Philosophy & Ideas

Isaiah Berlin and the Meaning of Life

It was a moment of truth for Isaiah Berlin, whose record of success as a young scholar in British philosophy had given his life much of its meaning. What this crisis was, how it came about, and how he dealt with it will be our initial concern in this article. We will then see how his solution illuminates the meaning of life within the pluralism of a liberal democracy, albeit one besieged by an opposed tendency to subsume the individual and any meaning her life might have into a totalising ideological system, the roots of which Berlin would later carefully explore. Finally, we will explore how these issues are illuminated by Berlin’s article on “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life”.

Isaiah Berlin was born in 1909 in Riga, the only son in a wealthy Jewish family who lived through the violence of the Russian Revolution before escaping to Britain in 1921. There, Isaiah enjoyed an outstanding education that won him entrance to the University of Oxford, where he took several degrees with first-class honours, even outscoring the brilliant young A.J. Ayer. He was duly appointed as a tutor in philosophy at New College, and soon afterwards he was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, the first unconverted Jew to do so. He enjoyed many friendships at Oxford, wrote well-received papers in philosophy and music reviews for the press, used his outstanding language skills to complete some important translations, including works by Ivan Turgenev, wrote a book on Karl Marx that remains in print, and he could look forward, in due course, to occupying a prestigious chair in philosophy at Britain’s oldest university.

This essay appears in November’s Quadrant.
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But on the night of June 12, 1940, it seemed that this record of high intellectual achievement was under dire threat. Only a few hours earlier, he had stood to deliver his paper on “Other Minds” to the Moral Sciences Club at the University of Cambridge, and he had before him some of the nation’s elite academic philosophers, including G.E. Moore, C.D. Broad, John Wisdom and R.B. Braithwaite. They shared the same rarified intellectual realm that Berlin occupied at Oxford, where his peers included A.J. Ayer, J.L. Austin and Stuart Hampshire. Together, they formed “a magic circle of brilliant philosophy dons” eager to debate such matters as theories of perception, the nature of personal identity, or whether Gregor Samsa from Kafka’s Metamorphosis was a man with the body of a cockroach, or a cockroach with the memories and consciousness of a man.

In such meetings, every vulnerability in an argument was exploited, no quarter was given, and a participant’s previously robust self-confidence could be shredded in a matter of minutes. They were “duels of will as much as of intellect and they left real wounds”. It was also a time when Logical Positivism, exemplified in Britain by Ayer’s iconoclastic manifesto, Language, Truth and Logic (1936), was mounting a ruthless attack on philosophy as it had been pursued for centuries. Consequently, “what they were fighting about was the very status, purpose, and nature of their discipline: whether philosophy should try to be a science, which questions were relevant and answerable, which ones were not; how progress in philosophy could be achieved [and judged]”. As Berlin later recalled (see Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life), these were not occasions for mere “polite shadow-fencing [but were] war to the death—my death, that is”. What did he mean?

There was somebody else in the audience that night at Cambridge; a small, handsome man with an intense unwavering gaze. Ludwig Wittgenstein was surrounded by his usual acolytes, all wearing tweed jackets and white open-necked shirts to mimic their master’s ostentatiously casual dress. And as Berlin delivered his paper on how one might have knowledge of others’ inner mental states, he might have noticed Wittgenstein’s growing agitation. This burst forth in question time. In the peremptory manner for which he had become notorious, Wittgenstein hijacked the discussion: “No, no, that is not the way to go about it at all,” he announced:

Let me. Don’t let’s talk philosophy. Let’s talk business with each other. Ordinary business. In ordinary circumstances, I say to you, “You see a clock. The minute hand and the hour hand are both nailed to the clock face to certain cyphers. The whole face goes around, but the time remains the same.” No? That is solipsism.

And on it went, as Wittgenstein took the opportunity once again to declare, in the aggressive manner that had gained him a commanding position in contemporary philosophy, that there were no genuine philosophical problems—of other minds or anything else—just the misuse of language, and that any of these so-called problems would evaporate once those exploring them shifted their perspective to recognise this, as he was now indicating that Berlin and the rest of the audience should do.

