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On and off the pageThomas Nagel
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Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration 
by Edna Margalit and Avishai Margalit.
Hogarth, 224 pp., £25, June 1991, 0 7012 0925 9
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There are writers and artists who dislike themselves – who attempt through their work to unearth, refine and then extrude something better than they are, something detached, pure and free-standing. I was put in mind of this recently while reading Ray Monk’s painful biography of Wittgenstein, who succeeded in creating a body of philosophical work so much finer and nobler than himself that for someone who has developed a strong attachment to the work, the contrast is very disturbing. Another common element of this syndrome is an aversion to the present and a desire to create something whose timelessness will take one out of the impure and anxious clutter of temporal life, something through which one can exist by proxy outside of time.

No one could be more opposed in character to this Platonic temperament than Sir Isaiah Berlin, whose love of the present – and of the presentness of other times and persons in their time – is the true love of life, and whose writings, to the inevitably limited extent that this is possible, attempt to express rather than to rise above his personal connection with the world. Yet it remains true that in a sense quite opposite to Wittgenstein, Berlin’s whole essence is not to be found on the printed page. While he is the author of some important philosophical essays and memorable historical portraits, it is only in his personal presence that you get the full range of his thoughts, perceptions and feelings.

This makes it difficult to produce a festschrift for Berlin, because such volumes are usually designed to commemorate a body of scholarship or research, and Berlin has not ‘externalised’ himself sufficiently for such an effort to seem adequate to its subject. So his friends have got together to produce something which they call a celebration, and which is actually half traditional festschrift and half an attempt to evoke Berlin’s presence by reminiscence and by continuing those conversations on many subject which have been part of their friendships with him.

Of the 14 essays and one poem (by Stephen Spender) three have previously been published. Alfred Brendel writes about humour in music, Francis Haskell on controversies about the transition from Late Roman to Early Christian art; Bernard Williams, in a wonderful and unsummarisable essay called ‘Naive and Sentimental Opera Lovers’, writes about distinctions in operatic taste, the sources of the power of opera, what it is to be an opera lover, and Berlin’s responses to opera in particular. But most of the contributions are about philosophy, especially political philosophy.

The pluralism which is Berlin’s distinctive conviction, in ethics, politics, history and epistemology, derives from the irreducible plurality of individual human points of view and forms of life, varying not only over time and across cultures but between individuals within a common culture. We are all formed by our ancestry, our personal history and our choices, and must recognise that each of us lives within a narrow range of the universe of human possibilities, so that to try to live, or to impose on others, an ideal and universal form of life would be absurd. It is commonly said nowadays that the leading figures of the Enlightenment failed to recognise this elementary fact. But whether or not the charge is accurate, pluralism does not require abandonment of the central values of the Enlightenment – the recognition that, morally, every life matters equally, and the conviction that generally accessible forms of reasoning can be used to determine how we should accommodate ourselves to the facts that the human world presents us with.

Berlin’s distinctively modern liberalism results from a combination of these elements of the Enlightenment attitude with an unusually vivid sense of human plurality, and an affirmation of the irreplaceable value of life lived within a particular, contingent, highly specific form, guided by the non-universal selection of values specific to who one is. The combination of specificity and universality in Berlin’s case is particularly acute. Though the topic is discussed by several contributors, there could have been more in this book about the Jews, and about Berlin’s overwhelming identity as a Russian Jew, which has probably given him a much stronger capacity to understand radically different points of view than a more detached cosmopolitan intellectual of the usual mould could achieve. Berlin has been able to combine a strong and highly specific racial and national identity with a quite general human sympathy.

