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Sir Isaiah Berlin, OM (6 June 19095 November 1997) was a Russian-British philosopher, historian of ideas and liberal, regarded as one of the leading thinkers of the twentieth century, and as the dominant liberal scholar of his generation. He excelled as an essayist, conversationalist and raconteur; and as a brilliant lecturer who improvised, rapidly and spontaneously, richly allusive and coherently structured material. He translated works by Turgenev from Russian into English and, during the war, worked for the British Diplomatic Service. The Independent stated that "Isaiah Berlin was often described, especially in his old age, by means of superlatives: the world's greatest talker, the century's most inspired reader, one of the finest minds of our time... there is no doubt that he showed in more than one direction the unexpectedly large possibilities open to us at the top end of the range of human potential".

In 1932 he was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxfordmarker. From 1957 to 1967, he was Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxfordmarker. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1963 to 1964. In 1966, he helped to found Wolfson College, Oxfordmarker, and became its first President. He was knighted in 1957, and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1971. He was President of the British Academy from 1974 to 1978. He also received the 1979 Jerusalem Prize for his writings on individual freedom. Berlin's work on liberal theory has had a lasting influence.


Berlin was born as an only child into a wealthy Jewish family, the son of Mendel Berlin, a timber industrialist and lineal descendant of Israel ben Eliezer, and his wife Marie, née Volshonok. He spent his childhood in Rigamarker (then part of the Russian Empiremarker; now capital of Latviamarker), and later lived in Andreapol´ (a small timber town near Pskov, effectively owned by the family business) and Saint Petersburgmarker, witnessing both the February and October Revolutions of 1917.

Feeling increasingly oppressed by life under Bolshevik rule, the family left Saint Petersburg on October 5, 1920, for Riga, but encounters with anti-Semitism and difficulties with the Latvian authorities convinced them to leave, and they moved to Britain in early 1921 (Mendel in January, Isaiah and Marie at the beginning of February), when Berlin was eleven. In London, he lived in Surbitonmarker, South Kensingtonmarker, and later Hampsteadmarker. His English was virtually nonexistent at first, but he became fluent within a year. He was educated at St Paul's School marker, then at Corpus Christi College, Oxfordmarker, where he studied Greats (Classics) and PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). While still a student, he notably befriended A. J. Ayer (with whom he was to share a friendly rivalry for the rest of his life), Stuart Hampshire, Maurice Bowra, Stephen Spender, J. L. Austin and Nicolas Nabokov. Upon graduation, he presented a philosophical paper on the philosophy of language to Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge University. Wittgenstein rejected his paper in discussion, but praised Berlin for his intellectual honesty and integrity. Berlin was, indeed, to remain at Oxfordmarker for the rest of his life, apart from a period working for British Information Services in New York from 1940 to 1942, and the British embassies in Washington, DC, and Moscow from then until 1946. Meetings with Anna Akhmatova in Leningradmarker in autumn 1945 and January 1946 had a powerful effect on both of them, and serious repercussions for Akhmatova (who memorialized the meetings in her poetry). He befriended Boris Pasternak, and was responsible for smuggling the first copies of Doctor Zhivago out of Russia. In 1956, he married Aline Halban, née de Gunzbourg, who was from an exiled half Russian-aristocratic and half Jewish family based in Paris.

Berlin died in Oxford in 1997, aged 88. He is buried there in Wolvercote Cemeterymarker. On his death, the front page spread ofThe Independent wrote: "he was a man of formidable intellectual power with a rare gift for understanding a wide range of human motives, hopes and fears, and a prodigiously energetic capacity for enjoyment - of life, of people in all their variety, of their ideas and idiosyncrasies, of literature, of music, of art." The front page of The New York Times concluded: "His was an exuberant life crowded with joys -- the joy of thought, the joy of music, the joy of good friends... The theme that runs throughout his work is his concern with liberty and the dignity of human beings... Sir Isaiah radiated well-being."

His work

"Two Concepts of Liberty"

Berlin is popularly known for his essay "Two Concepts of Liberty", delivered in 1958 as his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford. The essay, with its analytical approach to the definition of political concepts, re-introduced the study of political philosophy to the methods of analytic philosophy. Spurred by his background in the philosophy of language, Berlin argued for a nuanced and subtle understanding of our political terminology, where what was superficially understood as a single concept could mask a plurality of different uses and therefore meanings. Berlin argued that these multiple and differing concepts, otherwise masked by rhetorical conflations, showed the plurality, and incompatibility of human values, and the need for us to analytically distinguish and trade-off between, rather than conflate, them, if we are to avoid disguising underlying value-conflicts.


Berlin's writings on the Enlightenment and its critics (especially Giambattista Vico, Johann Gottfried Herder, Joseph de Maistre and Johann Georg Hamann) – for whom Berlin created the concept of the "the Counter-Enlightenment" – contributed to his advocacy of an irreducibly pluralist ethical ontology. In Three Critics of the Enlightenment, Berlin argued that Hamann was one of the first thinkers to conceive of human cognition as language – the articulation and use of symbols. Berlin saw Hamann as having recognised as the rationalist's Cartesian fallacy the notion that there are "clear and distinct" ideas "which can be contemplated by a kind of inner eye", without the use of language - a view greatly sharpened in the 20th century by Wittgenstein's Private language argument.

