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Isaiah Berlin

Sir Isaiah Berlin O.M. died on 8th November at the age of 88. As a political philosopher and historian of ideas, he started his career well by managing to see the Russian Revolution at first hand as an eight year old boy in Petrograd. A descendant of the mystical founder of the Jewish Chassidic movement, he was a champion of liberalism and had a deep interest in Russian political thought and in non-liberal philosophy.

One of the most famous of his many works was an essay on Tolstoy where he commented on the different intellectual approaches to life:

There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilocus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’. Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words… but taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. [in Russian Thinkers p. 22]

For Berlin, Marxists (for instance) were typical hedgehogs, trying to apply a single monumental system to answer every problem. The fox, knowing innumerable ‘trivial’ details of lives, appreciates that no single system can hope to satisfy the vast diversity of human needs and aspirations.

Berlin was also famous for writing on the distinctions between positive and negative concepts of liberty, and, as a left-liberal being concerned over the far-left views of this notion.

The first of these political senses of freedom or liberty … which (following much precedent) I shall call the ‘negative’ sense, is involved in the answer to the question ‘What is the area within which the subject - a person or group of persons - is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons?’ The second, which I shall call the positive sense, is involved in the answer to the question ‘What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that’ [in Four Essays on Liberty p. 121]

Negative liberty involves choosing what one wants to do while positive liberty involves realising one’s true destiny where one is truly free.

Berlin insisted that he was not a moral relativist but a ‘pluralist’, holding that values were not universal but needed to be “traded off against one another”. Negative concepts of liberty allow people to make these trade-offs for themselves. His affection for negative liberty faded somewhat with the rise of Thatcherism and the end of Communism as a world force.

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