On and off the page

Thomas Nagel

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.