Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin books and biography


Isaiah Berlin

Sir Isaiah Berlin
Name: Isaiah Berlin
Birth: June 6, 1909
Death: November 5, 1997
School/tradition: Analytic
Main interests: Political philosophy, History of ideas, Liberalism, Philosophy of history, Ethics, Zionism
Notable ideas: Distinction between positive/negative liberty, Counter-Enlightenment, value pluralism
Influences: Bentham, Mill
Influenced: Most contemporary liberal thinkers

Sir Isaiah Berlin, OM (June 6, 1909 – November 5, 1997), was a political philosopher and historian of ideas, regarded as one of the leading liberal thinkers of the 20th century. Born in Riga, then part of the Russian Empire, he was the first Jew to be elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. From 1957 to 1967, he was Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1963 to 1964. In 1966, he helped to found Wolfson College, Oxford, and became its first president. He was knighted in 1957, and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1971. He was president of the British Academy from 1974 to 1978. He also received the 1979 Jerusalem Prize for writings on the theme of individual freedom in society.

Berlin's work on liberal theory has had a lasting influence. His 1958 inaugural lecture, "Two Concepts of Liberty," in which he famously distinguished between positive and negative liberty, has informed much of the debate since then on the relationship between liberty and equality.



Berlin was born into a Jewish family, the son of Mendel Berlin, a timber merchant, and his wife Marie, née Volshonok. He spent his childhood in Riga, Latvia and St Petersburg (then called Petrograd), witnessing the Russian Revolution of 1917, and arriving with his family in Britain in 1921. In the United Kingdom, he lived first in South Kensington and then Hampstead. He was educated at St Paul's School (London), a private school, then at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he studied Greats (Classics) and PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). He was to remain at Oxford for the rest of his life, apart from a period working for the British Information Services in New York (1940–2), and the British Embassies in Washington, D.C. (1942—6) and Moscow (1945–6). In 1956, he married Aline Halban, née de Gunzbourg. Berlin was a friend of the British philosopher Alfred Ayer.

Berlin died in Oxford in 1997, aged 88.[1] He is buried in Wolvercote Cemetery, Oxford.

His work

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Berlin is best known for his essay "Two Concepts of Liberty," delivered in 1958 as his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford. He defined negative liberty as the absence of constraints on, or interference with, agents' possible action. Greater "negative freedom" meant fewer opportunities for possible action are foreclosed or interfered with. Berlin associated positive liberty with the idea of self-mastery, or the capacity to determine oneself, to be in control of one's destiny. While Berlin granted that both concepts of liberty represent valid human ideals, as a matter of history the positive concept of liberty has proven more susceptible to political abuse.

Berlin contended that under the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel (all committed to the positive concept of liberty), European political thinkers often equated liberty with forms of political discipline or constraint. This became politically dangerous when notions of positive liberty were, in the 19th century, used to defend nationalism, self-determination, and the Communist idea of collective rational control over human destiny. Berlin argued that following this line of thought, demands for freedom paradoxically become demands for forms of collective control and discipline — those deemed necessary for the "self-mastery" or self-determination of nations, classes, democratic communities, and even humanity as a whole. There is thus an elective affinity, for Berlin, between positive liberty and political totalitarianism. Conversely, negative liberty represents a safer, more liberal, understanding of freedom. Its proponents (such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill) insisted that constraint and discipline were the antithesis of liberty and so were (and are) less prone to confusing liberty and constraint in the manner of the philosophical harbingers of modern totalitarianism.

Berlin's essay "Historical Inevitability" (1953) focused on a controversy in the philosophy of history. In Berlin's words, the choice is whether one believes that "the lives of entire peoples and societies have been decisively influenced by exceptional individuals" or, rather, that whatever happens occurs as a result of impersonal forces oblivious to human intentions. Berlin is also well known for his writings on Russian intellectual history, most of which are collected in Russian Thinkers (1978), edited, like most of Berlin's work, by Henry Hardy (in the case of this volume, jointly with Aileen Kelly).

Berlin's writings on the Enlightenment and its critics — for whom Berlin used the term the "Counter-Enlightenment" — and particularly Romanticism, contributed to his advocacy of an ethical theory he termed value-pluralism. Liberty).


  • "All forms of tampering with human beings, getting at them, shaping them against their will to your own pattern, all thought control and conditioning is, therefore, a denial of that in men which makes them men and their values ultimate." — Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty
  • "The very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past." — Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty
  • "Philosophers are adults who persist in asking childish questions." — Isaiah Berlin, quoted in The Listener, 1978.
  • "If, as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict — and of tragedy — can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social. The necessity of choosing between absolute claims is then an inescapable characteristic of the human condition. This gives its value to freedom as Acton conceived of it — as an end in itself, and not as a temporary need, arising out of our confused notions and irrational and disordered lives, a predicament which a panacea could one day put right." — Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty"
  • "Injustice, poverty, slavery, ignorance — these may be cured by reform or revolution. But men do not live only by fighting evils. They live by positive goals, individual and collective, a vast variety of them, seldom predictable, at times incompatible." — Isaiah Berlin, 'Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century', in Liberty
  • "The simple point which I am concerned to make is that where ultimate values are irreconcilable, clear-cut solutions cannot, in principle, be found. To decide rationally in such situations is to decide in the light of general ideals, the overall pattern of life pursued by a man or a group or a society." — Isaiah Berlin, 'Introduction' to 'Five Essays on Liberty,' in Liberty
  • "There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision ... and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory ... The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes." — Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox


