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  • Isaiah Berlin as Anti-Rationalist
  • Simon Upton
Isaiah Berlin, by John Gray; 189 pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996, $19.95.

For over half a century Sir Isaiah Berlin has been a towering figure in the literature of political philosophy and the history of ideas. He has repeatedly distilled the essence of key subjects of political discourse. Through his exploration of intellectual currents that run, frequently, beyond the insularity of the English speaking world, he has provided new insights into debates that go to the heart of how Western civilization understands the relationship between its citizens and its institutions. For readers of this journal, his identification of the cultural roots of political and social identity will be familiar.

Yet he stands somehow to one side of the debates that have consumed academia for over half of the twentieth century. I went through the index pages, references and bibliographies in a range of tomes that have accumulated on my shelves over the last ten years. Some celebrated essays are, justly, touchstones. But overwhelmingly, references to Berlin are scarce and, when they are present, tangential. The preoccupations of academic political philosophers have been elsewhere. The heat of debate has focused on all sorts of rationalistic enterprises that seek uniquely foundational premises for our political arrangements. Hence the ubiquitousness of a theorist like Rawls. Theories of justice, community and rights abound. Berlin’s limpid [End Page 426] prose seems somehow detached from this cerebral frenzy. John Gray’s thesis is that beneath this detachment from the fray lies a subversiveness that is truly yawning; that while the pyrotechnics of neo-Lockean or Hobbesian scholars may seem to set up clamorous disputes, they are all of a piece when set against the conclusions Gray seeks to draw from the totality of Berlin’s writings. Gray’s particular quarry is Berlin’s ethical thinking. Here lies a value pluralism that is subversive of reason’s ameliorating and harmonizing powers—of perfectionism, in short. Ethical reasoning takes place within a sphere of incommensurable and radical choices. There is no alchemy of rational choice that can dispel irresolvable moral conflict. As Gray puts it, “We have no reason to abandon the richness and depth of moral life, with all its undecidable dilemmas, for the empty vistas of moral theory.”

This approach, Gray insists, is ultimately subversive of philosophy itself since the richness and depth of moral life will be encountered not in the quietude of academic reflection but in the world at large. While admitting to unresolved tensions in Berlin’s writing, Gray is pleased to discern in his subject a conception of philosophical inquiry that is a meditation on empirical, cultural and historical anthropology rather than an abstract Kantian enterprise that starts from a conception of human agency that can be described prior to an investigation of its cultural or historical context.

This naturalism, this determination to stay in touch with lived experience, is a vein that Gray mines in many of Berlin’s studies of the Counter-Enlightenment—in particular his writings on Hamann and Herder. The human condition is not described by radically situated individuals or the products of saturated communitarianism. Rather, reasoning beings are embedded within shared forms of cultural life. History, the business of describing the course of human agency, thus becomes a process of imaginative empathy and reconstruction; human society is conceived in organic rather than constructivist terms. And in language, custom, mores, and institutions, we encounter irrefutable evidence of the plurality—and particularity—of human affections.

The lens through which Gray then approaches Berlin’s political philosophy is one that keeps in view the tension between seeking to render the world of human agency and social interaction rationally intelligible while accepting as unavoidable the particularistic allegiances that are grounded in a plurality of cultural and historical settings. On the one hand, there is the weight of the Enlightenment seeking political institutions that reflect a rational and moral unity of [End Page 427] mankind; on the other, the romantic assertion that political commitment is ultimately a (groundless) act of will by agents whose radical choices are taken within local and particular institutions shaped in turn by organic, cultural forms. Depending on...

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