by on
Against the Current
by Isaiah Berlin
The Counter Enlightenment
According to Berlin, that different values may be incompatible.
Not Snow's "two cultures", more about ways of doing History, a gulf exposed or created by Giambattista Vico.
Vico's Concept of Knowledge
Vico and the Ideal of the Enlightenment
Hume and the Sources of German Anti-Rationalism
Herzen and his Memoires
The Originality of Machiavelli
According to Berlin, that different values may be incompatible.

This is quite a long essay, so you may take it that Berlin has a lot of interesting things to say here which is not covered by these very brief comments.

Firstly en-passant I note that Berlin begins by mentioning just how much attention has been and still is paid to Machiavelli's writings, and that there are about twenty different main interpretations of the thrust of his work together with innumerable minor variations on each.

He discusses a small number of these interpretations, suggesting that in many cases they have no justification in the text of Machiavelli's writings. He goes on, a little apologetically, to offer yet another, which I regret to say, seems to me also without basis in Machiavelli's writings, basing my judgement here entirely on what Berlin tells us about those writings.

In fact Berlin is more interested not simply to provide some kind of interpretation of what Machiavelli wrote, but rather to discover what it was in his writings which made them so influential and controversial, which I think he may also possibly confuse with what was the main point of originality in his work.

Passing over the question of why Machiavelli was influential and controversial to that of the importance and novelty of his work, we come to Berlin's thesis that he was the first to make clear that two distinct and wholly legitimate values, or value systems may be incompatible.

"Machiavelli's cardinal achievement is ,,, his uncovering of an insoluble dilemma ... that ends, equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration ..."

My opinion, for what its worth, is that, on the basis of Berlin's account, this is not to be found in Machiavelli.

The conflicting systems in Machiavelli are those of Christian morality and of effective governance. He has nothing original, it appears, to say about the former, but a great deal to say about the latter. What he has to say about the latter is pretty much independent of the former. It doesn't sound like he offers it as an alternative set of values. It is just pragmatic advise, for those who wish to be successful in politics. Where his advice conflicts with Christian morals he does not offer it as an alternative value system, it is just what you have to do to succeed.

Though it doesn't sound as if Machiavelli is putting forward an alternative value system, it does sound like he actually has a strong sense of the kind of state which his advice is intended to result in, which is substantially one like Republican Rome. So we can conclude that there is a moral conflict between the realisation of Machiavelli's ideal state and Christianity. But this is not part of Machiavelli's message.

Furthermore, this whole thing about rationally irresolvable conflict between whole systems of values is surely not new, it was surely part of the relativistic stock in trade of the Greek Sophists. Last of all, note that even a single value may in its application lead to irresolvable moral conflict. e.g. the sanctity of life. It may be that the only way to stop an evil man from killing millions is to kill him. Utilitarian moralities can cope with these problems, but only by avoiding absolute moral proscriptions.

The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities
Not Snow's "two cultures", more about ways of doing History, a gulf exposed or created by Giambattista Vico.

Whether or not Snow was right in his talk of "two cultures" (and Berlin can make not sense of it), the gulf which Berlin here describes is something else.

Deductive and Natural Sciences

The "science" side of his dichotomy is easiest to describe. It is the values of the Enlightenment, rational and scientific, and particularly the idea that these methods are universally applicable (to all human knowledge) and can be relied upon to produce definite answers to all our questions. Voltaire is put forward as a prominent proponent of these values. It may be noted that, so far as Voltaire is described by Berlin, his "rationalism" is a very broad street. It seems to amount to the belief that any question need only be thought about by a reasonable person of adequate intellect (of which there are few) for a definite answer to emerge. Not only is it not a belief specifically in deductive or scientific method, it is not a belief in any definite method at all.

After a general description of Enlightenment values, Berlin covers more specifically Voltaire's attitude towards history. Broadly this is that the tradition of history which gives an account of the succession of Monarch's and their deeds is of little value and that it is more desirable to describe what the important people were doing, i.e. intellectuals.

Beyond the Scope of Science

It may be said of the Enlightenment values which Berlin has described, that they consist in taking certain methods which have proved fruitful, adopting the dogma that these methods are universally applicable, and then proceeding to fake the use of these methods in areas where they simply don't work. Thus giving authority to views which should be treated with scepticism,

You begin with the success of deductive methods in mathematics. A rationalist makes this mistake simply with deductive methods, and attempts to apply these deductive methods to everything.

Empiricists point out that natural sciences must be based on observation, so the scientific successes of the enlightenment were based on something more broad and vague, scientific method, which we may call more specifically, hypothetico-deductive. (General Laws are hypothesised which are tested or applied to specific cases by deduction.) From this base we may then commit not the rationalist fallacy exposed by empiricists, but the fallacy of scientism or positivism, which consists in the prejudice that a single "scientific method" is applicable to all knowledge. To reach the full breadth of the Enlightenment prejudice one further step is necessary, which is the usurpation of the successes of mathematics and science by intellectuals who have no standing in either. The prejudice that reason suffices (even in the context of no systematic method) to resolve all questions and deliver a complete knowledge of the world. (much of this paragraph is mine rather than Berlin's. Hopefully we are describing the same thing, by different means.)

Vico and The Humanities

The story on the other side is mainly about Giambattista Vico, in whose thought history had a very special place, and who Berlin credits with having exposed, if not created, "the great cleavage between the provinces of natural science and the humanities".

Vico's response is first to limit the scope of reason. This he does by arguing (quite correctly, but possibly not very originally) that reason tells us only about things we have invented for ourselves.

The real world, was designed by God. Lacking his knowledge of the design, deduction will not tell us about it.

There is however one other domain in which we can hope for knowledge, and that is in the humanities. Because we are people, and the humanities are about people, we can hope to achieve knowledge in these areas. But not by the methods of the deductive or the natural sciences.

Knowledge in the humanities is according to Vito, mediated by History. History the history of human institutions is understood because we are ourselves human, and from this knowledge of the history of these institutions flows more generally our knowledge in the humanities.

Hume and the German Anti-Rationalists
Through his insistence that our knowledge of matters of fact is supported by nothing more substantial than faith, Hume provided a rationale for those who, unlike himself, valued religious faith more highly than scientific knowledge.
Hamann seems to be the principle figure in this.

up quick index © RBJ

privacy policy


$Id: berlin79.xml,v 1.4 2008/04/06 13:07:16 rbj01 Exp $