Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin

by John Gray
     
 

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Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was the greatest intellectual historian of the twentieth century. But his work also made an original and important contribution to moral and political philosophy and to liberal theory.

In 1921, at the age of eleven, Isaiah Berlin arrived in England from Riga, Latvia. By the time he was thirty he was at the heart of British intellectual

Overview

Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was the greatest intellectual historian of the twentieth century. But his work also made an original and important contribution to moral and political philosophy and to liberal theory.

In 1921, at the age of eleven, Isaiah Berlin arrived in England from Riga, Latvia. By the time he was thirty he was at the heart of British intellectual life. He has remained its commanding presence ever since, and few would dispute that he was one of Britain's greatest thinkers. His reputation extends worldwide—as a great conversationalist, intellectual historian, and man of letters. He has been called the century's most inspired reader.

Yet Berlin's contributions to thought—in particular to moral and political philosophy, and to liberal theory—are little understood, and surprisingly neglected by the academic world. In this book, they are shown to be animated by a single, powerful, subversive idea: value-pluralism which affirms the reality of a deep conflict between ultimate human values that reason cannot resolve. Though bracingly clear-headed, humane and realist, Berlin's value-pluralism runs against the dominant Western traditions, secular and religious, which avow an ultimate harmony of values. It supports a highly distinctive restatement of liberalism in Berlin's work—an agnostic liberalism, which is founded not on rational choice but on the radical choices we make when faced with intractable dilemmas. It is this new statement of liberalism, the central subject of John Gray's lively and lucid book, which gives the liberal intellectual tradition a new lease on life, a new source of life, and which comprises Berlin's central and enduring legacy.

In a new introduction, Gray argues that, in a world in which human freedom has spread more slowly than democracy, Berlin's account of liberty and basic decency is more instructive and useful than ever.

Editorial Reviews

New York Review of Books - Michael Walzer
Gray's book is as much a reconstruction as a presentation of Berlin's thought. . . . Gray's reconstruction is . . . impressive and revealing. It points persuasively to both the overall coherence and the internal tensions of Berlin's thought. . . . Gray has written an acute and illuminating exposition of Berlin's world view. . . . He probably gets closer to Berlin than anyone else has done.
Times Literary Supplement - Steven Lukes
Gray is a forceful writer, an engaged political theorist with a serious interest in philosophical fundamentals.
Washington Times - Colin Walters
Succeed[s] in bringing the daring of [Berlin's] thinking so clearly into view. . . . Berlin's commitment to liberalism for all its difficulties remains solid, and Mr. Gray's argument is that this 'agonistic' liberalism is our best bet. . . . It is an argument not to be missed.
National Interest - Adam Wolfson
A masterly study of Berlin's political thought. . . . Gray brilliantly expounds in highly condensed prose Berlin's theory of pluralism, developing its direction and course, even where Berlin is silent, and explaining its political relevance.
Partisan Review - William Phillips
An excellent exposition of Isaiah Berlin's ideas. [Gray] is particularly interesting in his account of Berlin's idea of negative freedom.
Choice
A thought-provoking analysis. Gray raises all of the right sort of questions about Berlin's position.
National Review - David Glasner
Isaiah Berlin is without a doubt the greatest living authority on the history of ideas. . . . He stands as one of the pre-eminent modern exemplars of political liberalism. . . . It is the singular merit of John Gray to have distilled from Berlin's voluminous writings the philosophical essence of his liberalism within this slim volume. . . . In his thoughtful study of Berlin's political philosophy, John Gray performs the admirable service of demonstrating how consummately civilized a man Isaiah Berlin is.
Ethics
A clearly written and well-argued book that is essential reading for anyone concerned with contemporary moral and political thought.
American Political Science Review - Pratap Bhanu
Like Berlin, Gray's historical sensibility, lack of parochialism, and courageous and imaginative contemplation of vistas outside the narrow confines of academic liberalism make him, as this book abundantly demonstrates, ideally situated to reflect deeply on the predicaments of the modern world.
Guardian - Ernest Gellner
Gray clearly identifies deeply with Berlin's system of thought, enters into it, and then worries persistently about its tensions and stresses and seeks a way out. This focus on a single theme, and the almost anguished perplexity are attractive features of Gray's book.
New York Review of Books - Michael Wlazer
Gray's reconstruction is. . .impressive and revealing. It points to both the overall coherence and the internal tensions of Berlin's thought.
Spectator - Raymond Carr
Berlin's message is not comforting to conventional liberal establishment susceptibilities. As this book insists, it is deeply subversive. Gray finds in Berlin's 'value pluralism' the leitmotif of all his writings. Ultimate human values, Berlin insists, are conflictive; they cannot be reconciled by rational calculation since they are not measurable, least of all can they be reconciled by what Gray dismisses as 'the desiccated discourse of Anglo-American philosophy,' which Berlin abandoned as incapable of solving anything of importance to us as human beings, at worst a game of juggling with words, at best a species of mental arithmetic dispelling tragic confusions.
From the Publisher
"Gray's book is as much a reconstruction as a presentation of Berlin's thought. . . . Gray's reconstruction is . . . impressive and revealing. It points persuasively to both the overall coherence and the internal tensions of Berlin's thought. . . . Gray has written an acute and illuminating exposition of Berlin's world view. . . . He probably gets closer to Berlin than anyone else has done."—Michael Walzer, New York Review of Books