“Broad sat there like a boiled lobster looking angry. G.E. Moore, old and decrepit, looked on, open mouthed,” Berlin recalled. Taken aback, he tried as best he could to parry Wittgenstein’s verbal assault, while the acolytes served as a claque, urging their master on as he tore Berlin’s argument to pieces. After an hour, Wittgenstein rose to his feet, leaned over the table and shook Isaiah’s hand: “Very interesting discussion. Thank you.” And with that he walked out, his entourage in train. The remnants of the meeting crowded around Isaiah, reassuring him how rare it was for anyone to be so complimented, but he wasn’t fooled; Wittgenstein hadn’t thought much of his paper or his defence of it. The Austrian philosophical powerhouse had gone to the heart of Berlin’s argument and left it with barely a pulse, and so “their encounter marked the symbolic, if not the actual, end of Isaiah’s active philosophical career”.

What to do? As it turned out, the Second World War ensured the question was deferred while Berlin spent the next five years working for the British Information Service and Foreign Office in Washington and elsewhere, building up a vast network of useful contacts and a reputation as an incisive researcher and commentator on political, diplomatic and economic issues. So prominent did his reputation become that he was honoured with an invitation to lunch at Downing Street with the Churchills, along with the Commander of the Imperial General Staff and other dignitaries. At the table, the Prime Minister eagerly sought out the views of his special guest on various complex political matters, including the likelihood of Roosevelt being re-elected for a fourth term, but the answers he received seemed not particularly well-informed. He then asked Mr Berlin what he felt was the most important thing he had ever written. “White Christmas,” was the reply. Churchill, perplexed, gave up and turned to someone else. It was only later that he was told that through a mix-up it was the composer Irving Berlin who had been invited to enjoy lunch and Churchill’s company. Ironically, when the story of “the Irving–Winston–Isaiah affair” got out, it further enhanced Isaiah’s reputation, and he found that even more doors in the corridors of power and influence were now open to him.

But none of this successful war work solved the problem of what Isaiah was to do with his life. Like A.J. Ayer, as we saw in the first of this series of articles, he rejected the possibility that there was any meaning to life conferred by a transcendent “deep, cosmic, all-embracing source”. Ultimately, there was only the “abyss of meaninglessness” that so concerned the continental existentialists that Ayer critiqued in a series of articles, and any meaning life might acquire had to be this-worldly and constructed in defiance of it: “we make of life what we can and that is all there is about it”. How then was he to do this, especially as he now accepted, after his bruising encounter with Wittgenstein and other run-ins with Ayer and Austin, that “I wasn’t first rate” in the realm of academic philosophy?

But then a second encounter intervened. In 1944, Berlin had lunched in the Harvard Faculty Club with the brilliant mathematical logician Henry M. Sheffer, who launched a scathing attack on Logical Positivism and its scientific pretensions and argued that actual scientific progress was simply inconceivable in fields like epistemology or ethics and could only legitimately be pursued in strictly deductive areas like mathematics or logic, or in fields of empirical inquiry, such as experimental psychology.

Sometime later, during an interminable transatlantic flight, Berlin carefully reviewed Sheffer’s arguments and his own growing misgivings about the discipline to which he had dedicated his life before the war. He came to see that pure philosophy was really a field like literary criticism or poetry, in which it was neither intended nor possible to add to the store of knowledge: “I gradually came to the conclusion,” he later recalled, “that I should prefer a field in which one could hope to know more at the end of one’s life than when one had begun.” Consequently, “when he landed the next morning, rumpled and bleary, he had decided to leave philosophy for the history of ideas”.

It was now that Berlin’s unrivalled gifts in hermeneutics and communication were allowed to move to the fore. Having extricated himself from analytic philosophy at Oxford, his life and career could now find their true meaning. He entered into a period of intellectual creativity that saw him become the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford in 1957 while also serving as an important liberal commentator during the height of the Cold War and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, his work offering a vital counterpoint to the anti-liberal and neo-totalitarian radicalism of that era. Seeking the sources of this radicalism and of the irrationalism that was blighting the twentieth century, he explored closely the works of a wide range of thinkers—Herzen, Bakunin, Tolstoy, Sorel, Vico, de Maistre, Hamann, Herder, Belinsky, Hess—many of whom had hovered on the margins of the history of ideas and might have faded almost entirely from view if not for the close attention that Berlin paid to them. And it was here, it transpired, that Berlin’s genius ultimately lay.

In this groundbreaking work, Berlin immersed himself in deep and often dark currents of thought that previous scholars had largely avoided, emerging periodically to offer academic, public and broadcast lectures, pamphlets, articles and long essays not only on these figures, but on Romanticism, the Counter-Enlightenment, Nationalism, Liberalism, and the history of Russian radicalism. And in all this work he displayed a comprehensive grasp of the premises, core concepts, structure, logic and direction of the various theories and systems concerned. Above all, he revealed a rare ability to communicate all this in a lucid and compelling manner that often surpassed the original material, especially in terms of cogency and rhetorical power.