Value Pluralism

For Berlin, values are creations of mankind, rather than products of nature waiting to be discovered. He argued, on the basis of the epistemic and empathetic access we have to other cultures across history, that the nature of mankind is such that certain values – for example, the importance of individual liberty – will hold true across cultures, and this is what he meant when he called his position "objective pluralism". Berlin's argument was partly grounded in Wittgenstein's later theory of language, which argued that inter-translatability was supervenient on a similarity in the forms of life, with the inverse implication that our epistemic access to other cultures entails an ontologically contiguous value-structure. With his account of value pluralism, he proposed the view that moral values may be equally, or rather incommensurably, valid and yet incompatible, and may therefore come into conflict with one another in a way that admits of no resolution without reference to particular contexts of decision. When values clash, it may not be that one is more important than the other. Keeping a promise may conflict with the pursuit of truth; liberty may clash with social justice. Moral conflicts are "an intrinsic, irremovable element in human life". "These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are." For Berlin, this incommensurate clashing of values within, no less than between, individuals, constitutes the tragedy of human life.

"The Hedgehog and the Fox"

"The Hedgehog and the Fox", a title referring to a fragment attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, was one of Berlin's most popular essays with the general-public, reprinted in numerous editions. Of the essay, Berlin once said "I never meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously."

Other work

Berlin's essay "Historical Inevitability" (1954) focused on a controversy in the philosophy of history. Of the choice, whether one believes that "the lives of entire peoples and societies have been decisively influenced by exceptional individuals" or, conversely, that whatever happens occurs as a result of impersonal forces oblivious to human intentions - Berlin rejected both options and the choice itself. Berlin is also well known for his writings on Russian intellectual history, most of which are collected in Russian Thinkers (1978; 2nd ed., 2008), edited, like most of Berlin's work, by Henry Hardy (in the case of this volume, jointly with Aileen Kelly).

Wolfson College

Isaiah Berlin was instrumental in the founding, in 1965, of a new college at Oxford Universitymarker. Berlin founded Wolfson College to be a centre of academic excellence which, unlike many other colleges at Oxford, would also be based on a strong egalitarian and democratic ethos. In Berlin's words, the college would be 'new, untrammelled and unpyramided'.


Major works:

All publications listed from 1978 onwards are compilations or transcripts of various lectures, essays, and letters, edited by Henry Hardy. Details given are of first and current UK editions. For US editions see link above.
  • Karl Marx: His Life and Environment, Thornton Butterworth, 1939. 4th ed., 1978, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510326-2.
  • Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, Chatto and Windus, 1976. Redwood Burn Ltd.. ISBN 0-7011-2512-8.
  • The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1953. Phoenix. ISBN 978-075380-867-2.
  • Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969. Superseded by Liberty.
  • Russian Thinkers (co-edited with Aileen Kelly), Hogarth Press, 1978. 2nd ed., Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-144220-4
  • Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, Hogarth Press, 1978. Pimlico. ISBN 0-670-23552-0.
  • Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, Hogarth Press, 1979. Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-6690-7.
  • Personal Impressions, Hogarth Press, 1980. 2nd ed., 1998, Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-6601-X.
  • The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, John Murray, 1990. Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-0616-5.
  • The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and their History, Chatto & Windus, 1996. Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-7367-9.
  • The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays (co-edited with Roger Hausheer), Chatto & Windus, 1997. Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-7322-9.
  • The Roots of Romanticism (recorded 1965), Chatto & Windus, 1999. ISBN 0-7126-6544-7.
  • Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, Pimlico, 2000. ISBN 0-7126-6492-0.
  • The Power of Ideas, Chatto & Windus, 2000. Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-6554-4.
  • Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty (recorded 1952), Chatto & Windus, 2002. Pimlico. ISBN 0-7126-6842-0.
  • Liberty (revised and expanded edition of Four Essays On Liberty), Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-19-924989-X.
  • The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture under Communism, Brookings Institution Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8157-0904-8.
  • Flourishing: Selected Letters 1928–1946, Chatto & Windus, 2004. ISBN 0-7011-7420-X. (Published as Selected Letters 1928–1946 by Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-521-83368-X.)
  • Political Ideas in the Romantic Age: Their Rise and Influence on Modern Thought, Chatto & Windus, 2006. ISBN 0-701-17909-0. Princeton University Pressmarker, 2006. ISBN 978-0-691-12687-6.0. Pimlicomarker, ISBN 978-1-844-13926-2.
  • (with Beata Polanowska-Sygulska) Unfinished Dialogue, Prometheus, 2006. ISBN 978-1-59102-376-0/1-59102-376-9.


  1. Philosopher and political thinker Sir Isaiah Berlin dies, BBC News, November 8, 1997
  2. Obituary: Sir Isaiah Berlin The Independent, H.Hardy, Friday, 7 November 1997
  3. Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin, p. 21.
  4. Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin, p. 31.
  5. Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin, p. 33.
  6. Obituary from the "New York Times", November 10, 1997, "Isaiah Berlin, 88, Philosopher and Historian of Ideas", by Marilyn Berger
  7. "Isaiah Berlin", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  8. Isaiah Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind', Chatto and Windus, 2007, 238, 11.
  9. Ramin Jahanbegloo, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin (London 2000), page 188

See also

Further reading

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