"Gray is a forceful writer, an engaged political theorist with a serious interest in philosophical fundamentals."—Steven Lukes,Times Literary Supplement

"A careful study. . . .Gray astutely guides readers through the complex ideas of an important philosopher."Publishers Weekly

"Isaiah Berlin's commitment to liberalism for all its difficulties remains solid, and Mr. Gray's argument is that this 'agonistic' liberalism is our best bet. . . . It is an argument not to be missed."—Colin Walters, Washington Times

"A masterly study of Berlin's political thought. . . . Gray brilliantly expounds in highly condensed prose Berlin's theory of pluralism, developing its direction and course, even where Berlin is silent, and explaining its political relevance."—Adam Wolfson, National Interest

"An excellent exposition of Isaiah Berlin's ideas. [Gray] is particularly interesting in his account of Berlin's idea of negative freedom."—William Phillips, Partisan Review

"A thought-provoking analysis…. Gray raises all of the right sort of questions about Berlin's position."Choice

"Succeed[s] in bringing the daring of [Berlin's] thinking so clearly into view. . . . Berlin's commitment to liberalism for all its difficulties remains solid, and Mr. Gray's argument is that this 'agonistic' liberalism is our best bet. . . . It is an argument not to be missed."—Colin Walters, Washington Times

"Isaiah Berlin is without a doubt the greatest living authority on the history of ideas. . . . He stands as one of the pre-eminent modern exemplars of political liberalism. . . . It is the singular merit of John Gray to have distilled from Berlin's voluminous writings the philosophical essence of his liberalism within this slim volume. . . . In his thoughtful study of Berlin's political philosophy, John Gray performs the admirable service of demonstrating how consummately civilized a man Isaiah Berlin is."—David Glasner, National Review

"A clearly written and well-argued book that is essential reading for anyone concerned with contemporary moral and political thought."Ethics

"Like Berlin, Gray's historical sensibility, lack of parochialism, and courageous and imaginative contemplation of vistas outside the narrow confines of academic liberalism make him, as this book abundantly demonstrates, ideally situated to reflect deeply on the predicaments of the modern world."—Pratap Bhanu, American Political Science Review

"Gray clearly identifies deeply with Berlin's system of thought, enters into it, and then worries persistently about its tensions and stresses and seeks a way out. This focus on a single theme, and the almost anguished perplexity are attractive features of Gray's book."—Ernest Gellner, Guardian

"Gray's reconstruction is. . .impressive and revealing. It points to both the overall coherence and the internal tensions of Berlin's thought."—Michael Wlazer, New York Review of Books

"Berlin's message is not comforting to conventional liberal establishment susceptibilities. As this book insists, it is deeply subversive. Gray finds in Berlin's 'value pluralism' the leitmotif of all his writings. Ultimate human values, Berlin insists, are conflictive; they cannot be reconciled by rational calculation since they are not measurable, least of all can they be reconciled by what Gray dismisses as 'the desiccated discourse of Anglo-American philosophy,' which Berlin abandoned as incapable of solving anything of importance to us as human beings, at worst a game of juggling with words, at best a species of mental arithmetic dispelling tragic confusions."—Raymond Carr, Spectator