Examples abound of Berlin’s outstanding powers of hermeneutic understanding, analysis and exposition, not least the studies written over many years and belatedly collected in Russian Thinkers (1978), Against the Current (1979), The Crooked Timber of Humanity (1990) and The Roots of Romanticism (1999). The last is particularly important because it is complemented by audio recordings of the 1965 A.W. Mellon Lectures, delivered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, upon which the book is based. This makes it possible to appreciate Berlin’s ability as an academic performer, lecturing with a minimal use of notes, conjuring up vividly the intellectual world of the Romantics, and captivating his audience, as he himself observed, “through these six long lectures”.

However, for our purposes, particular notice must also be taken of The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953), Berlin’s study of Tolstoy and the theory of history expounded in War and Peace. It was in this essay that Berlin drew the crucial distinction between monist thinkers, the “hedgehogs”, who are possessed by a single master idea and who look out upon the world and see One Big Thing to which everything else has to be subordinated; and those pluralists, the “foxes”, who are fascinated by many ideas and look out and see the many little things from which flow the unpredictable, unquenchable and irresistible variety of the world. The hedgehogs include Plato, Dante, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Bentham, Marx, Nietzsche, Lenin, Gramsci, Marcuse and Foucault, while the foxes include Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Goethe, Bentham, de Tocqueville and J.S. Mill. Readers would have noticed that it was the first category of thinkers—the monistic hedgehogs—that dominated intellectual discourse during this critical period.

At the end of The Hedgehog and the Fox Berlin concluded that the tragedy of Tolstoy’s life was that he was torn between these two poles: being a fox in his incomparable attention to the innumerable details of Russian history and society, but a hedgehog in his desire to commit himself to an overarching ideal—to the simple, all-enveloping religious faith of the Russian peasantry; but that it was in this tension that lay the roots of his genius. Much the same thing can be said of Berlin: his intellect and spirit were torn between his ultimate commitment to liberal pluralism, on one hand; and his intuitive grasp of the totalising worldview of Romanticism, on the other. As with Tolstoy, it was this tension that generated Berlin’s unprecedented scholarly insights and rhetorical power.

These two opposing positions have very different implications in terms of determining the meaning of life. The foxes will tend to see such meaning as inhering in the enjoyment offered by the studied contemplation and/or participation in the infinitely rich creativity and diversity of the world; the hedgehogs, on the contrary, will avow that the true meaning of life is to be found in the warm embrace and total immersion in a vast Whole—in the Spirit, the Absolute, the Will, the Volk, the State, History, Nature, Gaia and so on.

The former worldview would accommodate diverse theories of the meaning of life, including those that seek to ground it in a transcendent realm, such as God, but also those that see it emerging immanently in this world, as in an appreciation of human genius and creativity (as did Berlin, who particularly emphasised the vital role played in his life by his love of music). The latter worldview could not allow any such choice: meaning could have only one source: if it was a theocracy, it must flow from God; if it was a totalitarian regime, it must flow from the state and its enabling ideology.

Berlin’s natural philosophical home was undoubtedly the realm of the fox, and a great deal of his energy was spent defending the pluralist position, often at significant cost to himself in an intellectually polarised society. However, there was also a powerful part of his personality that was drawn to the hedgehog’s world, not to such an extent that Berlin ever wanted to succumb to its lure, but enough to allow him to feel the comforting appeal of “the Whole” and to give him a profound understanding of how and why this totalising vision of the world has proved so attractive to intellectuals, politicians, activists and fanatics in the Modern Age.

Berlin recognised this tension within himself, remarking to a friend, “the only truth which I have ever found out for myself is, I think, this one: of the unavoidability of conflicting ends”, and as his biographer observes, “what gave Berlin’s thought its resonance was this sense of his own inner division”. Throughout his work, Berlin emphasised humanity’s inherently divided nature, torn always between reason and emotion, rationality and irrationality, duty and desire, private and public demands, and irreconcilable political values. Indeed, this became a premise at the core of his liberalism, as Ignatieff observes:

Berlin made human dividedness … the very rationale for a liberal polity. A free society was a good society because it accepted the conflict among human goods and maintained, through its democratic institutions, the forum in which this conflict could be managed safely.

