Isaiah Berlin – Against the Current

Isaiah Berlin did not call himself a philosopher. He was a historian of ideas. Indeed, he never explains his philosophy. He shares his ideas through his analysis of the ideas of others. His thoughts are rarely straightforward. Indeed, he will sometimes write one thing before he goes on to contradict it. There is a meaning behind the words, cleverly disguised, so readers will believe they have misunderstood everything when they have, in fact, received the message perfectly clear. Against the Current is unlike any other collection of essays. The essays read as though they are about distinct philosophers or ideas. But there is a consistency in this collection that is unmistakable so long as the reader dares to read the work cover to cover. The essay “Benjamin Disraeli, Karl Marx and the Search for Identity” begins to bring his ideas together. And they give away Berlin’s own sensibilities and insecurities if the reader is willing to look for them.

Berlin believes ideas emerge from the author. This is such a simple idea it comes across as self-evident. But it challenges the Enlightenment focus on reason alone. And it challenges the post-modern ethos where the text is analyzed as its own creation. Berlin, on the other hand, believes the text cannot become distinguished from the writer, so he goes to great lengths to place the authors into context. He places his subjects into their proper historical and psychological context. Ideas for Berlin become a reflection of the experience and identity of the writer.  

Historical context is necessary to understand mainstream ideas of philosophy or politics. The Enlightenment or Romanticism reflect their moment in history. But dissent requires reflection upon the identity of the author. A person who disagrees with the prevailing spirit of the times must have a different sense of oneself to produce ideas which run counter to the prevailing winds of the time. Marx and Disraeli are examined as psychological profiles whose ideas reflect their own sense of self. But Berlin is adamant he is not a psychologist. Indeed, he is not focused simply on the causes that shape his subjects. He wants to understand how his subjects shape their ideas and this is where he departs from the psychologist. Berlin recognizes the potential to manufacture or create an identity which gives rise to new ideas.

Benjamin Disraeli is the perfect example of a historical figure whose sense of identity was constructed rather than inherited. Parts of Disraeli were things he was unable to disguise. Most obvious among them was his Jewish heritage, but rather than disguise it, he chose to embellish it. He reinterpreted his background to produce a new sense of his self, designed to thrive in his environment. Marx, on the other hand, rejected Judaism but was never able to completely able to eradicate its pariah status from himself. Berlin writes, “When he denies that any armistice or compromise between the classes can be reached… it is the oppression of centuries of a people of pariahs, not of a recently risen class, that seems to be speaking in him. The insults he is avenging and the enemies he is pulverizing are, as often, as not, his own.”

It is through Marx where Berlin’s ideas become clear. Berlin goes beyond the text to view Marx as a man rather than an icon. The words of Marx are reinterpreted as layers of insecurities rather than the confidence and omniscience the left has typically granted him. But through his analysis of Marx, Berlin breaks down his own third wall and shows his own insecurities. He brings to light his own contradictions and struggles. Upon a discussion of the relative indifference of Marx and Disraeli to their mothers, Berlin writes “What this shows about either I must leave to psychologists to consider” before he goes on to make a psychological profile of these two figures. He concludes his essay with the insight that the ideas of both figures “seem to spring from similar psychological roots.” But of course, he is not a psychologist.

Isaiah Berlin is surprisingly focused on what he is not rather than what he is. In his essay about Nationalism, he writes “I am neither a historian nor a social psychologist… I should merely like to throw out a suggestion…” Berlin referred to himself as a historian of ideas rather than a philosopher. Nobody quite knew what a historian of ideas was supposed to be. It came across as a demotion from his training in analytical philosophy, and yet, it is Isaiah Berlin who is remembered. In a letter to Sidney Morgenbesser as a response to a favorable review, Berlin confesses, “I cannot help believing some of the favorable things are true.” There is a confidence in Berlin’s ideas which are cloaked in doubts. It is his own identity which allows him to write “against the current” of the intellectual thought of his own day. In this manner, Against the Current refers to himself rather than the subjects of his book.

Berlin actively works to set himself apart from other philosophers to construct his own philosophy distinct from those around him. Like Disraeli, Berlin found ways to redefine himself in ways which were not entirely honest with himself at times. He imagines himself ostracized from philosophy, so he can develop a philosophy of his own. He writes about the ideas of others so he can express himself. And yet, there is a sincerity in his dishonesty such that he shares his secrets through a nod, a wink, and a smile. He strives to understand the identity of his subjects to understand their ideas, but in his analysis he leaves the reader to reflect upon Berlin, himself, to understand his own analysis.

This volume naturally concludes with an essay on Nationalism. It is through nationalism where the influence of identity becomes transparent in the ideas of writers. Berlin believes nationalism is “a response to a wound inflicted upon society” but recognizes “something more is needed – namely a new vision of society with which the wounded society… can identify themselves.” Nationalism becomes the culmination of Berlin’s emphasis on personal identity to give ideas meaning. And yet, Berlin does not conclude his essay in triumph. The volume of essays ends with a restatement of Berlin’s own limitations, “I must repeat that I am not a historian or a political scientist, and so do not claim to offer an explanation of this phenomenon.”

This remarkable volume of essays will leave the reader in deep reflection as they try to figure out whether they have learned more about the subjects of these essays or Isaiah Berlin himself. There is an evident humility which disguises his own sense of recognition of his powers. In the end, he claims that he does not want to reshape our thoughts on philosophy, nor does he want to solve fundamental social problems. Rather he is content “to pose a question, and indicate the need for greater attention.” But his questions reframe everything we thought we already knew and redefine what there is to learn.

jmk, carmel, indiana,

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