Richard Wollheim’s essay,‘The Idea of a Common Human Nature’, is illuminating on several of these topics. Wollheim also makes the point that Berlin’s interest in the observable features of life, and his diffidence about claims to have discovered underlying causes, are strongly reminiscent of Hume. Stuart Hampshire also, discussing Berlin’s ideas about nationalism, sees the influence of Hume’s psychological naturalism – the idea that rational justification in morality must always be subordinate to the‘passions’: i.e. the particular contingent facts of human motivation. This can result, and in Berlin’s case did result, in pessimism about the possibility of reconciliation on the basis of common values or interests between national groups, like the Irish and the English, or the Israelis and the Palestinians, whose memories of conflict cannot be transcended in the name of reason.

On the other hand, Berlin had no sympathy for Marx’s conviction that violent conflict was the inevitable expression of the laws of history. In an essay called ‘Isaiah’s Marx, and Mine’ that begins with engaging personal reminiscence and goes on to careful exegetical argument, G.A. Cohen recounts his experience as a student of Berlin’s, and then takes issue with his view of Marx as devoid of familiar moral attitudes toward social injustice, yet vindictively drawn by the prospect of a violent reckoning. Given the strategic lessons that the most conspicuous followers of Marx have drawn from his thought, in the direction of maximising conflict and crushing opposition, the question of his moral outlook remains of interest. Cohen argues convincingly that Marx’s rhetoric of class struggle sometimes conceals his fundamental motives, hatred of social injustice and of restrictions on free human development, but that they are perfectly clear from the life and much of the writing. Still, it is safe to say that Marx was not a liberal, and the incompatibility of his thought with liberalism is the result of his conviction that the most important social conflicts among interests and points of view cannot be transcended and resolved through the adoption of a shared standpoint compatible with the existence of those conflicts. They can be transcended only by the elimination of the conflicts themselves, usually through the victory of one of the parties and the disappearance through transformation or destruction of the other.

The type of liberalism which seeks to deal with deep conflicts, not by making them disappear, but by discovering institutional forms through which the opposed parties can nevertheless express a fundamental human respect for one another, is what we must seek if we wish to combine Berlin’s strong pluralism with broader humanistic values. Given the world as it is, there are limits to the possibility of realising such an ideal. The pluralism that can be accommodated within a liberal framework has its limits, with fascism and certain forms of religious fanaticism, for example, lying beyond them. How these boundaries are to be drawn and how conflicts will be managed within a liberal framework remain difficult questions, discussed by Leon Wieseltier in ‘Two Concepts of Secularism’ and by Michael Ignatieff in ‘Understanding Fascism’.

On the subject of positive and negative liberty, the essays by Ronald Dworkin and Yael Tamir form a complementary pair. Dworkin shows how the conflation of positive with negative liberty, which Berlin exposed, has reappeared in current arguments by some American legal theorists to the effect that restrictions of sexually offensive expression can be defended under the First Amendment on the ground that they are needed to preserve the freedom of speech of women whose capacity to express themselves is chilled by the social climate induced by pornography. This is an illegitimate importation of a species of positive liberty or empowerment into the category of negative liberty or non-interference, and it is designed to persuade us that restrictions on pornography are like rules of order in debate. But, in fact, the assessment of such restrictions requires that we choose between two very different values; to represent the issue as one of efficiency in protecting the liberty of expression is to clothe the attack on a fundamental value with the honorific title of that value itself – a familiar tactic in political argument. Tamir, on the other hand but quite compatibly, points to the usefulness of the idea of positive liberty in expressing the aspirations of women to a form of liberation which is specifically not the mere elimination of external restrictions. She thus enlists Berlin’s ideas in a cause not usually associated with him.

David Pears evokes the early days of Oxford analytic philosophy and Berlin’s perceptive involvement with it; Charles Taylor discusses the legacy of Herder to contemporary philosophy, particularly the philosophy of language. I wish there had been more reminiscence and personal response from some of the contributors. Berlin’s pervasive sense of the comic and absurd are almost entirely missing, for example. But as he himself always says, you can’t have everything.

