Yet while Berlin sometimes suggests that values are human creations,at other times he seems to advance what amounts almost to a theory ofnatural law, albeit in minimalist, empirical dress. In such cases hesuggests that there are certain unvarying features of human beings, asthey have been constituted throughout recorded history, that makecertain values important, or even necessary, to them. This view of theorigin of values also comes into play in Berlin’s defence of the valueof liberty, when he suggests that the freedom to think, to enquire andto imagine without constraint or fear is valuable because human beingsneed to be able to have such mental freedom; to deny it to them is adenial of their nature, which imposes an intolerable burden.
One of the main features of Berlin’s account of pluralism is theemphasis placed on the act of choosing between values. Pluralism holdsthat, in many cases, there is no single right answer. Berlin used thisas an argument for the importance of liberty—or, perhaps moreprecisely, an argument against the restriction of liberty in order toimpose the ‘right’ solution by force. Berlin also made alarger argument about making choices. Pluralism involves conflicts,and thus choices, not only between particular values in individualcases, but between ways of life. While Berlin seems to suggest thatindividuals have certain inherent traits—an individual nature,or character, which cannot be wholly altered or obscured—he alsoinsisted that they make decisions about who they will be and what theywill do. Choice is thus both an expression of an individualpersonality, and part of what makes that personality; it is essentialto the human self.
Apart from his better-known writings on liberty and pluralism,Berlin’s political thought centred on two topics: the nature ofpolitical judgement, and the ethics of political action. Berlinaddressed the former subject both directly and through his writings onindividual statesmen who embodied models of different sorts ofsuccessful political judgement (for these, see the portraits collectedin Berlin 1998, and Hanley 2004).
In the area of political philosophy, the most widespread controversyover pluralism concerns its relationship to liberalism. This debateoverlaps with that regarding pluralism’s relationship to relativism,to the extent that liberalism is regarded as resting on a belief incertain universal values and fundamental human rights, a belief whichrelativism undermines. However, there are some who maintain that,while pluralism is distinct from, and preferable to, relativism, it isnevertheless too radical and subversive to be reconciled to liberalism(or, conversely, that liberalism is too universalistic or absolutistto be compatible with pluralism). The main proponent of this view, whois more responsible than any other thinker for the emergence and widediscussion of this issue, is John Gray (see, especially, Gray 1995).Gray asserts that pluralism is true, that pluralism underminesliberalism, and that therefore liberalism, at least as it hastraditionally been conceived, should be abandoned.
Berlin’s emphasis on the subversive, liberating, anti-orthodox natureof philosophy was accompanied by a particular interest in moments ofradical change in the history of ideas, and in original and marginalthinkers, while his emphasis on the practical consequences of ideasled him to focus on those transformations and challenges which, in hisview, had wrought particularly decisive changes in people’s moral andpolitical consciousness, and in their behaviour. Finally, his concernwith the conflicts of his own day led him to concentrate mainly onmodern intellectual history, and to trace the emergence of certainideas that he regarded as particularly important, for good or ill, inthe contemporary world.
This account is subject to serious and plausible objections, on bothhistorical and conceptual grounds. But beyond the considerable debatesconcerning the conceptual validity and historical accuracy of Berlin’saccount (extensively documented in Harris 2002), there is considerablemisunderstanding of Berlin’s own attitudes to the concepts hediscussed, and of the goals of his lecture. Berlin has often beeninterpreted, not unreasonably, as a staunch enemy of the concept ofpositive liberty. But this was never wholly the case. Berlin regardedboth concepts of liberty as centring on valid claims about what isnecessary and good for human beings; both negative and positiveliberty were for him genuine values, which might in some cases clash,but in other cases could be combined and might even be mutuallyinterdependent. Indeed, Berlin’s own earlier articulations of hispolitical values included a notable component of positive libertyalongside negative liberty (see e.g., 2002b, 336–44). What Berlinattacked was the many ways in which positive liberty had been used tojustify the denial, betrayal or abandonment of both negative libertyand the truest forms of positive liberty itself. Berlin’s main targetswere not positive liberty as such, but the metaphysical orpsychological assumptions which, combined with the concept of positiveliberty, had led to its perversion: monism, and a metaphysical orcollective conception of the self. Two Concepts of Liberty,and Berlin’s liberalism, are therefore not based on championingnegative liberty against positive liberty, but on advocatingindividualism, empiricism and pluralism against collectivism, holism,rationalistic metaphysics and monism.
Berlin’s best-known contribution to political theory has been hisessay on the distinction between positive and negative liberty. Thisdistinction is explained, and the vast literature on it summarised,elsewhere in this encyclopaedia; the following therefore focuses onlyon Berlin’s original argument, which has often been misunderstood, inpart because of ambiguities in Berlin’s account.
Berlin’s insistence on the importance of the idea of free will, andthe incompatibility of consistent and thoroughgoing determinism withour basic sense of ourselves and our experience as human beings, wasclosely tied to his liberalism and pluralism, with their emphasis onthe importance, necessity and dignity of individual choice. Thisinsistence involved him in a number of fierce debates with otherphilosophers and historians in the 1950s and early 1960s, and helpedto provoke a spate of writing in the English-speaking world on thephilosophy of history, which might otherwise have languished.
Berlin had always been a liberal; but from the early 1950s the defenceof liberalism became central to his intellectual concerns. Thisdefence was, characteristically, closely related to his moral beliefsand to his preoccupation with the nature and role of values in humanlife. In his thinking about these issues Berlin would develop his ideaof value pluralism, which assumed prominence in his work in the 1960sand ’70s. In the early 1960s Berlin’s focus moved from the morepolitical concerns that occupied him in the 1950s to an examination ofthe nature of the human sciences. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s he wasworking on the history of ideas, and from the mid-1960s nearly all ofhis writings took the form of essays on this subject, particularly onthe romantic and reactionary critics of the Enlightenment.
Pluralism, then, for Berlin, represents an argument that bothundermines one of the main rationales for violating freedom of choice,and vindicates the importance and value of being able to make choices freely. Some interpreters have argued that Berlin’s vindication of thefreedom to choose, while it rests in part on his pluralism, alsorequires the addition of moral principles, ideals and assumptionsexternal to pluralism (though this need not, contra John Gray, meanthat pluralism is incompatible with, or necessary undermines,liberalism); while others (such as George Crowder) have argued thatBerlin’s liberalism can be deduced from his pluralism alone.
A new video series from the Institute for Humane Studies features McCloskey in conversation regarding gender freedom. A trailer for the series is embedded above, and you can watch the , , and episodes on the IHS's Learn Liberty website.
Isaiah Berlin (1909–97) was a British philosopher, historian ofideas, political theorist, educator and essayist. For much of his lifehe was renowned for his conversational brilliance, his defence ofliberalism, his attacks on political extremism and intellectualfanaticism, and his accessible, coruscating writings on the history ofideas. His essay Two Concepts of Liberty (1958) contributedto a revival of interest in political theory in the English-speakingworld, and remains one of the most influential and widely discussedtexts in that field: admirers and critics agree that Berlin’sdistinction between positive and negative liberty remains, for betteror worse, a basic starting-point for theoretical discussions of themeaning and value of political freedom. Late in his life, the greateravailability of Berlin’s numerous essays began to provoke increasingscholarly interest in his work, and particularly in the idea of valuepluralism; that Berlin’s articulation of value pluralism contains manyambiguities and even obscurities has only encouraged further work onthe subject by other philosophers.