Notes on Isaiah Berlin
Overview
Isaiah Berlin was a philosopher who mainly wrote about the history of ideas and had a particular interest in the period around the French Revolution and its relevance to political thought in mid twentieth century.
These notes are and will remain, fragmentary, incomplete, un-scholarly, inaccurate. They are written as part of the process of writing other things, which are not themselves about Berlin or his views.
It is therefore moot whether they can be useful to anyone but myself. They might possibly contribute to an understanding of what I have written elsewhere, of the genesis of my own follies, if that should ever become a matter of interest.
Berlin began his career as an analytic philosophy and then moved to be a philosophical historian of ideas, with a particular interest in the political ideas of "the romantic age", i.e., roughly, the century around the turn of the nineteenth.
Berlin's was particularly interested in the period (which he called "the romantic age"), consisting of the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, and identifies one particular development which took place during this period as of special importance. This is the challenge to the outlook of the Enlightenment by certain aspects of romantic thought..
Liberty in its various conceptions and misconceptions, is a key concept for Berlin.
History
Pluralism
Berlin's tripod is a description of what he believed to the central doctrine of Western thought (from the Greeks onwards), which were overturned by Romanticism.
Notes on various of Berlin's writings (sometimes no more than the title).
Introduction
Berlin began his career as an analytic philosophy and then moved to be a philosophical historian of ideas, with a particular interest in the political ideas of "the romantic age", i.e., roughly, the century around the turn of the nineteenth.

The Enlightenment and Romanticism
Berlin's was particularly interested in the period (which he called "the romantic age"), consisting of the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, and identifies one particular development which took place during this period as of special importance. This is the challenge to the outlook of the Enlightenment by certain aspects of romantic thought..

In both these matters (the Enlightenment and Romanticism) it is desirable to try to understand what Berlin's particular conception was, since there are diverse conceptions of these two phenomena, and it is of interest to understand the change which Berlin is describing whether or not we agree with the words he uses to describe it. For example, if you try to comprehend what Berlin is saying in terms of the conception of Romanticism to be found in Russell's History of Western Philosophy then it won't make any sense and won't relate at all to the ideas of Berlin.

However, a scholarly exegesis of Berlin's views is certainly beyond me, and what follows is no more than a sketch of aspects of Berlin's views intended only to help me formulate my own.

The Enlightenment

The particular conception of Enlightenment values under consideration is spelled out by Berlin (in "The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will" in "The Crooked Timber of Humanity" [Berlin90]) as follows:

  • all genuine questions (theoretical and practical) have exactly one true answer
  • the answers are in principle knowable
  • the true answers are all mutually consistent
Its important I think to add here that the method by which one attains this knowledge is though reason, and this seems to encompass a broad conception of scientific method but exclude appeals to authority, superstition or revelation.

The Romantic Will

The first thing to note about Romanticism here is simply that it contradicts the Enlightenment view presented above. For Berlin a key respect in which is does this is by a change in attitude towards heroism, which inaugurates a kind of pluralism.

The Enlightenment attitude towards individuals striving, perhaps making sacrifices for some end, is sensitive to whether the end is just. If the end is just, then the struggle will be seen as heroic and praiseworthy, if not, mere folly.

Romanticism substitutes a new criterion for praise. Whenever someone strives towards the realisation of some deeply felt "inner vision", then the romantic will applaud his struggle, whether or not he agrees with its objectives.

Romanticism therefore embodies a value system which is pluralistic, not merely in tolerating individuals with diverse values, but in positively approving of their conducting their lives according to those values even if not concurring with the values themselves.

The notion of The Romanic Will goes one step further, perhaps paradoxically, in approving the individual who not only has and pursues his own ideals, but who in doing so imposes his will on the world.

Liberty
Liberty in its various conceptions and misconceptions, is a key concept for Berlin.
Berlin draws several distinctions between different conceptions of liberty or freedom.
  1. Negative freedom v. self-fulfilment (The Idea of Freedom)
1. freedom v. self-fulfilment
In "The Idea of Freedom" Berlin defines the desire for freedom as the desire not to be interfered with by others. He contrasts this with the desire for self-fulfilment, which (according to its proponents, apparently) depends upon an understanding of and submission to one's purpose as dictated by the rational pattern of the universe.

The Tripod
Berlin's tripod is a description of what he believed to the central doctrine of Western thought (from the Greeks onwards), which were overturned by Romanticism.
Introduction

The impact of Romanticism on Western thought is a topic which Berlin developed over a long period of time. He used "The Tripod" to describe the most important elements of Western thought which were overturned by Romanticism.

There is I think more than one version of the tripod, and I will note here the various versions and their differences.

So far I have located only the one, the following list will be extended as I come across more:

  1. lecture 1 ("Herder and Historical Criticism") of "The Assault on the French Enlightenment"

1. Every Question has One Answer

Otherwise it isn't a question.

2. Questions about Values also have One Answer
I think in some presentations of the tripod the second leg is that it is possible to discover the answers, but.
3. The Answers to All These Questions are Compatible
i.e. mutually consistent. i.e. you can't derive a contradiction from these true answers.

Notes on the writings of Isaiah Berlin
Notes on various of Berlin's writings (sometimes no more than the title).
Introduction
Karl Marx, His Life and Environment
A biography of Marx (1939).
The Age of Enlightenment: The Eighteenth Century Philosophers
A selection with commentary from the works of the philosophers of the Enlightenment (1956).
Four Essays on Liberty
(1969)
Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas
(1976)
Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays
This volume contains Berlin's essays in analytic philosophy, together with some of his earliest in the history of ideas (1979).
The Proper Study of Mankind
A collection of essays, all previously published, though some in relatively inaccessible places (1997).
Personal Impressions
(1981)
Chapters in the History of Ideas.
Six Enemies of Human Liberty.
Here is Berlin's mature account of Romanticism, an interesting contrast with his earlier attempt at "Poltical Ideas in the Romantic Age". He begins by explaining why a definition of Romanticism is impossible but Romanticism is nevertheless worth writing about as a historical phenomenon, and proceeds through four stages: first reactions against the enlightenment, the "true" fathers of Romanticism, early moderate romanticism and the later unbridled manifestations.
Five essays on liberty, and some more.
Their Rise and Influence on Modern Philosophy.

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