 Berlin also stressed the “potential for tragedy whenever people were forced to choose between sides of their natures”. This potential was something that he recognised not only in himself but also in the mind of J.S. Mill, the philosopher he felt best exemplified the type of liberalism with which he came so closely to identify himself.

Berlin’s intellectual encounter with Mill allowed him to work through a range of issues that he felt they shared. Mill’s starting position in On Liberty was unequivocal:

the object of this essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control: That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others … Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Importantly, Berlin knew that this was not a merely academic proposition, but was a hard-won insight, and that Mill had undergone a deep personal crisis as a young man and had later been socially ostracised over his relationship with Harriet Taylor, a married woman with children. Consequently, Mill’s “exaltation of the individual, [and] distrust of conformity, convention, and social pressures of all kinds, corresponded to the existential reality of his own life”, as Gertrude Himmelfarb observed.

It corresponded also to Berlin’s own experience at the height of his powers as the 1960s unfolded and he was confronted by the academic and activist epigones of Marx, Mao, Marcuse and other “Master Thinkers” of the New Left who rose to dominance, particularly on university campuses, where Berlin was made to feel increasingly uncomfortable. Such ideological monists recognised “only one plane of existence, the political”, to which every aspect of life had to be reduced, including, above all, its meaning; and they were messianic in their insistence that there existed, as J.L. Talmon observed in The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1970), “a preordained, harmonious and perfect scheme of things”, to which all history is tending, all political action must be directed, all personal allegiances must be owed, and from which all meaning in life must be derived, making it essential, for such people, “to be on the right side of History”.

Berlin placed his own pluralism in historical perspective, observing in an analysis of Marxism written in 1964 that political thought consisted of a duel between two rival conceptions of society:

On one side stand the advocates of pluralism and variety and an open market for ideas, an order of things that involves clashes and the constant need for conciliation, adjustment, balance and order … maintained by conscious effort … On the other side are to be found those who believe that this precarious condition is a form of chronic social and personal disease, since health consists in unity, peace [and] the elimination of the very possibility of disagreement.

As Berlin’s life and work amply demonstrated, he belonged to the former category of thinkers, for whom nothing is more exhilarating or better affirms a positive meaning of life than joining in the open market of ideas or meeting the challenge of a complex intellectual system. However, this was not the approach of the New Left, for whom he became an arch-nemesis. They belonged to the second category and lived on Talmon’s “one plane of existence”, the political, from where they dictated their own version of truth, dissolved all differences into a comfortable orthodoxy, denounced “deviations”, demanded strict adherence to the ideological “correct line”, and measured all ideas entirely in terms of their ideological value, including any theories about the meaning of life.

Berlin was an arch-nemesis of the Left also because of his enormously influential 1958 lecture and subsequent essay on the “Two Concepts of Liberty” (collected in Four Essays on Liberty, 1969). This attacked socialism’s principal ideological raison d’être: its commitment to what Berlin called “positive liberty”, and its dismissal of the countervailing ideal of “negative liberty”, presented so forcefully by Mill in On Liberty. Berlin developed this distinction from an earlier insight he’d had into the difference between the Liberal and Romantic conceptions of freedom, the one flowing from Locke and the other from Rousseau. Advocates of the former want firm limitations on political power as it impacts on the individual; advocates of the latter want few if any limitations on the powers of the state and, moreover, want these powers placed in their hands so that they can be used to create a New World and a New Man.

In his more developed formulation, Berlin followed Mill in arguing that negative liberty leaves individuals free to do as they see fit with their persons and their lives, provided that their actions don’t interfere with the same liberty enjoyed by others: “By being free in this sense I mean not being interfered with by others. The wider the area of non-interference the wider my freedom.” Positive liberty, on the other hand, is the tortuously contrived claim that the state apparatus can legitimately be used to “liberate” people in myriad ways, even from burdens unknown to them:

I may be coerced for my own good which I am too blind to see [and] if it is my good, then I am not being coerced, for I have willed it, whether I know this or not, and am free (or “truly” free) even when my poor earthly body and foolish mind bitterly reject it.

Berlin condemns such presumption as “one of the most powerful and dangerous arguments in the entire history of human thought”.

Nevertheless, exponents of positive liberty see themselves as possessing a mandate to “empower” people through various laws, treaties, charters, wealth transfers and grants, and cultural, social and educational programs; to free these subjects from alleged “systemic” limitations; and to enable them thereby to realise some repressed, occluded or hidden potential they are said to possess, but which they have been unjustly denied, or from which they have been “alienated” by some social or political mechanism: capitalism, racism, sexism and so on.

