Portrait captures thinker’s political shapes

Isaiah Berlin
May 27, 2005

George Crowder’s Isaiah Berlin: Liberty, Pluralism and Liberalism is not the most vivid study of its subject. (That title must surely go to John Gray’s spirited Isaiah Berlin .) What it offers in compensation is a vigorous, thoughtful and illuminating picture of Berlin’s ideas and where they came from and a sober and reasonably lucid assessment of their overall merits from Crowder’s point of view. In both respects, it marks a distinctive contribution; and the combination gives it a range of prospective utility in teaching appreciably wider than any of its rivals.

Crowder is an analytical political philosopher with relatively conventional liberal views that centre on commitment to personal autonomy and the conditions required to sustain it. As a whole, his book amounts to a discreet process of recruitment of Berlin for service in this particular campaign. The result is a rather flattened version of the irrepressible original, with the vivacity greatly toned down and the more sceptical and disruptive elements tidied into the background or set firmly aside.

It is of some interest what Berlin himself would have made of this exercise because he combined a keen and somewhat nervous interest in other people’s response to his writings with considerable fastidiousness over how he chose to present himself. I suspect that he would have found Crowder’s conclusions a trifle ingenuous without feeling that his main intellectual purposes or personal political tastes had been seriously misunderstood or misrepresented.

What would probably have pleased him greatly is the imaginative respect and insight of Crowder’s picture of the sources of his ideas and the motives that led him to develop them. This draws on the advice and personal reminiscences of a number of figures who knew Berlin well and were extremely fond of him, as well as on the much wider range of his writings that Henry Hardy has ushered into the world over the past quarter of a century, and on Michael Ignatieff’s serviceable biography.

The resulting portrait brings out a strategic shape in Berlin’s political thinking that is clearer and more resolute than previous interpreters have shown, and it explains why Berlin himself came to attach such weight to his rejection of a monistic vision of human value. It is less convincing in its assessment of the philosophical implications of Berlin’s oeuvre as a whole for the understanding of human value itself.

It is hard to believe that Berlin himself saw the implications of his own pluralism as supporting his personal political tastes and ambitions so comfortably and reliably, and even harder to believe that he would have had good reason to. A better clue to how the two did fit together lies in the thinking of Berlin’s close friend Bernard Williams, and the far more sceptical and conflictual vision of the nature of human value that emerges over the last two decades of his life, above all in his masterpiece Shame and Necessity .

John Dunn is professor of political theory, Cambridge University.

Isaiah Berlin: Liberty, Pluralism and Liberalism. First edition

Author - George Crowder
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 228
Price - £50.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 7456 2476 6 and 2477 4

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