Isaiah Berlin: Latvia celebrates its local philosopher made good

Scholars in Riga and the UK explain why political theorist is still worth studying

December 9, 2018
Source: Getty

Close to two decades after his death, the city of Riga still hosts an annual Isaiah Berlin Day to celebrate the political philosopher and historian of ideas who was born in the city in 1909.

On 13 December, following an illustrious array of other keynote lecturers, Stephen Kotkin, John P. Birkelund ’52 professor in history and international affairs at Princeton University, was set to speak about “Turning Points: Yesterday’s World, and Tomorrow’s”.

So why does the Latvian capital still celebrate Sir Isaiah, who left the country at the age of 6, emigrated to the UK in 1921 and became an establishment figure there?

Ivars Ijabs, associate professor in political theory at the University of Latvia, admitted that he had helped to establish Isaiah Berlin Day in 2009 partly to “celebrate him because he is one of ours” and to “raise his profile for the Latvian public”.

Yet he also argued that “Berlin formulated quite a few of the most important questions of liberalism, which is largely under attack in many places, including central and eastern Europe” and said that Sir Isiah’s writings on liberty and nationalism are still discussed in his classes.

In Latvia, Sir Isaiah has a particular significance as a “local boy made good”, but why should academics elsewhere want to engage with his work on topics that dozens of other scholars have examined since?

Along with “his writing about the complexity of political judgement”, said Duncan Kelly, professor of political thought and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge, “his thinking about value pluralism is a touchstone for many, and so too, his critique of totalitarianism”.

Yet Sir Isaiah, who worked at the British embassy in Washington during the Second World War, was also an important public figure, notable for “his practical as well as intellectual connections”. He and his fellow Cold War liberals “provided something worth defending that could be practically mobilised, and they weren’t bashful about using their influence to pursue/defend it. That’s something we certainly don’t have so much of now in the era of Trump and Brexit,” Professor Kelly said.

For Angelia Wilson, professor of politics at the University of Manchester and chair of the Political Studies Association, “Berlin is one of those figures whose ideas are foundational to understanding principles of democracy and liberty, yet, for undergraduate students, is often briefly covered in a small section of one lecture – if at all…Perhaps emerging democracies [such as Latvia] are more hungry to discuss foundational ideas of liberty. And perhaps older democracies – who seem to be in crisis around issues of liberty and values – should return to these foundational debates in earnest.”

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