Singular praise for a pluralist

Isaiah Berlin
March 3, 1995

After passing through several ideological stations of the cross, John Gray now embraces pluralism as the most sublime faith of all. His respect for diversity might have been bred from liberal principles of toleration or freedom of conscience, but on his own testimony value-pluralism owes little to any of the varieties of liberalism that had commanded his affections before, or to the communitarianism that has lately won him new friends and unexpected political influence. Gray's pluralism is inspired by notions of the incommensurability of human ends, by denials of their transitivity across cultures and between groups, by claims that they are insusceptible to rational vindication. Describing it as if it were prefigured in what he terms the "agonistic liberalism" of Sir Isaiah Berlin, Gray offers his readers a pluralist philosophy for a post-modern age, shorn of all the illusory verities of western political thought.

This celebration of Berlin's achievement places great emphasis on his insight that our values can never be universally compelling, from which Gray draws the conclusion that the pluralism Berlin espouses takes precedence over his liberalism and may be disengaged from it. He concedes that his interpretation of Berlin's philosophy has no warrant in the texts he cites and that Berlin himself might hesitate to accept his reading. Indeed he strikes a fresh path that may alarm some of Berlin's admirers, but in their praise they will henceforth all have to yield to such encomium.

Gray's admiration for Berlin, signposted everywhere by hyperbole, is virtually boundless. No other modern political thinker has been so "deeply distinctive'' or so "decidedly original'', he claims, in subverting all the orthodoxies of classical liberalism, the Enlightenment Project and our western intellectual tradition. Unless it was Machiavelli, no liberally-minded figure before Berlin has shared such a tragically realist understanding of the tensions to which our most deeply held convictions give rise. But it is hard to imagine a treatment that could have located Berlin on a higher pedestal constructed upon such shaky foundations. Berlin's other friends will have good cause to find Gray's adulation perplexing, less because it is excessive than because it is misplaced, in identifying the splendours of a philosophy shorn of its liberal core, and in contrasting it with diverse principles that Berlin did far more to illuminate than to discredit.

Gray shares Berlin's view that philosophical determinism is incompatible with individual freedom of choice, insofar as determinism accounts for our choices in a causal chain that is not itself subject to the exercise of free will. According to Gray, Berlin's pluralism springs in large measure from his anti-determinism, and in attempting to show that a commitment to freedom of choice lends itself to pluralism, he puts forward arguments that in fact articulate central elements of Berlin's moral philosophy. Diversity, Gray contends, is the most conspicuous expression of the nature of a species whose members' lives are characterised by choice. While other interpreters might find Berlin's liberalism and pluralism to stem form the same anti-determinist source, Gray argues that each in effect may be detached from the other, since neither liberty itself nor a liberal society are indispensable to every form of worthwhile life.

Gray's elaborations of this proposition are often ingenious, but they are seldom brought to bear upon Berlin's own doctrines, still less on his interpretations of other philosophers and scholars. There is scant treatment here of Berlin's assessment of illustrious contemporaries, such as Namier or Austin, or of his comments on Russian writers from Belinsky to Tolstoy. His Zionism is discussed in a fine chapter on nationalism, which does indeed raise important questions about the compatibility of Berlin's liberal ideas with his communitarian values, and yet even in his sympathetic reading of the communal dimensions of freedom, Gray places far more emphasis than does Berlin on the conflict between nations marked by incompatible traditions and identities he takes to be tragically endemic in a multicultural world. Multiple nationalisms he deems richer than deracinated cosmopolitanism, but Gray acknowledges that they are inescapably less benign and less tolerant, and the allegiance upon which they depend is less optional.

In such comments on liberalism and nationalism Gray closely follows both Joseph Raz and Avishai Margalit, while his discussion of multicultural conflict in particular owes a profound and duly acknowledged debt to Raz. A good part of this work is indeed less a study of Berlin's thought than an account of his meaning as it might be subjected to the critical scrutiny of Raz, who commands Gray's admiration only fractionally less than Berlin himself. On certain points, particularly their accounts of negative liberty, Raz and Berlin are plainly at odds, as Gray shows, Berlin commending non-interference for its own sake and Raz only for its contribution to autonomous agency. But with respect to value-pluralism and the incommensurability of diverse human ends, they are found to be of one mind, opposed to other liberal philosophers of our day, including John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, whose attachment to foundationalist notions of human rights or equality Gray regards as evidence that their liberalism is defunct.

