, reminding us that “A is A” is unhelpful, because what A is is precisely what we disagree on. Could some of those debates even be irresolvable in practice or principle?
Next up, Rand (and Randian philosopher Tara Smith) had an idea that rational self-interests could not conflict. If you and I want different things, and my getting what I want comes at the expense of you getting what you want, the conflict must merely be apparent. One of us — or both of us — are wrong about what is in our rational self-interest. (The example often used was that if we are up for the same job and you get it because the employer thinks you are more qualified, I am wrong to think my interest was snubbed, because it is in my rational self-interest for the best person to get the job.)
For reasons that are likely obvious, this seemed highly problematic. (In such a messy world of individuals — and Rand professes to like individualism — why is it a given that rational self-interests cannot conflict? And isn’t “who’s best for the job” itself a possible point of dispute between us that can’t be resolved by further rational deliberation? And might the word “rational” before “self-interest” be used here as a clever code for “whatever Rand approves of or tells us is correct?”)
The final problem I was having was that I could simply not look at rows and rows of philosophy texts (I worked in a bookstore then) that generally argued different visions than Rand’s and think that they were all wrong and irrational, as I must to believe what Rand said.
As mentioned, I have no idea precisely when I discovered Berlin. I suspect it was some years after I’d finally given up the Randian ghost. But it was doubts like these about Rand’s system — and there would be others in my life — and its promise to explain the world to me in the “jigsaw puzzle” way that Berlin, too, became dissatisfied with. At some point, after trying out many systems, I found that they all felt to me like attempts to stuff too many clothes in a suitcase: zip up the one side and the clothes pour out the other; zip up the other side, and the clothes pour out somewhere else, repeat. Maybe the world was just too big and messy for any human-made system to make coherent and complete sense of it. Maybe different interpretations of things are exactly what we should expect from idiosyncratic and cognitively diverse humans. Maybe our drive to make orderly sense of the world was a human, all too human, need that had more to do with us than the world, and depicted a vision of the world that the world didn’t care about cashing out.
So, imagine my delight when I first read Isaiah Berlin (“Two Concepts of Liberty”) write the following:
One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals – justice or progress or the happiness of future generations, or the sacred mission or emancipation of a nation or race or class, or even liberty itself, which demands the sacrifice of individuals for the freedom of society. This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution.
One virtue of Berlin being an intellectual historian, in fact, is that not only was he under no obligation to argue definitive positions, but he could depict that and how different people at different (or even the same) time made sense of the world. When he did this, he always tried, it seems to me, to make each vision – no matter how different from others he sketched – seem compelling in its own way. And his focus on the rival visions of the (French and German) enlightenment and the “counter-enlightenment” carried with it the message that no matter how complete and satisfying their vision of the world is, there will likely always be something to be said for a different vision of the world that picks up things the first vision misses.
This is why, given Berlin’s emphasis on the messiness of the world and the incompatibility of rival (but compelling) visions of it left him able to say (“Two Concepts of Liberty”) about politics: “The best that can be done, as a general rule, is to maintain a precarious equilibrium that will prevent the occurrence of desperate situations, of intolerable choices.”
Very far from Rand, but much more realistic, at least it seemed to me. In a world of diverse individuals occupying different standpoints, how very unrealistic it is to suppose that one single vision could be offered that would be compelling to all, that would touch and reconcile all the values that humans could rightly care about. Maybe the best we can do, then, is keep trying to create these temporary equlilibria, knowing that they will always evolve and change as system creates reaction creates system creates reaction.
I can’t recall where I “met” him, but from very early in reading him, I knew that Berlin was for me. He’s been so ever since.
Kevin Currie-Knight is a Teaching Associate Professor in East Carolina University’s College of Education. His research is in the philosophy and history of education as well as the role of agency and self-direction in education. He is the author of the book Education in the Marketplace (Springer 2019).