Edited by Henry Hardy
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25
by Charles Larmore
[This review was completed before Isaiah Berlin's death on November
5, 1997. It is dedicated to the memory of one of the great philosophers of
Isaiah Berlin has been one of the great innovative minds of our time, broadening
our sense of the variety and complexity of the human good. Though Berlin has
often placed his work within the "history of ideas," this term suggests too
modest a measure of his real importance. For Berlin's wide learning and powerful
evocation of past thinkers have all served the cause of a philosophical outlook.
Berlin calls that outlook "pluralism," and he has done more than any other
thinker to make it a central part of our moral vocabulary.
Pluralism for Berlin is the view that the ends which reasonable people may
pursue are ultimately not one, but many. The forms of human good do not have
a common source; indeed, they prove so divergent in their tendency that they
defy unification within a single life--they may even prove irreconcilable
within any given culture. This view has had no place in the mainstream of
Western philosophical thought. To the contrary, it has been a countercurrent,
a heterodoxy expressed only by isolated voices--until today, that is, when
Berlin's writings have given it such prominence. The prevailing outlook has
instead been monist in character. Since Plato, most philosophers have supposed
that the proper ends of life all express or promote a single ultimate value,
though naturally they have disagreed about what it is: rational thought, pleasure,
perhaps freedom. None has denied, of course, that there are many different
activities, traits of character, and states of mind that we rightly prize.
But this multiplicity has not been thought to extend to the nature of goodness
itself. Instead, the assumption has been that all these things are good because
they draw in various ways upon a single source, a single ultimate good that
defines what is of supreme moment in our humanity.
Berlin's significance as a thinker stems from his success in freeing our
moral thinking from the grip of this Platonic ideal. In The Sense of Reality,
the latest volume of his unpublished essays--according to the editor, Henry
Hardy, it will also be the last--Berlin describes the mission of philosophy
in terms which fit his own achievement. Philosophy, he writes, is at its best
the attempt "to find ways of thinking and talking which, by revealing similarities
hitherto unnoticed, and differences hitherto unremarked, transform our vision
of the world." Berlin's many essays in defense and illustration of value pluralism
have brought about precisely such a dramatic shift in our thinking. It might
be wondered why it took so long for someone like Berlin to come and break
the hold of monist dogma. Perhaps the reason is that the human mind hankers
after simplicity, whatever the domain. We seem inclined by nature to find
intellectual pleasure in tidy systems that subsume the many under the one.
In The Sense of Reality, as in his other writings, Berlin urges us
to resist this tendency. He quotes approvingly Harvard philosopher C. I. Lewis,
who wrote: "there is no a priori reason for supposing that the truth,
when it is discovered, will necessarily prove interesting." Yet surely Berlin's
message in the end is that we must change our notion of what is interesting.
The consequences of Berlin's pluralism are profound. Perhaps the deepest
is the recognition, no doubt dimly felt before but never given such clear
expression, that the pursuit of perfection ill-suits the human condition,
and not simply because our knowledge and abilities are limited, our resolve
mixed, our time scarce. If perfection means the possession of everything good
to the maximum degree, then it eludes our grasp most of all because the idea
itself is flawed. As Berlin said in his Agnelli Prize speech, "The Pursuit
of the Ideal": "The notion of the perfect whole, the ultimate solution, in
which all good things coexist, seems to me not merely unattainable--that is
a truism--but conceptually incoherent." No life could conceivably comprise
everything good, for the good itself, being heterogeneous, pulls in contrary,
incompatible directions. One sort of excellence excludes another, one admirable
goal stands in the way of others that might equally claim our attention. If
all goods were fundamentally one, then choosing prudently between different
things of value would always move us closer to perfection, however remote
that goal still might be. But if the good is ultimately diverse in character,
then there is no final destination at which all the ways of living well are
(or could be) struggling to arrive. Berlin's most important insight is that
any idea of the good life we can imagine will represent only a fragment of
Berlin's pluralism breaks with ancient and inveterate habits of thought,
but he has focused its critical potential on a specific period. His favorite
target has been the Enlightenment and its confidence that only error and prejudice--above
all religious superstition--block the path to the perfect society, where the
timeless values of human existence will all be realized. In The Sense of
Reality, Berlin notes the principle in which Condorcet expressed this
vision: "Nature binds by an unbreakable chain truth, happiness, and virtue."
