Isaiah Berlin and a Messier Pluralism

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).







24 responses to “Isaiah Berlin and a Messier Pluralism”

  1. s. wallerstein


    You didn’t put the fact that this is written by Kevin Currie-Knight in either the heading of the email or of this post. Since I only saw your name, I assumed that you had written it and it just didn’t fit that you had been a Ayn Rand fan in your 20’s. Finally, I scrolled down and saw that it wasn’t your work, but it would best to clear that up in the heading.

  2. WordPress has a new interface, and I am still fumbling with it. Please let me know if you see any other errors.

  3. s. wallerstein


  4. Dan, you weren’t a Rand acolyte in your early 20’s?!

  5. Uh….no. Always hated her.

  6. Re s. wallerstein’s point… On theelectricagora home page, it looks like you wrote all the articles. I guess because you posted them, you appear as the “author” on the tile to each story.

  7. That cannot be fixed.

  8. Peter Smith

    Apart from the Ayn Rand stuff this sounded just like the kind of stuff Dan Kaufman would write. So yeah, I was suckered into believeing that Dan-K was the real author and the layout did all it could to further this mistaken impression.

  9. 1970scholar

    I dearly love Isaiah Berlin, my favorite philosopher in the whole 20th century, and one I feel is underrated. It was an unexpected delight to read this post.

  10. Peter Smith

    Of course we are all allowed the monumental mistakes of youth and I thought this was one of those revelatory moments where we had discovered Dan’s. So Dan, what were your monumental mistakes?

  11. WordPress has always listed the poster for as long as I have been on the platform, which is 5 years.

  12. AcademicLurker

    I also have enjoyed Berlin’s writings. I’m a scientist who reads occasional philosophy rather than a full time philosopher, so maybe people in this thread can tell me if I’m being unfair to Berlin on one point.

    I sometimes got the sense the he was strawmanning the Enlightenment thinkers somewhat. In contrast to the Counter Enlightenment/Romantic figures he wrote about, he would oppose a very rigid pattern of thought in which: 1) there is only 1 correct way to live/organize society, 2) reason has or will discover this correct way, and 3) once that correct way is known then all else is error and folly. Basically drawing a remarkably straight line from the Enlightenment thinkers to 20th century totalitarianism. Not that such a line doesn’t exist, I’m just not sure it’s quite as straight as Berlin tended to imply.

    He tended to leave one with the impression that only the Counter Enlightenment figures he was interested in appreciated that the world is actually complicated. I’m not familiar enough with the primary Enlightenment writings to judge how slanted Berlin’s picture is. Am I being unfair to Berlin here (or just misremembering the essays)?

  13. Why do you find the lack of definitive positions desirable and a philosophical virtue?

  14. If this were posed to me, I would answer “because that’s the reality of things.”

  15. Charles Justice

    Pluralism captures at least part of human reality in that we live in different societies in different times and situations. What single principle could tie it all together and hold universally? On the other hand it can resemble moral relativism, in that if there are so many conflicting values, than there may be no rational way of ranking them. This might imply that one way of living is as good as another. The enlightenment basically came down on the side of the use of reason: systematic inquiry and critique to discover or construct better government, schools, legal systems, and moral systems. Eg. Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are the rights to life,liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among them, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed – that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it….” The counter-enlightenment rejected this approach, basing itself on the idea that our sense of belonging to common traditions, a common religion, and a common history are what really count in how we ought to live. Trump and his followers represent the counter-enlightenment – in this case, the idea that enlightenment values of scientific inquiry, of systematic critiques of traditional religion, morality, and politics are too destructive of the way we live. Counter-enlightenment worldviews tend to lead to irrationalism, to extreme forms of intolerance and chauvinism as in Trumpism and Nazism. Enlightenment theories may well be overly simplistic or monistic, but there is a built-in remedy – the application of reason of critique, can help us to learn from our mistakes and modify our theories. This doesn’t seem to happen with counter-enlightenment thinkers because they reject critique in favour of going with their deepest feelings and intuitions. I think Berlin would have agreed that human nature is not finished and so no view of it can be final. As long as we can see that the enlightenment side of things is also unfinished, a work in progress, we will be on solid ground. The real danger lies in trying to cut off inquiry and critique in the way that Trump and his followers are doing.

  16. It has been a long time since I read any much Berlin; I remember his writing fondly, but your essay urges me to re-read his text to remember precisely why, which I will certainly do.

    I do think that an interesting subtext here is that Berlin is not widely remembered as a ‘major’ philosopher, but as a minor one, somewhat on the margins of major developments in the Anglophone traditions. But really, I find that many ‘minor’ philosophers of the 20th century are actually more interesting than the ‘major’ figures (and tend to be better writers), because they’re not so interested in ‘making a mark’ on philosophy by producing ‘original thought’ (which may not even be possible when we get right down to it.

    Certainly one way to see philosophy is as a conversation, and not as a struggle to get just the ‘right’ answers to certain question (some of which, after all, are not even answerable; and some of which delude us with answers that are simply unnecessary, if not down-right silly on occasion).

