Liberalism has become the world's dominant political theory but its philosophical foundations remain uncertain. Ernest Gellner unravels the flaws in the work of Isaiah Berlin, the champion of modern liberalismby / November 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in November 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing. Isaiah Berlin has preached the virtues of the fox so long, so persistently and so coherently, that he has become the veritable hedgehog of foxiness. He seems possessed by a single dominating idea-that we should not have single dominating ideas. In his view, the system of human values has no all-embracing, unifying apex, which could constitute a kind of final court of appeal for deciding all issues. Thinkers have pursued such a philosopher’s stone, but the quest is in vain. If Tolstoy was a fox trying to be a hedgehog, then Berlin would seem to be a hedgehog striving to be a fox. There is an ultimate key to our condition: it is foxiness, the absence of ultimate keys.
Still, in his own writings, the tendency towards rotund digression camouflages the single-minded preoccupation with the virtues of the fox. Berlin is a relaxed writer, and if a deep tension is inherent in his central theme, a reader might be forgiven for not noticing it. But this is not in the least true of John Gray’s exposition of his views in Isaiah Berlin (Harper Collins, 1995). Gray passionately pursues what is virtually a single theme: can the acceptance of a plurality of rival-or incommensurate-values be consistent with liberalism? Gray enters into Berlin’s system of ideas, identifies with it, and lives out its tensions. He is so involved in the problems which haunt Berlin’s thought, that he pursues them with a determination which is less conspicuous in Berlin’s own leisurely, one might say blas?, style.
Gray alludes to Berlin’s triple heritage-Jewish, Russian, English. My own impression is that the three Berlins barely, if at all, speak to each other, and that they might find each other on occasion unintelligible and less than comme il faut. The Jewish one, not surprisingly, is imbued with a sense of tragedy. The Russian one-laudably and becomingly-stands for moderation and doubt in a culture which could well do with a bit more of these traits (Turgenev not Dostoevsky). The English one is somewhat too inclined to endorse a complacency which marred the philosophy of the immediate post-war period, with which Berlin was closely connected.
So the Berlin who emerges from Gray’s intellectual portrait is rather more coherent and hedgehogy, and much more perturbed by the problems of his own position, and far more persistent in seeking an answer to them, than the original. Gray’s point is that “all of Berlin’s work is animated by a single idea of enormous subversive force.” The idea is, of course, that insight of the fox. Gray acclaims Berlin as the source of a new and superior kind of liberalism, trumping conventional liberalisms because it acknowledges a plurality of conflicting values. It is only fair to stress that this very large claim is made by Gray on behalf of his subject without, to the best of my knowledge, any endorsement by its beneficiary.
It is important to place Berlin in the context of the thought of his time. Gray tries to dissociate him from the linguistic philosophers of post-war Oxford, such as J. L. Austin, but here Gray is mistaken. Gray himself quotes a lengthy passage from Berlin which is pure linguistic philosophy. Berlin denounces and indeed “exposes” what he calls “a false theory of meaning,” which would have an ultimately homogeneous universe reflected in an ultimately homogeneous language. Wittgenstein had taught that language could only be understood by a fox and that the mistake of all past philosophers was that they were all linguistic hedgehogs. Though this mistake was one about language, like some computer virus it spread everywhere and infected everything. The unmasking of this alleged error was enthusiastically acclaimed by Oxford post-war philosophy as the key to the dissolution of philosophical problems.
But if indeed this was philosophy, could there be any room for political thought? Apparently not if there is only room for the elimination of illusions engendered by language. The valid intellectual residue then is common sense, not principle-and certainly never revolutionary principle. Evidently this vision of language and its relation to thought is one of the sources, or at least supports, of Berlin’s pluralism. But its absurdity is quite specially conspicuous in politics.
Had people really fought on barricades, committed tyrannicide, plotted revolutions, theorised passionately about constitutions, denounced past ancien r?gimes, simply because they failed to understand the nature of language and its multiple, plural roles? Could the English, American, French and Russian revolutions all have been avoided, if only Wittgenstein had lived and written a bit sooner. Could he not have explained to all those people that there was nothing to get hot under the collar about, once you understood that language had many incommensurate forms, that we can only describe but not justify our custom, so that it can never be abrogated in the name of Reason? Should rioting mobs be read, not the Riot Act, but suitable passages from the work of Wittgenstein?
Isaiah Berlin found a way, of sorts, out of this little difficulty. Political philosophy was not to be exactly dead, but not too embarrassingly alive either. It would now be the study of the history of ideas, and the ideas under investigation would not be doomed a priori to a merely local validity; it would just so happen that in practice political philosophy would never interfere with anything much. It might ask you to cool it, so to speak.