Broad strokes and boldly contrasting colours distinguish Gray's heroes from the monochrome villains he relegates to oblivion. The subtle shades and textures that make Berlin's readings of other thinkers so vital and vibrant, even when he disagrees with them, are nowhere to be found here. That above all is the chief failing of this provocative and engaging but also infuriating book. It plays for high stakes and by way of refuting uniformitarian ideals, which are generally thought to be marked by greater consistency and coherence than their opposites, it aims to triumph over widespread error. Gray shows little magnanimity towards, or even curiosity about, the doctrines he casts aside. Interpretive charity is not for him. Despite his sometimes infectious excitement at the marvels of Berlin's philosophy, he clips its wings and adopts a dogmatically ideological stance largely alien to his subject.

Nowhere is this more plain than in Gray's treatment of the rationalist cosmopolitanism of the European Enlightenment, identified as underpinning most varieties of contemporary liberalism, which he imagines to have been so admirably deconstructed by way of the agonistic flourishes of Berlin's pluralism. Gray, of course, reminds us that Berlin is no irrationalist himself, that the so-called Counter-Enlightenment was in part nurtured by the Enlightenment itself, and that some of the more sinister features of modern political life have been inspired by the anti-humanism and anti-rationalism of the Enlightenment's critics.

But he warms to the Counter-Enlightenment with the same gusto and relish he imagines once drew the Enlightenment's advocates to unsheathe their universal declarations of the rights of man. Notwithstanding his "irrelevant ultramontanism'' and reactionary traditionalism, de Maistre is judged, on Gray's reading, to be a more profound interpreter of the crises of modernity than are liberal contractarians in the tradition of Locke and Kant. The value-pluralism to which he subscribes in what he takes to be Berlin's fashion excludes any endorsement of an Enlightenment idea of cosmopolitan civilisation, and while acknowledging that Berlin himself has felt both attracted towards and alienated from the Enlightenment throughout his career, Gray finds that tension bewildering and doubts that these two strains of Berlin's philosophy can cohere. Our conflicts of principle, it would appear, exclude any pluralism that could embrace the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment at the same time, and Gray himself, if not Berlin, stands unequivocally opposed to the monist anthropology the Enlightenment has, by imputation, bequeathed to modern liberalism and totalitarianism alike.

His charges against the Enlightenment do indeed cultivate certain strains in Berlin's philosophy. In essays devoted to the Counter-Enlightenment Berlin has decried the philosophes' attempt to explain human affairs with reference to the laws of natural science, their belief that our nature is at bottom everywhere the same, their trust in our prospects of attaining desirable ends common to us all. He has found fault with rationalists for advocating that our principles must each conform with one another, and with empiricists for supposing that education might one day free all mankind from the tyrannies of superstition. Since Jacob Talmon, Lester Crocker and other critics of the Enlightenment have acknowledged Berlin's influence upon their own grasp of the roots of totalitarianism, Gray's anti-Enlightenment philosophy is not the first to be heartened by his writings, but in the superficiality of its treatment of Enlightenment themes it is among the most depressing.

At no point does Gray display a first-hand acquaintance with the doctrines he decries, or any understanding of their richness, their complexity, their diversity or the contrasts between them. Following some remarks of Charles Taylor, he offers a caricature of the "naively systematic'' linguistic empiricism of Condillac, ignoring the subtleties of Condillac's own theory of signs, and its resemblance to the doctrine of Herder which, again in the absence of any evidence, Gray regards as having superseded it. The Enlightenment depicted in this work is by and large vacuous, and if Berlin's occasional writings lend some support to Gray's hostility to an Enlightenment Project, by far his most substantial essays on 18th-and 19th-century thought display his deep affinities to Enlightenment thinkers and his emulation of their style.

Stuart Hampshire comes closer to the truth than Gray in identifying not only a Humeian resonance in Berlin's nationalism (as indeed in his scepticism) but also his comprehensive mastery of the Enlightenment oraison funebre in the manner of Fontenelle and Condorcet. No Counter-Enlightenment pluralism has earned greater respect from Berlin than that of Montesquieu, a central figure of the Enlightenment itself, even though Montesquieu did in fact subscribe, as so many other phiolsophes did not, to natural scientific explanations of human behaviour. No political thinker of the 18th century more closely resembles Berlin in his ideals, his enthusiasms, his conversation, than Diderot. No 19th-century figure commands his admiration more than that ebullient westerniser among dour Slavophils, that cosmopolitan Russian abroad, that generous spirit of enlightenment in a still-benighted age, Herzen. Our disparate ideas are not so incommensurable that we cannot even begin to understand other cultures, languages or persons. By way of an imaginative sympathy that Gray himself regards as clairvoyant, Berlin has made the ideas of diverse past and present thinkers vivid and compelling, without adopting them as his own. Such transitivity, which forms the nexus of Enlightenment perceptions of human diversity, ought not to be rejected, as a matter of principle, as if with Berlin's authority.

Robert Wokler, reader in the history of political thought, University of Manchester, is at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.

Isaiah Berlin

Author - John Gray
ISBN - 0 00 255582 4
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £18.00
Pages - 183pp

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