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Portrait of Fox

Adam Boate

The Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin, by Johnny Lyons, Bloomsbury, 304 pp, £22.99, ISBN: 9781350121430

I had never read Isaiah Berlin before embarking upon Johnny Lyons’s new study. This is not to say I did not know of his existence, did not feel his presence and authority hanging over the history of ideas. As an undergraduate philosophy student I came across the name lurking in the reading lists of the bibliographies of so many of my introductory courses. Yet Berlin always seemed to fill an elucidatory and ancillary role: that of the commentator, the philosophical excavator who could bring to light aspects of the thought of other, more immediately familiar thinkers. The secondary literature exhorted one to see “Berlin on Kant”, “Berlin on Machiavelli”, “Berlin on Vico” and so on.

The thought behind that elusive name which covers so much ground in the history of ideas is brought to light in this worthy addition to the secondary philosophical literature to both the academic and the lay philosophy reader. While the title of philosophical excavator/archaeologist is perhaps still an apt one to describe Berlin, Lyons takes his thought as its own sustained and coherent philosophy, and himself becomes the exhibitor and exhumer of the Oxford philosopher’s penséesThe Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin is a thorough and trenchant piece of scholarship, moving over a vast range to match that of Berlin himself. Divided thematically under different general conceptions (Philosophy, Contingency, Freedom, Authenticity) and then subdivided under particular questions, the book successfully captures the scope of Berlin’s thought under these headings while anchoring and elucidating Berlin’s philosophy through particular questions. What is the relation between history and philosophy? What about philosophy and science? Can literature and history offer us knowledge that strict empirical investigation and logical deduction cannot? Where does freedom come into it? How can we understand distinct cultures of the past while still grasping their otherness?

What is presented is a streamlined, coherent and thorough account of Berlin’s thinking, framing his ideas in their philosophical and historical context. Lyons often draws on the ideas of Berlin’s contemporaries, those of his Oxford posse like JL Austin and Bernard Williams, along with others such as Richard Rorty, Michael J Sandel and legal scholar Ronald Dworkin, to name but a few. Included in this wide scope however are thinkers on whom Berlin wrote a great deal: Tolstoy, Herder, Hamann, Machiavelli. This panoramic approach suits the content, as Berlin’s thinking draws from many sources, including literature and history as well as academic philosophy. In true Berlin fashion, Lyons follows the proposed arguments where they lead, which lends a certain meandering quality to the chapters. This is by no means a negative: Lyons concisely allows points of criticism their say, weighing the where they may show weak spots in Berlin’s theses of value pluralism, liberalism and the connection between the two, but also providing rebuttals drawn from Berlin’s thought. At the midpoint of the book he recapitulates the ideas and arguments of the preceding chapters, laying the groundwork for those that follow, showing a consideration for the general reader  seldom seen in serious academic literature on a philosopher.

Berlin believed that our values and ways of life could not be subordinated to some overarching historical, moral or political principle. His humanistic and pluralistic view of the subject, Lyons writes, “underscores his conviction that the primary aim of philosophy is less about trying to reach some idealized form of universal consensus than about deepening and refining our self understanding”. Lyons frames Berlin’s relation to other thinkers around the figure (taken from Tolstoy and articulated further by Berlin) of the fox and the hedgehog. The foxes are those who “pursue many ends, often unrelated and contradictory … related by no moral or aesthetic principle … their thought is scattered and diffused, moving on many levels … without … seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing … unitary inner vision.” Those who hold positions of moral monism are cast rather as holding fast to “a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance”.

While it may be questionable how much this model actually captures, it is useful to the degree to which it highlights the way Berlin thought of his own philosophical project. It is easy enough to cast Berlin as the fox, but who are the hedgehogs exactly? Spinoza perhaps, but a thinker like Hegel seems to straddle the line between hedgehog and fox. Still, the distinction sets the conceptual tone of the work and is a useful device to understand Berlin. Lyons openly states his sympathies toward his subject: while the book is certainly an impartial exegesis of Berlin’s thought (and much more), the author is writing from the perspective of the home team, as follower and admirer. He thus avoids the cynical, unforgiving logic-chopping that he notes has been a feature of much criticism of Berlin’s thought (to which he devotes a chapter).

