Isaiah Berlin

 Isaiah Berlin
Sir Isaiah Berlin

Sir Isaiah Berlin (June 6 1909November 5 1997) was a political philosopher and historian of ideas, regarded as one of the leading liberal thinkers of the 20th century. [1] ( Born in Riga, now Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire, he was the first Jew to be elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford; became the founding president of Wolfson College, Oxford; and from 1957 to 1967, served as the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford. He was knighted in 1957, was awarded the Order of Merit in 1971, and was president of the British Academy from 1974 to 1978.

Berlin's work on liberal theory has had a lasting influence. His 1958 essay "Two Concepts of Liberty", in which he famously distinguished between positive and negative liberty, has informed much of the debate since then on the relationship between liberty and equality.



Berlin was born into a Jewish family, the son of Mendel Berlin, a timber merchant, and his wife Marie, née Volshonok. He spent his childhood in Riga, Latvia and St Petersburg (then called Petrograd), witnessing the Russian Revolutions of 1917, and arriving with his family in Britain in 1921. In the UK, he was educated at St Paul's School, London, a private school, then at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he studied Greats (Classics) and PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). He was to remain at Oxford for the rest of his life, apart from a period working for the British Information Services in New York (1940-2), the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. (1942-5), and Moscow (1945-6). In 1956, he married Aline Halban, née de Gunzbourg.

His work

Berlin is best known for his essay "Two Concepts of Liberty", which was delivered in 1958 as his inaugural lecture as Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford. He defined negative liberty as the absence of constraint, or "freedom from"; whereas positive liberty he associated with the idea of self-fulfillment, or the ability to make meaningful choices — "freedom to". Positive liberty focuses on an individual's hypothetical desires, desires that might form as a result of education, for example. This idea has been used to justify the constraints placed on individuals by structured societies, constraints that Berlin argued strongly against.

His essay "Historical Inevitability" (1953) focused on a controversy in the philosophy of history. In Berlin's words, the choice is whether one believes that "the lives of entire peoples and societies have been decisively influenced by exceptional individuals" or, rather, that whatever happens occurs as a result of impersonal forces oblivious to human intentions. Berlin is also well known for his writings on Russian intellectual history, most of which are collected in Russian Thinkers (1978), edited, like most of Berlin's work, by Henry Hardy.

Berlin's writings on the Enlightenment and its critics — for whom Berlin coined the term the "Counter-Enlightenment" — and particularly Romanticism, contributed to his advocacy of an ethical theory he termed value-pluralism. [2] ( For Berlin, values are creations of mankind, rather than products of nature waiting to be discovered, though he also argued that the nature of mankind is such that certain values — for example, the importance of individual liberty — will hold true across cultures, which is what he meant when he called his position "objective pluralism." With his account of value pluralism, he proposed the view that moral values may be equally valid and yet incompatible, and may therefore come into conflict with one another in a way that is irresolvable. When values clash, it does not mean that one is more important than the other. Keeping a promise may conflict with the pursuit of truth; liberty may clash with social justice. Moral conflicts are "an intrinsic, irremovable part of human life ... These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are," (Berlin, 2002).


"The very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving for the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past." - Isaiah Berlin

"Liberty for wolves is death to the lambs." - Isaiah Berlin

"Philosophers are adults who persist in asking childish questions." - Isaiah Berlin, quoted in The Listener, 1978.


Isaiah Berlin was once confused with Irving Berlin by Winston Churchill who invited the latter for lunch, thinking he was the former.

Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox made it to number 65 in the National Review's article on "The 100 Best Non-fiction Books of the Century. [3] (


Major works:

All publications listed from 1978 onwards are compilations of various lectures, essays, and letters, brought together and edited by Henry Hardy.


  • Berlin, Isaiah. Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty, recorded 1952; ed. Henry Hardy, 2002. ISBN 0691114994.

See also

Further reading

de:Isaiah Berlin fr:Isaiah Berlin he:ישעיה ברלין ja:アイザイア・バーリン fi:Isaiah Berlin


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