The New York Review of Books
Gray's reconstruction is. . .impressive and revealing. It points to both the overall coherence and the internal tensions of Berlin's thought.
— Michael Wlazer
Times Literary Supplement
Gray is a forceful writer, an engaged political theorist with a serious interest in philosophical fundamentals.
— Steven Lukes
National Interest
A masterly study of Berlin's political thought. . .. Gray brilliantly expounds in highly condensed prose Berlin's theory of pluralism, developing its direction and course, even where Berlin is silent, and explaining its political relevance.
— Adam Wolfson
Partisan Review
An excellent exposition of Isaiah Berlin's ideas. [Gray] is particularly interesting in his account of Berlin's idea of negative freedom.
— William Phillips
Spectator
Berlin's message is not comforting to conventional liberal establishment susceptibilities. As this book insists, it is deeply subversive. Gray finds in Berlin's 'value pluralism' the leitmotif of all his writings. Ultimate human values, Berlin insists, are conflictive; they cannot be reconciled by rational calculation since they are not measurable, least of all can they be reconciled by what Gray dismisses as 'the desiccated discourse of Anglo-American philosophy,' which Berlin abandoned as incapable of solving anything of importance to us as human beings, at worst a game of juggling with words, at best a species of mental arithmetic dispelling tragic confusions.
— Raymond Carr
Washington Times
Isaiah Berlin's commitment to liberalism for all its difficulties remains solid, and Mr. Gray's argument is that this "agonistic" liberalism is our best bet . . . It is an argument not to be missed.
— Colin Walters
The Washington Times
Succeed[s] in bringing the daring of [Berlin's] thinking so clearly into view. . . . Berlin's commitment to liberalism for all its difficulties remains solid, and Mr. Gray's argument is that this 'agonistic' liberalism is our best bet. . . . It is an argument not to be missed.
— Colin Walters
National Review
Isaiah Berlin is without a doubt the greatest living authority on the history of ideas. . . . He stands as one of the pre-eminent modern exemplars of political liberalism. . . It is the singular merit of John Gray to have distilled from Berlin's voluminous writings the philosophical essence of his liberalism within this slim volume. . . . In his thoughtful study of Berlin's political philosophy, John Gray performs the admirable service of demonstrating how consummately civilized a man Isaiah Berlin is.
— David Glasner
American Political Science Review
Like Berlin, Gray's historical sensibility, lack of parochialism, and courageous and imaginative contemplation of vistas outside the narrow confines of academic liberalism make him, as this book abundantly demonstrates, ideally situated to reflect deeply on the predicaments of the modern world.
— Pratap Bhanu
Guardian
Gray clearly identifies deeply with Berlin's system of thought, enters into it, and then worries persistently about its tensions and stresses and seeks a way out. This focus on a single theme, and the almost anguished perplexity are attractive features of Gray's book.
— Ernest Gellner
The New York Review of Books - Michael Walzer

Gray's book is as much a reconstruction as a presentation of Berlin's thought. . . . Gray's reconstruction is . . . impressive and revealing. It points persuasively to both the overall coherence and the internal tensions of Berlin's thought. . . . Gray has written an acute and illuminating exposition of Berlin's world view. . . . He probably gets closer to Berlin than anyone else has done.
The New York Review of Books - Michael Wlazer

Gray's reconstruction is. . .impressive and revealing. It points to both the overall coherence and the internal tensions of Berlin's thought.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Isaiah Berlin was part of a vital time at Oxford in the 1960s and 1970s when Gilbert Ryle and R.M. Hare expounded linguistic analysis and A.J. Ayer came up from London to preach logical positivism. He was, however, a man apart, concerned not with language but with primary issues: Berlin did not want to fiddle with words while the world burned. In this careful study of his political philosophy, Gray, who is also an Oxford don, explains and analyzes his dominant ideas. As Gray interprets him, Berlin claims that "human values are objective but irreducibly diverse," which means that, for practical purposes, they might as well be relative. People will always be in conflict over rival goods and evils, and reason is inadequate to resolve these conflicts-even if people would listen to reason. Berlin therefore embraces a value pluralism, not a belief in an identifiable, ideal life. This pluralism finally leads him to liberalism because it implies tolerance (never mind the paradox of giving liberalism privileged status in a world of equal values). Gray (Mill on Liberty) astutely guides readers through the complex ideas of an important philosopher, even if his study is somewhat arid at times. But to fault an academic study for being dry is like complaining that sloths are slow-moving: that's just the nature of the beast. (May)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780691157429
Publisher:
Princeton University Press
Publication date:
04/07/2013
Edition description:
With a New introduction by the author
Pages:
248
Sales rank:
616,934
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

Meet the Author


John Gray is the acclaimed, bestselling author of many books, including Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, Al Qaeda and What It Means To Be Modern, Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, The Immortalization Commission: The Strange Quest to Cheat Death, and The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. He is professor emeritus of European thought at the London School of Economics and a regular contributor to the Guardian, New York Review of Books, New Republic, and New Statesman.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
San Francisco, California
Date of Birth:
1951
Place of Birth:
Houston, Texas
Education:
B.A., M.A., Maharishi European Research University; Ph.D., Columbia Pacific University, 1982
Website:
http://www.marsvenus.com/

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