  17. I have a high opinion of Berlin also. One small quibble and a couple of thoughts…

    “What Berlin became convinced by — in thinking about those who criticized this [jigsaw puzzle] vision of the world — is that a messier pluralism was the more likely explanation of how the world worked.”

    This is awkwardly put. You affirm pluralism but imply one — singular — explanation. Moreover, the subsequent quote is about incompatible values/value systems — and values are not primarily explanatory.

    On another issue…

    “[Berlin] 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.”

    I would say that this is the *only* way to understand a person’s ideas. If your goal is to understand what/how someone thought about just about any intellectually interesting thing, you *have* to take account of the cultural and historical context. (This context is a sine qua non of thinking, part of the thinking process in fact.) We are all too inclined, I think, to hypostatize the notion of an idea, to imagine ideas as free-floating things.

    Unlike more general and discursive notions, however, many mathematical, scientific and technical ideas can successfully be taught and understood independently of intellectual history. In cases like this, the goal is not to understand what or how a particular person or people thought but rather to learn a technique, or to learn something about how certain things are, or how they work.

  18. I think you have a point – he may simplify the position of his ‘enemies’ (see “FREEDOM AND ITS BETRAYAL:
    six enemies of human liberty”), but not just that. It always took a while to get my students to agree that we shouldn’t attack the person, we should attack the argument. But then I would read Berlin’s essay on Rousseau with them. They enjoyed seeing how Berlin broke the philosophical rules. There he likens Rousseau to a ‘maniac’ and to a ‘mad mathematician’. On page 39 he characterises Rousseau thus:

    “He says to himself: ‘Here is liberty and here is authority, and it is difficult – it is logically impossible – to arrange a compromise. How are we to reconcile them?’ The answer has a kind of simplicity and a kind of lunacy which maniacal natures are often capable of.”

  19. AcademicLurker

    To be fair, Rousseau is a case where the charge probably sticks. Instead of “strawmanning” in my original comment, perhaps I should have said “painted with too broad a brush”. My memory of the essays in Against the Current, for example, is that Berlin tended to imply that a proto-totalitarian mindset was a feature of Enlightenment thinkers in general. Voltaire, Hume & etc. seem like a pretty smart bunch. Some of them surely appreciated that it was a bit more complicated than “We will perfect everything with Reason!”.

  20. alandtapper1950

    I have two stories that may be of interest.

    In 1940 Berlin worked at “Section D” of MI6. So too did Guy Burgess, the Soviet double agent. Berlin and Burgess were assigned the task of going to Moscow, for purposes not now clear. They sailed across the Atlantic to Quebec (risking U-boat attack), then flew to New York and Washington. The plan was to go to Moscow via Vladivostok. In Washington it was called off because Burgess was considered too erratic. But the image of these two incredible talkers, men of opposite philosophies, on a top-secret mission together is a striking one. (The story is told in Andrew Lownie, “Stalin’s Englishman”.)

    In 2016, the Bodleian Library in Oxford had an exhibition of some of its treasures, which I saw. One treasure was the typescript of Berlin’s famous 1958 inaugural lecture, “Two Concepts of Liberty”. Berlin starts by naming the great British political philosophers. What was odd was that he had crossed out Hume and written in Burke. It was like he had changed his mind at the last minute about the relative merits of the two.


  21. 1970scholar

    I’d love to see a movie, novella, or something based on that hypothetical trip becoming reality. That is Tom Stoppard type of stuff for sure.

  22. 1970scholar

    I think Berlin gets at a real truth about the Enlightenment, that is, an inherent flaw in their work. The trouble is that a lot of people who admire or love Berlin cannot stand that charge since they see themselves as inheritors of the same Enlightenment and see Berlin as embarrassing in doing “Enlightenment bashing”. Moreover the same people see Berlin as praising these nonsensical and dangerous Romantic types too much, as over identifying with them.. There is a large literature on that.
    I do think there are these problems with the Enlightenment and by problems I mean “QED” type problems that make Sam Harris and company guilty of “should know better.” The problems are manifold, and partly tooted in their materialism or physicalism in fact. But there is much value in truth in that same Enlightenment. The other problem is that the Left or at least part of it has branded Berlin as some kind of Capitalist Cold Warrior and rejected him for that reason, and others. Yet the Enlightenment did so much good all the same.

  23. alandtapper1950

    Enthusiasts for the great man should know that he has been getting quite a hammering lately from today’s historians of ideas. See, for example,

    The reviewer, Charles Blattburg, comments:

    “That Berlin appears to have pursued his struggle with monism while writing intellectual history is unfortunate, however. I’m not qualified to pronounce on the various criticisms, evoked above, of his work in the history of ideas, but I must say that many of them strike me as having the ring of truth. In fact, as Brockliss and Robertson point out, Berlin himself came to admit that his portrait of the Enlightenment had a polemical bias: ‘The positive element, and the rich variety and undogmatic humanism, of much of the Enlightenment is, for obvious polemical reasons, not allowed enough by me; and perhaps the picture of the Enlightenment is too much of an Aunt Sally,’ i.e. a straw man. Maybe this was only to be expected. Because if you believe that there is a plurality of incompatible truths, then it makes sense to fight for the ones you favor.”