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Letters

Vol. 13 No. 19 · 10 October 1991

It’s a minor point, but I must dissent from Thomas Nagel’s stern pronouncement that the banning of pornography would cause infringements of ‘negative liberty’ (absence of restrictions) which take precedence over the ‘positive liberty’ (empowerment) which it might promote (LRB, 25 July). My problem is that I don’ t share Nagel’s ready confidence in the distinction between positive and negative liberties. In my experience, ‘freedom to’ (e.g. to go to work in jeans) is hard to disentangle from ‘freedom from’ (e.g. from the office dress code). Arguably, our society’s pornographic image-culture infringes a basic negative freedom: freedom from degrading representations of oneself and one’s group. (Not that censorship is the answer: apart from anything else, the problem runs rather deeper than top-shelf pornography, as a cursory look at the newsagent’s other shelves will demonstrate.)

In any case, it is not clear precisely which negative freedom Nagel is defending here. Freedom of speech? If so it’s a freedom mainly enjoyed by a few large businesses, and the ‘speech’ in question is repetitious to say the least. It seems more apposite to describe the freedom to traffic in images of naked women as the classic capitalist freedom to sell whatever will sell. Viewed in this light, what Nagel is really doing is privileging economic over civil liberties: a legitimate position, but one which should be argued as such.

Phil Edwards
Manchester

Vol. 13 No. 20 · 24 October 1991

It is naive to say as Phil Edwards does (Letters, 10 October) that the debate about pornography is not very precisely one of censorship: we have more censorship than almost any other society in Western Europe (and it would be hard to maintain that we have greater sexual equality).

In the past few months, under the current version of the Obscene Publications Act, we have seen the failed prosecution in a London court of Modern Primitives, an issue of the American arts magazine Re-Search which dealt with elective cosmetic piercing and scarification, and the forfeiture and threatened destruction of Lord Horror, a novel published by Savoy Books of Manchester which portrays anti-semitism and misogyny through an unreliable and hateful narrator, and rewrites Chief Constable Anderton’s anti-gay remarks as an anti-semitic speech. One need not particularly wish to read either of these books to find their prosecution a distressing infringement of freedom of speech.

There is an assumption at large that legislation which concentrated on sexist commercial erotica would leave all other material alone. It is practically impossible to see how this can be maintained; the definition of pornography included in the draft Bill, proposed in the last Parliament by Dawn Primarolo, on the Location of Pornographic Materials, might very well be held to include both the above cases, as well as Ulysses and Madonna’s videos. A Bill which relies on Trading Standards Officers to decide the interpretation of a loose definition is a blunt instrument. And, indeed, even among the Left and feminists, let alone among the right-wing and Christian advocates of censorship, there is little agreement about what should and should not be prosecuted.

Approached during the Modern Primitives trial, the Campaign against Pornography made it clear that they were not interested in abuses of current law – they regard all sexual representation in a sexist society as likely to be pornographic. Various anti-pornography feminists, from Andrea Dworkin on down, have made it clear that gay men, and lesbians, who look at their erotic images of choice are to be regarded as participating in the male freedom to objectify which is a crucial part of sexism: the logic of this position has been to organise the banning from ‘alternative’ bookshops of, for example, Love Bites, a collection of work by the lesbian photographer Della Grace. It is not logical to oppose Clause 28 one year and support censorship the next.

Some argue that freedom to avoid negative images of women is more important than artistic freedom. But anti-pornography legislation would only pass as part of political deals that would suppress positive sexual images: one of the most distressing sights of recent years has been that of anti-pornography feminists trying to pretend to themselves that the homophobia and anti-abortion position of their Christian allies were not important. I do not relish the obligation to defend, along with basic liberties of speech, artistic integrity and sexual freedom, the Sunday Sport: but these are real freedoms and as such indivisible. The argument that freedoms abused by the rich or wicked are not freedoms at all is not one which most of us accept in respect of the right to a jury trial or the right to silence: why then accept it over freedom of speech?

Roz Kaveney
London E2

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