Condorcet's idea was that knowledge of the truth or the scientific study of
man's place in nature and the workings of society provides the key to a world
where virtue and happiness will thrive together. Ignorance, so he and other
18th-century thinkers supposed, is the great enemy of man's perfectibility.
One reason for Berlin's focus on the Enlightenment has been his desire to
point the way beyond the ensuing breakdown of this moral optimism. Few today
would put their faith in the identity of scientific and moral progress--not
least, of course, because the discoveries of modern science have been readily
enlisted in the service of evil. But because Western liberal democracy has
so often invoked the Enlightenment creed, it too has seemed intellectually
naive, preferable in practice to the alternatives but lacking in any just
appreciation of the human condition. Berlin wishes to remedy this predicament.
Liberal political ideals, he believes, will gain a more solid footing, embody
a truer sense of reality, if they draw their inspiration from a pluralistic
conception of the good. If we recognize that knowledge, virtue, and happiness
may diverge, we will then see that the just society aims not at perfection,
but at striking a balance among the different, conflicting goods which human
beings espouse. As Berlin writes in The Sense of Reality: "Those who
believe that final truths may be reached, that there is some ideal order of
life on earth which may be attained, will, however benevolent their desires,
however pure their hearts, however noble and disinterested their ideals, always
end by repressing and destroying human beings in their march toward the Promised
Land." Berlin's grand design, in all his writings, has been to steer our political
thinking toward a chastened, anti-perfectionist liberalism.
Disconnecting liberalism from a naive faith in moral progress is an ambition
we should applaud. And yet there is a risk in tying it anew to the sort of
pluralism Berlin has espoused. Pluralism is itself a view about the ultimate
sources of the good, and indeed a minority opinion in the history of Western
thought, as Berlin has been keen to point out. And despite its growing popularity,
pluralism is likely to remain a doctrine about whose merits reasonable people
will disagree. Should it then serve as the new philosophical foundation for
liberal thought? In my view, it is precisely our natural tendency toward reasonable
disagreement, whenever we reflect together about the nature of the good life,
that should instead be liberalism's guiding focus, concerned as it is to find
principles of political association to which we can have reason to adhere,
despite our abiding differences about more fundamental matters. To base liberal
ideals on a pluralist philosophy is to make liberalism itself too partisan
a doctrine--even if pluralism in fact captures the true character of the good.
The Enlightenment has served Berlin as the epitome of monism for another
reason as well. It was the Enlightenment and its esprit de systĖme
that provoked, already in the 18th century, the first explicit attempts in
Western philosophy to defend the ultimate multiplicity of the good. These
dissidents have been among Berlin's intellectual heroes. Herder, for example
(like Berlin himself born in Riga and an influential defender of cultural
diversity) has always held a special place in his heart. In a number of famous
essays, Berlin has argued that Herder's pluralist insights ought not to be
lost as we rightly reject the dangerous strands of nationalism which have
also claimed inspiration from his thought. Vico has been another kindred spirit.
Yet Berlin has not shown the same affection for the thinkers who followed
in the footsteps of these early advocates of pluralism. As is well known,
Herder's pluralism was an important inspiration for Romantic thought. And
though Romanticism was a multifaceted affair--more an epoch really than anything
so coherent as a movement--one of the dominant strands in its dissatisfaction
with the Enlightenment was an appreciation of the irreducible variety of valuable
forms of life. Berlin scarcely fails to note this fact. It plays a role in
his account of why the Romantic revolution constituted a major turning-point
in Western political thought. But for him the fundamental reason why Romanticism
marks "a radical change in the entire conceptual framework" of Western thought
is that it rejects the long-standing assumption that values are objective
and that questions of conduct admit of answers that can be discovered. The
Romantics, Berlin argues, were the first to announce that we are the authors
of our ends and that the question of how we are to live is settled not by
learning what is valuable, but by giving ourselves the values we will affirm.
To them we owe the idea that the will, not knowledge, forms the organ of the
moral life. It was this subjectivization of value, he believes, that impelled
the Romantics to declare that human ideals can find themselves in irreconcilable
Berlin does not, however, base his own pluralism on this "Romantic apotheosis
of the will." On the contrary, he has always held on to the conviction, affirmed
in the Agnelli Prize speech, that "there is a world of objective values,"
ends and ideals whose worth we discover, not create; though his concern has
been to point out, of course, that they do not all spring from a single ultimate
source. Indeed, realism about values would seem to lend itself quite naturally
to pluralist thinking. If we believe that values exist independently of our
desires, and if we also find unpersuasive the old religious and metaphysical
visions of man's one essence, then we should expect that an inherent multiplicity
of ends can make a life worthwhile.