This could include the meaning of life in contemporary society. Indeed, one could imagine a Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four type scenario, where the modern state decides that it has a role in ensuring that those of its subjects confronted by the Abyss and “alienated” from an appropriate meaning to their lives should have one provided, perhaps via the social services or health bureaucracies, or alternatively they could just be suitably medicated or surgically amended, so that it’s no longer a problem for them, or the state. Such treatment could readily be meted out to someone suffering from an acute sense of the absurdity of life, as discussed in the previous two articles in this series on Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

Such a profound intervention is inadmissible, however. According to Berlin, citing Kant, society is constituted ultimately by “the crooked timber of humanity”, as Ignatieff explains:

Human beings are what they are, and a liberal politics deals only with what human beings say they want. Their preferences can be argued with, and persuasion is possible, but coercion—in the name of what they might prefer, if they could only see it more clearly—is always illegitimate. The revealed preferences of ordinary men and women must be the limit and also the arbiter of all practical politics.

Moreover, Berlin made it quite clear that the state interference in people’s lives and circumstances required by positive liberty cannot be justified in terms of some calculus of “net social benefits”: “Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience”, and it’s “a confusion of values” to say otherwise or to claim that although my individual liberty may be transgressed, this is allowable because some other “social good” can be increased by state intervention.

According to Berlin, once fundamental freedoms, rights and responsibilities are constitutionally in place, people should be allowed to lead their own lives, dealing themselves with any lack of meaning, making their own choices as they see fit, and with political intervention kept at the level of the practical and the pragmatic, and insulated from any messianic belief that politics can deliver aspects of heaven on earth, including deliverance from any sense of the alienation, ennui and anomie that may afflict modern life.

Such an acceptance of limits made Berlin’s position anathema to the “New Class” of professional political operatives that emerged during the twentieth century and now finds its raison d’être in the provision of an ever-increasing range of political panaceas to an electorate increasingly composed of insular groups encouraged to see themselves as victimised, deprived, alienated, repressed and endangered in all sorts of ways that only the state can allegedly rectify (or even identify!). Consequently, the notion of negative liberty has been attacked and dismissed by those who think that the ends of life, or the meaning of their life, revolve entirely around the endless pursuit of political solutions to imputed or imaginary problems.

Berlin explored these issues in his discussion of “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life” (collected in Four Essays on Liberty, 1969), revealing how the tension between the opposing worldviews of the totalist hedgehog and the pluralist fox can manifest themselves at the personal level. He began with the well-known facts of Mill’s isolated upbringing and home education conducted strictly in accordance with the principles of Utilitarianism expounded by the determined “hedgehog”, Jeremy Bentham, and under the strict supervision of his father, Bentham’s leading protégé, James Mill. Both made the maximisation of happiness the sole criterion for their utilitarian calculus of how human beings should be moulded and society should be ordered, and they advocated wide-ranging legislative reform and carefully structured education as the means to achieve this.

As Mill himself explains in his Autobiography, when this policy was applied to himself, it meant that he could read Greek by the age of three, was familiar with a range of classical and historical literature before he was eight, and had mastered algebra, Latin, philosophy and economics by twelve. He also proof-read and wrote synopses of his father’s books. He had also been shielded from religion, metaphysics and excessive exposure to poetry, as it was considered these would cloud his mind with superstition and irrational notions. Consequently, as Berlin observes, by the time Mill was seventeen, “his father had no doubt of the value of his experiment. He had succeeded in producing an excellently informed and perfectly rational being.”

The result was predictable. Although Mill had joined his father as a prominent member of the Utilitarian movement, had been trusted with preparing Bentham’s five-volume Rationale of Judicial Evidence for publication, and had embarked on a promising career, it all came crashing down, as Mill recounts in his Autobiography. Aged only twenty, he plunged into a prolonged depression and a “crisis of faith” in the Utilitarian project that had hitherto given his life its meaning. Seeking to get a grip on his condition, he asked himself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realised; that all the changes in institutions and opinions to which you are looking forward could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And to this, the answer was a resounding, “No!” “At that moment my heart sank within me”, as the meaning of life previously conferred by this great experiment drained away.