When prompted to explain why she did not consider her thought and work to be philosophy, Hannah Arendt distinguished between two spheres of thought: philosophy, as that which relates to Man as such, and political theory, which relates to men taken in their plurality. Arendt opted for the latter basis to ground her work, but to ask Isaiah Berlin the same question might lead us into difficulty, especially if we substitute the term “’philosophical history” for “political theory”. Lyons would have it that for Berlin “ … the choice should never be either-or, but always both”. Similarly it would seem that contingency and plurality collide with necessity and unity in Berlin’s thought. Berlin does seek to understand the human condition, but is aware of the limitations of such an endeavour, with a minimally defined conception grounded on Kantian principles, which are nonetheless sensitive to historical change. Berlin’s appreciation for history clashed with the positivism which was the dominant philosophical environment of mid-20th century Oxford: “[Berlin] does not share the view that philosophy, and particularly practical philosophy, can be coherently pursued independently of history or, more specifically, of a certain historical self-awareness which springs from a knowledge and appreciation of the past.”

And what of value pluralism? As any student of ancient Greek tragedy knows, the Antigone of Sophocles centres on two values which challenge each other, both with an equally valid claim on the minds of its ancient Athenian audience: the piety Antigone shows toward her brother seems to uphold and pay necessary homage to the god-given order, while Creon’s demands for submission to the man-made law of Thebes testifies to the strength required for a polis, whose condition is one of triumphant rectitude. Despite later adaptions which would have it otherwise, it is this writer’s opinion that Sophocles intended this conflict to be insurmountable. This is also a truth to be found at the heart of Berlin’s value pluralism: that clashes of values as they manifest themselves in real-life situations are ultimately insurmountable because of their unique incommensurability. The Athenian audience for whom Antigone was performed would have been genuinely conflicted, reckoning both values to be fundamentally important to two different aspects of the Greek psyche: that of the Athenian as a man living in a cosmos created by the gods, and that of the Athenian as citizen of the polis, an organism which is essentially legitimate and whose flexing of disciplinary muscle is an extension and application of that legitimacy.

The merit of Berlin’s value pluralism derives from a recognition of this “fact”, that different values have distinct but often equally convincing and necessary purchase on our lives. They must be included in our internal constitution for it to be considered full or possessing moral worth. How we do that is a matter of contingency, though that does not make the fact that we incorporate certain values at the expense of others worthless.

Lyons’s Berlin would have it that simply because we cannot decide with absolute certainty and rank in a fixed hierarchy which values should trump others, that does not prevent us from distinguishing right from wrong, good from bad, crucial from trivial and truth from falsity. Liberalism as a working political theory ‑ as opposed to value pluralism as an abstract philosophical one ‑ is grounded in how we choose to put into practice these transcendental concepts in our daily lives. According to Lyons, the truth of liberalism as social configuration is intimately connected to the truth of value pluralism as epistemological and ethical model.

Theories such as Berlin’s may, however, seem rather toothless to those who value justice and human rights or reject the contemporary (neo-)liberal consensus of the “Free World”. Liberalism has taken something of a pasting over the past forty years, with open criticism of it particularly acute in the last decade. Its pairing with an increasingly pernicious form of capitalism (whether through inevitability or political choice) has done it much reputational damage. This question of liberalism as pure political principle (à la Berlin) being wedded to capitalism as economic machine is one not addressed by Lyons in his book, leaving the reader to assume that, regardless of what Lyons might think of such a relationship, Berlin did not have much to say about it.

Is the “good life” defined by late capitalism the one which Berlin had in mind? If the (political) centre cannot hold, and if, for better or worse, current events do mark a shift in the consensus about liberalism, what do we do with a book like this? Barring the obvious scholarly value of Lyons’s book, restating the case for liberalism has merit in itself and may well be worthwhile in our current political climate. Lyons’s book is a wonderful explication of the hidden philosophical reasoning which underpins what we take to be the “obvious” political dispositions of tolerance, freedom and equality. The Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin should pique the interest of those who perhaps need to do some soul-searching and return to a philosophical justification for the liberalism which has become so part of the political and social everyday it is no longer visible. A book like Lyons’s serves a function beyond the explication of the thought of one of liberalism’s most contemplative, meticulous and erudite defenders.


Adam Boate is a student. He lives in Dublin.



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