Hans Aarsleff a professor of English at Princeton, is the author of The Study of Language in England (1976) and From Locke to Saussure, which will be published early next year.
Sir Isaiah Berlin’s wide range of interests and achievements illustrates the pluralism he admires: music critic, philosopher, writer, professor, civil servant, administrator, college president, fund-raiser, committee man, a lecturer with the rare ability to hold audiences entranced with his enthusiastic display of the living word in crowded lecture halls, on the radio and on television. On both sides of the Atlantic he has brought the world of academia to a large public for whom he has come to embody the excitement, mystery and relevance of that world. The professorial air, the stumbling speed of his delivery, the sense he gives of the importance of ideas and the past in a time that has not found the solutions it seeks – all these contribute to the impression. It is a sign of the esteem he enjoys that his major writings and essays have been collected and reissued under titles that reflect their variety. There are engaging brief essays on the famous and the less famous, philosophical papers, lively explorations of Russian thought, and essays in the history of ideas, which in the case of the studies of Vico and of Herder run to monograph length. The essays appear in their original form or something close to it, but many of them have seen a succession of forms as they travelled from journal to journal, from French into English, and from lecture transcripts into print. The spoken form often shows clearly behind the text, but this is a true reflection of Berlin’s essential style, which is speech, conversation. The voice is often more compelling than the text.
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