Nikhil Krishnan reviews three books in the May 15 , 2020 issue of the Times Literary Supplement: The Philosophy of Isaiah Berlin, The Cambridge Companion to Isaiah Berlin, In Search of Isaiah Berlin: A Literary Adventure
After an introductory paragraph Krishnan begins his essay with reference to Christopher Hitchens’ London Review of Books essay of November 26, 1998 titled ‘Moderation or Death’ , nearly 13,000 words. Krishnan describes it as a ‘a thunderous philippic’. Krishnan describes it further in this paragraph:
The tone of the sceptical response was set early after Berlin’s death when Christopher Hitchens produced a thunderous philippic against the man and the type in his review of *Michael Ignatieff’s authorized 1998 biography. The review itself was a mixed bag, playing down (or misstating) Berlin’s philosophical contributions but assembling evidence that his repute was disproportionate to his scholarly virtues.
Yet Krishnan self-serving in-curiosity leads him astray. Could this Ernest Gellner essay of November 20, 1995 in the Prospect, meet his standard, of a more cogent evaluation of Berlin: the historical commentator on the History of Philosophy, whose transmogrification into a Philosopher, meets an actual critic that trumps Hitchens’ trivialization? for want of a better term.
Title: Sauce for the liberal goose
Sub-title: Liberalism has become the world’s dominant political theory but its philosophical foundations remain uncertain. Ernest Gellner unravels the flaws in the work of Isaiah Berlin, the champion of modern liberalism.
The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing. Isaiah Berlin has preached the virtues of the fox so long, so persistently and so coherently, that he has become the veritable hedgehog of foxiness. He seems possessed by a single dominating idea-that we should not have single dominating ideas. In his view, the system of human values has no all-embracing, unifying apex, which could constitute a kind of final court of appeal for deciding all issues. Thinkers have pursued such a philosopher’s stone, but the quest is in vain. If Tolstoy was a fox trying to be a hedgehog, then Berlin would seem to be a hedgehog striving to be a fox. There is an ultimate key to our condition: it is foxiness, the absence of ultimate keys.
Still, in his own writings, the tendency towards rotund digression camouflages the single-minded preoccupation with the virtues of the fox. Berlin is a relaxed writer, and if a deep tension is inherent in his central theme, a reader might be forgiven for not noticing it. But this is not in the least true of John Gray’s exposition of his views in Isaiah Berlin (Harper Collins, 1995). Gray passionately pursues what is virtually a single theme: can the acceptance of a plurality of rival-or incommensurate-values be consistent with liberalism? Gray enters into Berlin’s system of ideas, identifies with it, and lives out its tensions. He is so involved in the problems which haunt Berlin’s thought, that he pursues them with a determination which is less conspicuous in Berlin’s own leisurely, one might say blas?, style.
Or this review of Isaac & Isaiah by David Caute reviewed by Ferdinand Mount from The Spectator on September 21, 2013:
Mr. Caute’s reveals that Berlin was a practitioner of the crudest kind of academic politicking, nothing like his ‘hero’ the passionate, cards on the table Herzen!
Note that Mount tells of an encounter with Berlin:
And it is not even true that Berlin’s indignation was reserved for his enemies on the left. I hope readers will forgive my recalling once again a personal encounter with Berlin which presents an eerie parallel to Caute’s ordeal in the All Souls common room. I had just written an enthusiastic article somewhere about the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, and I was queuing at the issue desk in the London Library, when Berlin buttonholed me, almost shaking with urgency and annoyance: ‘You were far too kind to Oakeshott, far too kind, the man’s a complete fraud, he has no doctrine at all, nothing resembling a doctrine, he has nothing to say.’ This outburst was all the more remarkable, since what Berlin and Oakeshott had in common, it seemed to me, was that they passionately rejected the idea that a single doctrine could provide all the answers. What they both taught was that the world is a complicated place. And indeed their unexpected antipathy, which was mutual, showed just how true that is.
How many more instances of the particular bad faith, wedded to maladroit academic skulduggery, to engage in hyperbole, of Berlin remain undiscovered?
What is interesting, if not revelatory, in the Krishnan essay, is its final paragraph, that places the intellectual vogue for Berlin in the past tense.
Berlin’s champions seem to want for him a status akin to the one Auden once claimed for Freud: “if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd, / to us he is no more a person / now but a whole climate of opinion / under whom we conduct our different lives”. The “sonorous music of his sentences”, as Rowan Williams once aptly put it, had their special power, but those sentences, for all their rhetorical virtues, left behind at most a mood, as certain dinner party hosts are able to evoke — and a mood is much less than a “climate of opinion”. It seems to mark a deep difference between temperaments, how easily one is able to shake off the mood when one is no longer in the presence of the man and his sentences.
One of the most important literary/political publications in America, The New York Review of Books, was the headquarters of the Berlin enthusiasts/publicists!
*Watch the unseemly hero worship, of Michael Ignatieff, on full display:
Sir Isaiah Berlin interviewed about his life by Michael Ignatieff