The love of concrete : BOOKS

ISAIAH BERLIN by John Gray, HarperCollins £18

ISAIAH Berlin has been compared to David Hume. Both gave up philosophy to practise history; both turned from difficult academic writings to what Hume called "essays, moral, political and literary"; and both are sceptical thinkers who take a fairly dim view of our powers of moral reason. Each, in his own way, has challenged the ethical rationalism of his day.

Yet John Gray's book rightly emphasises the crucial difference between the two men, overlooked by those, like Stuart Hampshire, who see Berlin as Humean all the way down. Hume, a typically Enlightenment thinker, thought that men and women were fundamentally the same everywhere; that their conduct obeyed basic laws and that science could discover these just as it could the laws of nature. Berlin has always quarrelled with this, arguing that the concepts and categories by which we order our world vary through time and space. You can only explain human conduct by getting inside a culture and its particular beliefs and values. Social science, searching for general, abstract laws, is bound to miss what is peculiar and specific.

In fact Berlin's rejection of the Enlightenment understanding of human nature lies at the very heart of his thought. It must have inspired his turn away from pure philosophy to history in the early 1940s, and is reflected in the way he has written the story of modern intellectual history as a battle between Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment ideas. It also fired his interest in the history of nationalism and has given him a sympathy with its more moderate aspirations - a sympathy which must have set him apart from many of his left-liberal friends.

But although Berlin's hostility to the Enlightenment (and Marxist and Positivist) dream of turning history and society into an object of science is brilliantly articulated, it is not original. In fact he makes the case for it by tracing its development through long dead predecessors like Vico, Hamann, Herder, and Herzen. What is new about Berlin's thought is his argument that we are all faced with choices, in our lives, between incompatible and incommensurable values. Both ancient and modern philosophers have tended to assume there was a single right answer to moral and political questions - some formula that could resolve all ethical dilemmas - Berlin sees that life forces endless existential choices upon us. If we pursue community we must sacrifice autonomy, if we indulge in mercy we must sacrifice justice, if we aspire to knowledge we should be prepared to give up freedom. The belief behind so much Western political thought that an ideal society could at least be described, and perhaps even attained, is facile (and, as Marxism proved, dangerously so); living by some ideals is bound to exclude living by others.

Gray, a political theorist at Oxford who has had a long intellectual friendship with Berlin, is a devoted fan; he emphasises both the tragic quality of Berlin's thought and its "enormous subversiveness". But he also raises the question of how Berlin's "value pluralism" relates to his liberalism.

The common view, assumed to be Berlin's, is that if you accept that there are an array of conflicting lives worth living, then a liberal society can be justified as allowing people to choose for themselves the sort of life they want. But Gray ends his book arguing that this position simply does not hold: liberal societies admit a variety of ideals, but there are other ideals (piety, say, or solidarity) with which they are incompatible. And if, as Berlin's doctrine of value pluralism would suggest, we can't always rank the first ideals above the second, liberalism cannot be objectively superior to all forms of illiberalism. This position - that liberal freedom possesses "no universal claim on reason, foundation in human nature or privileged place in history" - is not one which Gray attributes to Berlin, but one, he argues, we should accept.

Gray has written a difficult book, but one which succeeds in making its subject seem profound and important. It should, once and for all, scotch the view that Berlin is just an especially imaginative reader, and help put him at the centre of moral and political thought where he undoubtedly belongs.

For all its qualities, though, this is in some ways a strangely inappropriate study. One of the memorable features of Berlin's work is its sensitivity to human peculiarity and variation. Berlin's essays, like Montaigne's, are catalogues of mutability. One of his favourite literary devices - the list - is almost worth an essay in itself. His historical writings show as much interest in the peculiar circumstances in which an idea emerges as the idea itself: his vivid eulogies to Einstein, Churchill, Chaim Weizmann and others (collected in Personal Impressions) display a similarly vivid eye for personal particularities. Berlin displays a romantic suspicion of abstract categories. He is an intellectual who loves concrete things.

Yet Gray pays hardly any attention to this aspect of Berlin's thought - how his writing doesn't only argue for an interpretative approach to history but exemplifies it, or how he does not merely put forward the rivalrous diversity of human ideals but also illustrates it. Unlike Berlin, John Gray seems much more at home with concepts than their embodiments. The result is a fine, urgent, exploration of Berlin's political ideas. The book makes unprecedented claims for the importance of his liberalism - "the most profoundly deliberated, and most powerfully defended in our, or perhaps in any time" - but it still does not quite do justice to the full richness of his work.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world