Berlin's sympathy for the Romantics has therefore never been so deep as his
evident love for Herder, who, as he rightly observes, also embraced the objectivity
of value. But this sort of discrimination poses a problem. Herder's pluralism
was passed on to the Romantics through another of his innovations, which was
his recognition of the importance of belonging. Our deepest beliefs about
the good, Herder argued, are rooted in a concrete way of life. They cannot
be understood as principles we would choose upon reflection, for without them
we have no sense of what is valuable, and so no adequate basis for choice.
They have instead the character of felt convictions, which can be ours only
because we have grown up in them. And so, as our forms of life differ, the
fundamental ends we honor can diverge as well. This new praise of belonging,
along with its support for a pluralistic conception of the good, form an unmistakable
element of Romantic thought. Think of all the Romantic writers--philosophers
such as Hegel, poets such as Wordsworth, novelists such as Scott and Balzac--who
dismissed the Enlightenment's abstract, atomistic conception of man and insisted
that the moral life takes shape only through participation in a community,
a community which is always historically situated and colored by local tradition.
Yet here lies the puzzle. The sense of belonging seems the very opposite of
an exaltation of the will. It is a state of mind attuned to the objectivity
of value, for it is sustained by an awareness of values which make us the
persons we are. How then can Berlin maintain that Romantic pluralism grew
out of a subjectivistic transvaluation of values?
Berlin's mistake, so it seems to me, lies in too unitary a conception of
Romanticism. For him the paradigm is Fichte's voluntarist conception of the
self, the theory that we fully exist only when we oppose ourselves to everything
that we are not and transform it in our own image. The Romantics, Berlin holds,
understood morality as they understood art--as the means by which the artist
does not imitate nature but rather creates a world of his own. But was this
the Romantic aesthetic? Did Romantic art really seek to be (as M. H. Abrams
similarly argued in a famous study) no longer the mirror invoked by older,
mimetic theories, but instead a lamp, shining by its own unreflected light?
No doubt there are cases that fit this model. Yet the opposition between mirror
and lamp is too schematic to capture the finest accomplishments of the Romantic
To take a brief but telling example, consider the lines with which Wordsworth
begins the Prelude:
O there is a blessing in this gentle breeze
That blows from the green fields and from the clouds And from the sky: it
beats against my cheek,
And seems half-conscious of the joy it gives.
From this experience, Wordsworth says, he has drawn the inspiration and resolve
to write his poetic autobiography. For "while the sweet breath of heaven was
blowing on my body," he felt within
A corresponding mild creative breeze,
A vital breeze which travelled gently on
O¼er things which it had made, and is become
A tempest, a redundant energy,
Vexing its own creation.
Thus, poetic art is indeed for Wordsworth a redundant energy, which goes
beyond the materials of the visible world and cannot rest content even with
its own creations. But this creative breeze also arises only by corresponding
to a breeze which blows from without and moves him to write. Wordsworth's
poetry, we could say, aims to be a mirror as well as a lamp. Art expresses
our experience of the world, even as its forms of expression extend our experience
beyond what the world simply gives us.
The Fichtean paradigm scarcely fits this line of Romantic thought. The Will
may have been the master concept for Fichte and those who followed his lead.
But it was the very different faculty of the imagination, at once creative
and responsive, that held the heart of Wordsworth and many others. And this
complex idea of the imagination, in turn, played a central role in the Romantics'
appreciation of the value of belonging. For they were generally acute enough
to recognize that moral community is to be sure an inheritance, but an imaginative
projection into the future as well.
Berlin's own version of pluralism is therefore not so alien to Romantic thought
as he supposes. At the end of the essay on Romanticism in The Sense of
Reality, he admits that we are all heirs to the Romantics, to the extent
that we feel drawn by the idea that we are the authors of our ends. That may
be true. But we--and Berlin, too--are Romantics in a deeper and more valuable
sense. Our respect for the limits of critical reflection and the importance
of belonging, our distrust of simple conceptions of the good and of the imagination,
too, are enduring parts of the Romantic legacy.
Click here to order this book directly from amazon.com.