“What, then, was the true end of life?” Suddenly, the Abyss beckoned. Mill “saw no purpose in existence: everything in his world now seemed dry and bleak … He felt he had no motives for continuing to live, and wished for death.” For six months he existed in an apathetic and near-suicidal state of depression that only began to lift, in Berlin’s assessment, when the young man began a “revolt, slow, concealed, reluctant, but profound and irresistible, against the monist view of life inculcated by his father and the Benthamites”. And eventually, while Mill continued to accept “the march of reason, analysis, and empirical science”, his ultimate allegiance shifted to a far richer pluralist vision: “for what he came to value most was neither rationality nor contentment, but diversity, versatility, fullness of life—the unaccountable leap of individual genius, the spontaneity and uniqueness of a man, a group, a civilisation”, and it was this pluralist vision, Berlin insists, that ultimately, “Mill seems to me to have cared about most of all”. And it was also the vision that Berlin himself cared about most of all.

But there was more to it than that. Not only could Berlin empathise with the strength of Mill’s need to escape from the monist to the pluralist worldview; he also recognised the psychological tension such a shift could entail because he had explored the dichotomy in The Hedgehog and the Fox and recognised its presence within himself.

Towards the end of his essay on Mill and the ends of life, Berlin invokes the image of the “Inner Citadel”, the mental redoubt to which one might withdraw in an intellectual battle, and for which one must be prepared to fight to the last. He cites an observation by Bertrand Russell, that “the deepest convictions of philosophers are seldom contained in their formal arguments”. Rather, such “fundamental beliefs, comprehensive views of life, are like citadels which must be guarded against the enemy”. Around this core value commitment may be arrayed many complex and sophisticated arguments, which act as a series of defensive perimeters, but the core “vision of life for the sake of which the war is being waged” must be kept sacrosanct.

And so, in conclusion, we may ask what this vision was that lay at the core of the mental worlds of both Mill and Berlin, and gave their lives a sustaining sense of meaning. Clearly it had to do with the inviolability of the individual and the primacy of pluralism, along with recognition that knowledge can never be complete, and that there is no single, universally valid truth. And there was the further dimension to which Berlin directs us, involving the valorisation of spontaneity, uniqueness, diversity, versatility, fullness of life and the unaccountable leaps of individual genius. Together, these elements constitute the driving force of the liberal civilisation that both thinkers so highly valued.

But now it appears we have a paradox. However much one might value such a society, it would appear that its intrinsic state of continuous flux means it cannot, by its very nature, confer a settled meaning on a life, grounded in a “deep, cosmic, all-embracing source”, and that any search for one leads to the abyss of meaninglessness, as noted earlier. It was for this reason that Berlin dismissed the question as having no sensible answer.

Ironically, it seems that Berlin overlooked the great weight of his own achievement and its implications. Certainly, such a settled meaning of life cannot be found within a liberal democratic society. However, an empowering sense of meaning can arise transcendentally, at the level above as it were, by embracing that type of society as one’s raison d’être, along with the inevitable openness, uncertainty, elusiveness and flux that are its defining characteristics. And this is, of course, what Berlin did in his uncompromising defence of liberal democracy, of which he was an unexcelled champion.

Ultimately, and speaking metaphorically, Berlin spent his intellectual life dancing with spectacular elegance along the edge of the Abyss, unaware that it was the dancing and not anything he might conjure up out of the Abyss that gave such rich meaning to his life.

Mervyn Bendle’s previous articles in this series have been on A.J. Ayer (in the July-August issue), Albert Camus (September) and Jean-Paul Sartre (October).


5 thoughts on “Isaiah Berlin and the Meaning of Life

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    A brilliant piece of work here by Mervyn Bendle, and a most rewarding read.

  • Sanchismo says:

    What an excellent essay, thank you.

  • Seneca says:

    Berlin got of lightly. Famously Wittgenstein attacked Karl Popper with a poker at a similar meeting in Cambridge. Popper is very nice about it in his memoirs, saying Wittgenstein was merely conducting his argument rather like an orchestra. Still I’m happy never to have been on the receiving end from this particular crooked timber of humanity.

    • ianl says:

      What may have annoyed Wittgenstein to so attack Popper, one wonders.
      Perhaps Popper’s insistence on the last rung of the Scientific Method – proposing an hypothesis, then making a prediction from it and *testing* that prediction, with the consequence of modifying or abandoning the hypothesis if the prediction fails.
      That requirement annoys many people, I’ve found (at times including perhaps myself). Most just want to go straight from cherry-picked evidence to unassailable theory. Enter Wittgenstein …

  • pgang says:

    My conclusion on philosophers is that they are very clever writers, but not very clever philosophers.

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