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Isaiah Berlin

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Isaiah Berlin (1909–97) was a British philosopher, historian of ideas, political theorist, educator and essayist. For much of his life he was renowned for his conversational brilliance, his defence of liberalism, his attacks on political extremism and intellectual fanaticism, and his accessible, coruscating writings on the history of ideas. His essay ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958) contributed to a revival of interest in political theory in the English-speaking world, and remains one of the most influential and widely discussed texts in that field: admirers and critics agree that Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty remains, for better or worse, a basic starting-point for theoretical discussions of the meaning and value of political freedom. Late in his life, the greater availability of Berlin’s numerous essays began to provoke increasing scholarly interest in his work, and particularly in the idea of value pluralism; that Berlin’s articulation of value pluralism contains many ambiguities and even obscurities has only encouraged further work on the subject by other philosophers.

Isaiah Berlin was born in 1909 in Riga, capital of Latvia (then part of the Russian Empire), the son of Mendel Berlin, a prosperous timber merchant, and his wife Marie, née Volshonok. In 1915 the family moved to Andreapol, in Russia, and in 1917 to Petrograd, where they remained through both the Russian Revolutions of 1917, which Isaiah would remember witnessing. Despite early persecution by the Bolsheviks, the family was permitted to return to Riga in 1920; from there they emigrated, in 1921, to Britain. They lived in and around London; Isaiah attended St Paul’s School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he studied Greats (classical studies: ancient history and philosophy) and PPE (politics, philosophy and economics). In 1932 he was appointed a lecturer at New College; the same year he became the first Jew to be elected to a Prize Fellowship at All Souls, considered one of the highest accolades in British academic life.

Throughout the 1930s Berlin was deeply involved in the development of philosophy at Oxford; his friends and colleagues included J. L. Austin, A. J. Ayer and Stuart Hampshire, who met to discuss philosophy in his rooms. However, he also evinced an early interest in a more historical approach to philosophy, and in social and political theory, as reflected in his intellectual biography of Karl Marx (1939), still in print nearly 70 years later.

During the Second World War Berlin served in the British Information Services in New York City (1940–2) and at the British Embassy in Washington, DC (1942–5), where he was responsible for drafting weekly reports on the American political scene. In 1945–6 Berlin visited the Soviet Union; his meetings there with surviving but persecuted members of the Russian intelligentsia, particularly the poets Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak, reinforced his staunch opposition to Communism, and formed his future intellectual agenda. After the War Berlin returned to Oxford. Although he continued to teach and write on philosophy throughout the later 1940s and into the early 1950s, his interests had shifted to the history of ideas, particularly Russian intellectual history, the history of Marxist and socialist theories, and the Enlightenment and its critics. He also began to publish widely read articles on contemporary political and cultural trends, political ideology, and the internal workings of the Soviet Union. In 1950, election to a Research Fellowship at All Souls allowed him to devote himself to his historical, political and literary interests, which lay well outside the mainstream of philosophy as it was then practiced at Oxford. He was, however, one of the first of the founding generation of ‘Oxford philosophers’ to make regular visits to American universities, and played an important part in spreading ‘Oxford philosophy’ to the USA.

In 1957, a year after he had married Aline Halban (née de Gunzbourg), Berlin was elected Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford; his inaugural lecture, delivered in 1958, was ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. He resigned his chair in 1967, the year after becoming founding President of Wolfson College, Oxford, which he largely created, retiring in 1975. In his later years he hoped to write a major work on the history of European romanticism, but this hope was disappointed. From 1966 to 1971 he was also a visiting Professor of Humanities at the City University of New York, and he served as President of the British Academy from 1974 to 1978. Berlin was knighted in 1957, and was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1971. Collections of his writings, edited by Henry Hardy and others, began appearing in 1978; there are, to date, 12 such volumes, as well as an anthology, The Proper Study of Mankind, and the first of a projected three volumes of letters. Berlin received the Agnelli, Erasmus and Lippincott Prizes for his work on the history of ideas, and the Jerusalem Prize for his life-long defence of civil liberties, as well as numerous honorary degrees. He died in 1997.

Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. First published on October 26, 2004; substantive revision Sep 2, 2006