  • Isaiah Berlin was once confused with Irving Berlin by Winston Churchill who invited the latter to lunch, thinking he was the former. ('Desert Island Discs', Radio 4, 19 April 1992)
  • Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox made it to number 65 in the National Review's article on "The 100 Best Non-fiction Books of the Century. [2]
  • Berlin was the stepfather of Michel Strauss, former Co-Chairman of Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern Art department and the son of Jules Strauss, the art collector.


  • More details of the books listed below

Major works:

All publications listed from 1978 onwards are compilations of various lectures, essays, and letters, brought together and edited by Henry Hardy. Details given are of first and current UK editions. For US editions see link above.

  • Karl Marx: His Life and Environment, Thornton Butterworth, 1939. 4th ed., 1978, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510326-2.
  • The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1953. Phoenix. ISBN 978-075380-867-2.
  • Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford University Press, 1969. Superseded by Liberty.
  • Russian Thinkers (co-edited with Aileen Kelly), Hogarth Press, 1978. Penguin. ISBN 0-14-013625-8.
  • Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays, Hogarth Press, 1978. Pimlico. ISBN 0-670-23552-0.
  • Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, Hogarth Press, 1979. Pimlico. ISBN 0–7126–6690–7.
  • Personal Impressions, Hogarth Press, 1980. 2nd ed., 1998, Pimlico. ISBN 0–7126–6601–X.
  • The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, John Murray, 1990. Pimlico. ISBN 0–7126–0616–5.
  • The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and their History, Chatto & Windus, 1996. Pimlico. ISBN 0–7126–7367–9.
  • The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays (co-edited with Roger Hausheer), Chatto & Windus, 1997. Pimlico. ISBN 0–7126–7322–9.
  • The Roots of Romanticism (recorded 1965), Chatto & Windus, 1999. ISBN 0–7126–6544–7.
  • Three Critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, Pimlico, 2000. ISBN 0–7126–6492–0.
  • The Power of Ideas, Chatto & Windus, 2000. Pimlico. ISBN 0–7126–6554–4.
  • Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty (recorded 1952), Chatto & Windus, 2002. Pimlico. ISBN 0–7126–6842–0.
  • Liberty (revised and expanded edition of Four Essays On Liberty), Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-19-924989-X.
  • The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture under Communism, Brookings Institution Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8157-0904-8.
  • Flourishing: Selected Letters 1928–1946, Chatto & Windus, 2004. ISBN 0-7011-7420-X. (Published as Selected Letters 1928–1946 by Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-521-83368-X.)
  • Political Ideas in the Romantic Age: Their Rise and Influence on Modern Thought, Chatto & Windus, 2006. ISBN 0-701-17909-0. Princeton University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-691-12687-6.
  • (with Beata Polanowska-Sygulska) Unfinished Dialogue, Prometheus, 2006. ISBN 978-1-59102-376-0/1-59102-376-9.


  1. ^ Philosopher and political thinker Sir Isaiah Berlin dies,, November 8, 1997. URL accessed May 21, 2006.

See also

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Isaiah Berlin
  • Liberalism
  • Contributions to liberal theory
  • The Hedgehog and the Fox

Further reading

  • Isaiah Berlin and the history of ideas.
  • The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library, Wolfson College, Oxford.
  • A recording of the last of Berlin's Mellon Lectures, Wolfson College, Oxford.
  • BBC obituary.
  • Biographical information on Sir Isaiah Berlin
  • Tribute from Chief Rabbi at his funeral.
  • Anecdote from Wolfson College's tribute page.
  • Entry on Berlin in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, including his "Master Idea".
  • Letter to Berlin from Tony Blair, 23 October 1997.
  • Obituary by Henry Hardy.
  • John Gray. Isaiah Berlin, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-691-04824-X.
  • Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1999. ISBN 0-8050-6300-5. Authorised biography.
  • Charles Blattberg, From Pluralist to Patriotic Politics: Putting Practice First, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-19-829688-6. A critique of Berlin's value pluralism.
  • George Crowder, Isaiah Berlin: Liberty and Pluralism, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004. ISBN 0-7456-2476-6.
  • Joshua Cherniss, 'Isaiah Berlin: A Defence', The Oxonian Review of Books
  • Claude Galipeau, Isaiah Berlin's Liberalism, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. ISBN 0-19-827868-3.
  • Ned O'Gorman, My dinners with Isaiah: the music of a philosopher's life - Sir Isaiah Berlin - includes related article on Isaiah Berlin's commitment to ideals of genuine understanding over intellectual mastery, Commonweal

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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