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The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History
Isaiah Berlin
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 our century.--CL]

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 In The Sense of Reality, the latest volume of his unpublished essays--according to the editor, Henry Hardy, it will also be the last--Berlin describes the mission of philosophy in terms which fit his own achievement.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 our humanity.

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 conflict.

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 period.

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.

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Originally published in the December 1997/ January 1998 issue of Boston Review

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