by on
The Crooked Timber of Humanity
by Isaiah Berlin
Chapters in the History of Ideas.
Contents
The Pursuit of the Ideal
The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West
Giambattista Vico and Cultural History
Interesting to me for the questions is raises about what relativism is.
Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism
Really about Romanticism and its totalitarian progeny in the twentieth century.
The Revolt Against the Myth of an Ideal World.
The Bent Twig: On the rise of Nationalism
Commentary
Many of Berlin's papers, here and elsewhere, bear upon utopian thought. It is clear that Berlin is agin it..
Alleged Relativism in Eighteenth-Century European Thought
Interesting to me for the questions is raises about what relativism is.

Berlin distinguishes relativism in relation to descriptive and in relation to evaluative judgements.

The first thing to say is that in relation to the "alleged relativism", which is alleged of Vico and Herder, that this was true in relation to descriptive judgements.

Secondly, it must be acknowledged that Vico and Herder certainly did acknowledge that judgements about values do vary widely between cultures. But this does not for Berlin amount to cultural relativism in respect of value judgements.

So why does Berlin take this view and must we accept it? Well, we get some more detail about the views of accepted relativists, which does indeed show them to be quite different to Vico and Herder. Vico and Herder and merely "historicists", i.e. "".

Relativism Versus Historicism
The following passage gives us clues to what Berlin takes these terms to mean:
"If we grant the assumption that Vico and Herder were in fact relativists - that is, not merely historicists who hold that human thought and action are fully intelligible only in relation to their historical context, but upholders of a theory of ideology according to which the ideas and attitudes of individuals or groups are inescapably determined by varying conditioning factors, say, their place in the evolving social structures of their societies, or the relations of production, or genetic, psychological or other causes, or combinations of these - on an assumption of this kind, the point made by my critic was valid."
Essence and Accident
Joseph de Maistre and the Origins of Fascism

European Unity and its Vicissitudes
Really about Romanticism and its totalitarian progeny in the twentieth century.

The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will
The Revolt Against the Myth of an Ideal World.
I

First a few words about the history of ideas. Then he draws attention to the long standing assumption of the objectivity of truth both of descriptive and evaluative discourse (the "central tradition of western thought") which prevailed until the second third of the eighteenth century. It was a presumption of uniformity which has been displaced by one of diversity, (notwithstanding modern criticism from both left and right).

"Perhaps the largest shift in European consciousness since the Reformation, to which ... its origins can be traced.
III...

The basic idea is this. "The Romantic Will" displaces the Western core ideologies, on which Utopian thought depended, ergo, no more utopian thought.

It doesn't fit together for me. I can't see that utopian thinking really does depend on his enlightenment values, one can surely think of an ideal society which is ideal precisely because it provides for the fulfilment and self-realisation of its citizens in just the ways which romanticism would dictate. And surely the modern totalitarian systems which are supposed to be the progeny of romanticism are based upon some conception of an ideal state.

II
Now we get a more systematic presentation of the core of these ideologies. Since Plato (or even Pythagoras):
  • all genuine questions (theoretical and practical) have exactly one true answer
  • the answers are in principle knowable
  • the true answers are all mutually consistent
All utopias are based on these assumptions, including:
  • Plato's Republic and his Laws
  • Zeno's anarchist world community
  • Iambulus's city of the sun
  • the utopias of:
    • Thomas Moore
    • Campanella
    • Bacon
    • Harrington
    • Félon
  • the communist societies of:
    • Mably
    • Morelli
  • Saint-Simon's state capitalism
  • Fourier's phalanstères
  • the anarcho-collectivist ideas of:
    • Owen
    • Godwin
    • Cabet
    • William Morris
    • Chernyshevsky
    • Bellamy
    • Hertaka
On Utopianism
Many of Berlin's papers, here and elsewhere, bear upon utopian thought. It is clear that Berlin is agin it..

In politics the twentieth century was distinctive for its totalitarian regimes, bigger and more thorough than we have known before. These regimes have been nurtured by dogmatic utopian ideologies and have provoked some reactions against utopianism. Two notable and eloquent opponents were Popper and Berlin. The first three chapters of this book are all relevant, and at least some of the following chapters.

I'd like to chew over here some of Berlin's ideas in the context of my own "utopian" inclinations, starting with where I find myself after his first three chapters, maybe coming back if the rest make a significant difference. There are a number of things which Berlin talks about which connect, more or less tenuously with utopianism and on which I am more wholly sympathetic to his views than I am on utopianism.

They include:

  • The Enlightenment
  • Vico
  • Cultural Pluralism and Relativity
  • Idealism

Very briefly, Berlin has mixed feelings about the Enlightenment. Though he doesn't use this word, it seems to me having now read quite a bit of Berlin's writings on this that the problem he is identifying is that reason, which at first represented a liberation from authority of various kinds (but most significantly religious authority) was turned into a new source of dogma, by the application of methods beyond their proper scope. Most importantly, the methods of science were mis-applied in the humanities.

Vico is significant for Berlin as providing a positive counterweight to the rationalism of the enlightenment (as opposed to the "Counter Enlightenment" which term I think applies to a reaction against the Enlightenment based in religious faith). Vico first of all applies some scepticism by taking a narrow view of what reason can achieve (such as flows from taking sound reason to be exclusively deductive), regarding empirical science as without foundation. His formula is that we can have knowledge only of those things which we invent ourselves, and this excludes the natural sciences, but includes human institutions and their history. We can understand history because we can look into our own natures to discover why things happen as they do, and we can understand present day institutions through a study of the historical development of these institutions.

Vico, in this way takes history more seriously than Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire and this leads to (or flows from) a more pluralistic attitude towards society and its institutions. Voltaire had a rather negative view of history, most of which he regarded as a waste of time. The exceptions are the peaks, when society was at its best in his terms (Periclean Athens, Republican Rome, Renaissance Florence), and only these were worth attention.

The rationalists of the enlightenment were interested only in these peaks because they believed that there was one ideal way to organise society and that these were approximations to it. They believed that reason could lead us to a proper understanding of how society should be organised, and were inclined in this way to be dogmatic rather than pluralistic, and one supposes this naturally leads to totalitarian imposition of the utopian ideal. (though it is not the rationalist Voltaire but his adversary the romantic Rousseau who generally gets the credit for supplying the intellectual infrastructure of totalitarianism.)

Well, I'm OK with the critique of rationalism, but I don't see that utopian thinking is incompatible with pluralism. Utopian and dystopian thinking are optimistic and pessimistic ways of thinking about the future of society. A proper caution about the scope of deductive reason and empirical science, together with a broad appreciation of the present and past diversity of people and society present no impediment to thinking about how society might be improved (or how it might decline). Utopian thought need not paint a unique outcome or a static society. It need not talk about an ideal rather than a scale of values and a range of possible outcomes, and of course, we can hope that the single society into which the present grows will be in itself pluralistic.


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