The Tribune - Spectrum


, March 10, 2002

Isaiah Berlin and his unwavering pluralism
Rumina Sethi

The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History
by Isaiah Berlin, Chatto and Windus, London. Pages 278, £20.

THE scholar who, in recent years, has made abundantly sure that Isaiah Berlin's much unpublished work does not go into oblivion is Henry Hardy who has been industriously working on projects that have resulted in the compilation of Berlin's radio talks and lectures into several books.

I often saw Hardy working late into the night at my college in Oxford. Sitting with him or with Berlin at the dinning table or having coffee in the common room, I would often enter into a robust chat on some of the prominent ideas on pluralism and nationalism that had always obsessed Berlin. We would often move on to Berlin's examination of the romantic rebellion against the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Sitting there face-to-face with him I would imagine him as the best-known proponent of secular liberalism. Had he not, in his book Four Essays on Liberty, campaigned for "negative" liberty—that is, freedom from restrictions on the individual?" I was thus almost taken aback when Hardy recently came up with The Sense of Reality which takes up this issue discussed earlier in various essays written in the 1950s. This new collection at last makes available an important body of previously unknown work by one of the leading historians of ideas.


It is intriguing that Berlin began to think in terms of a reaction to Enlightenment much in advance of the contemporary postmodern times. Monistic theories of history had been attacked in the past by thinkers such as Karl Popper, but here was a writer who looked more at the wider cultural history of the time in which he located the thinker he was revaluating. For him, his concept of pluralism became a tool or a method with which to approach the problem at hand. He held no distinctions between studies in ideas and their history; political theory and philosophy, culture and history were to be looked at conjointly, one supplementing the other.

The nine pieces in the book are published here for the first time. From realism in history to the impossibility of recreating a bygone epoch, from judgement in politics to the nature and impact of Marxism, from the cultural revolution spurred by romanticism to the Russian notion of artistic commitment, these are some of the views central of Berlin's philosophy. That Berlin had been with us for a long time is evident from his writings which range from Lenin's war communism through which he lived as a child to his encounters with Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak which resulted in his attacks on totalitarian regimes, from writings on the resurgence of ethnic nationalisms after the cold war to the three key areas of his political thought: freedom, pluralism, and liberalism.

Later, eclipsed by the French philosophers—Derrida, Foucault, and Barthes—Berlin only resurfaced in the 1980s, and more predominantly, in the 1990s, painstakingly reinstated by Henry Hardy. To say that Berlin's academic contributions gradually became unfashionable in the 1960s is true in the light of the fading significance of his brand of liberal principles that bred toleration and freedom of conscience. Nonetheless, it was impossible for his ideas on nationalism, especially Zionism, to remain buried for too long as seen in the recent surge of interest that has been generated in that area. Berlin was among the few liberal thinkers who could speak positively of nationalism as one of the most powerful movements in the world. Universalism, he felt, was a great leveller that robbed nations of their specific content and diversity which alone could glorify individual cultures. Although Berlin did not altogether deny a universal and standardised theory of historicism, he was, at the same time, protective of specific group identities and alternative models. Like present-day multiculturalists, he believed in maintaining a universal concept of identity, while promoting liberal pluralism through the recognition of the unique identity and authenticity of cultural groups and individuals.

Of course, the particularistic in nationalism can also be interpreted as a kind of fundamentalism. Yet the grip of the Enlightenment project and its eurocentric gaze rendered nationalism almost pluralistic—a simple matter of choices in a universe of human possibilities which John Gray, another Berlin scholar, celebrates as his "value pluralism". While Berlin had faith in the existence of ultimate values which he believed were knowable, they were not available in uncontested forms. He claimed that no Good could be found in a perfect state; a system or norm could exist only imperfectly, in varied and conflictual tones, never for the picking in one individual or even in one society.

In the essay on artistic commitment, Berlin defends the Russian masters by taking up Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Goncharov to show that committed writers did not take a utilitarian view of art or use their capabilities for narrow political ends. Here is the defence of the founding fathers of Russian liberal intelligentsia who, Berlin argues, did not at all contribute to the subversion of the artist by the state. Works, according to Belinsky and Berlin, must be ingrained in the reality which the artist inhabits. In other words, no single, centripetal, or organising principle can be founded. On the other hand, the possibilities of scattered, diffused, self-contradictory, incomplete, and centrifugal experiences are endless. Berlin was both a liberal pluralist and the rational defender of reason with a vast range of knowledge and inexhaustible enthusiasm. In many ways, what he said of Tolstoy could well be applied to him: "He was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog." The essays Political Judgment and The Sense of Reality veer back to the famous essay on foxes and hedgehogs, a notion that foxes strive for multiple truths and 'many little things' while the hedgehogs desire only one great truth. Philosophy does dismantle and smash the single transcendent truth, but endeavours to construct a lasting and indestructible system. This was a desire for a unified world view which paradoxically produced the idea of the 'fluid' truth.

Although, as Berlin confesses, bridges between cultures are hard to build (or cross), a surprising last essay focuses on Rabindranath Tagore and nationalism. Berlin's own views on nationalism are well-known and feature, among other works, in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, where he sees nationalist sentiment as both progressive and regressive. In tune with this largely-recognised ambivalence, Berlin locates Tagore as a struggling hero between westernisation and traditionalism. Like Tagore, Berlin is passionate about putting in a good word for the English, but he recovers a balance by adding that it is infinitely better to speak 'nonsense in one's own voice than wise things distilled from the experience of others.' Berlin's very lyrical essay tacked to the end of the book may best be described as a summation of Tagore's humanist rationale, placing a traditionalist past within a plural and indefinite setting which we might call internationalism'.

Such then, Berlin is exhilarated by a large number of theories and thinkers with whom he converses across time and space with only one aim, and that is the urgency of liberal cause so important and relevant in a war-torn century of blood and extremes. Henry Hardy must be given full credit for his enduring intense work, his pains and doggedness which are behind the six volumes of Berlin's work that he has assembled in the last few years.