If the central fact of the human condition is the plurality of incommensurate values, as Berlin argues, then theorists of the past can be excoriated for the failure to see this, a mistake built right into their basic strategy: the pursuit of an all-embracing political truth (Plato, Kant, indeed the great tradition of western thought). Perhaps they can also be blamed for totalitarianism into the bargain, which was a consequence of such moral monism. Alternatively, they too affirmed this central idea of pluralism, and so, though intellectually sound, they were ipso facto deprived of the possibility of excessive interference in the real world.
Berlin actually did identify predecessors of this perception (though some, it seems, were ambivalent in articulating it): Machiavelli, Vico, Herder, Tolstoy, all of whom come out looking suspiciously alike-Niccolo Berlini, Gianbattista Berlino, Johann Gottfried Berliner, and Lev Nicolaievich Berlinov. A minor problem for Gray the expositor is how this central idea can both be original and yet also possess that powerful quartet (at least) of predecessors. More serious is the question: is the claim that values are incommensurate really so original? Were the heroes of Greek drama, for instance, strangers to the idea of an irresoluble conflict of values? Did Antigone not experience the clash of obligation to kin and to the state?
In more recent times, Gray fails to mention others who had made the same point, perhaps mit ein bisschen anderen W?rten, for instance William James or Raymond Aron. He does mention Max Weber, in a truly preposterous manner: it’s admitted that Weber knew about “irreconcilable values,” but Weber is then reprimanded for failing to give “any account of the sources of such clashes… in conflict between different cultural forms.” This must be one of the most bizarre charges ever made, and it can only mean that Gray has never read Weber. Weber’s justified fame rests precisely on the unrivalled richness of his exploration of different cultural forms, which underlie the diversity of values. He didn’t merely talk about warring gods, he explored them with unequalled depth. All this is highly relevant, in as far as one of the crucial criticisms which can be made of Berlin’s formulation of the rival-gods problem is precisely its sociological thinness, its abstract-philosophical formulation.
Whose views exactly are being challenged by this claim about inherently contested values? Who exactly was guilty of the contrary assumption of an ultimate rational harmony? Hegel, no doubt: his view of history was that, in the end, all cakes are to be both retained and consumed. This is known as Aufhebung. The great diversity of cultures and political systems all contribute to and are parts of a master plan, they were parts of a cumulative and well-directed Grand Series, and thus all of them are justified in their way, all of them contribute their little bit, and a little of each of them (the best bit) survives in the final grand synthesis, a kind of zuppa inglese of values. Marx, though he did not systematically expound his ideas on this point, seems to have taken over this illusion: all values, all life styles would, it seems, co-exist under communism, without giving any rise to problems of co-ordination. The only indication he gives of communist social organisation is that it would be a kind of bohemian mega-commune, free of any time-tabling and Spiessb?rger punctuality, with optional and changeable roles available to all participants. For some unexplained reason, these unconstrained, fancy-free individuals, following freely chosen roles, would never get in each other’s way. Agriculturalists, pastoralists, fishermen and critics would all go their own way, following their whims, but none of them would wish to plough where the other wished to graze, or compete for space in the available critical journals.
Hegelians and their Marxist progeny are not the only candidates for being charged with pernicious hedgehog, value-harmonising views. The utilitarians, simply by proposing a single measure of value (happiness, pleasure) and through their calculus of satisfaction, were committed to the view that, at least, there was an optimal point in any problem situation, a solution which identified the point of the least evil. Reason might not allow us, as Hegel did, to consume and retain all cakes, but it could at least indicate the optimal cake-enjoyment point.
It seems to me that the many thinkers who accepted the claims of reason, in the sense of supposing it capable of supplying a unique and cogent answer, did so not because they failed to notice that values conflicted and were mutually incompatible, but, more simply, because they thought that nevertheless, some values were valid and others invalid. Recognition of conflict as such is nothing new: the novelty lies only in the vigorous affirmation of the finality of this situation. But the affirmation of “incommensurate values” is relativism, presented in different and more innocuous words. The existence of conflict between values is simply a fact; but incommensurability is a theory, and the theory is relativism. The word incapsulates a theory about the universe, namely that, contrary to the views of Christians, Platonists, Kantians, Utilitarians, Marxists and others, there is no supreme value or principle which could legitimately adjudicate between rival values. The originality of the position, if it obtains at all, can only lie in the affirmation of relativism, of an irreducible and terminal diversity.
It is a relativism which dares not speak its name. There is much to support it. For instance, there is no way of assessing externally the benefits and losses of modernity, of the transition from honour to interest, from the values of Burke or Carlyle to those of John Stuart Mill or Bertrand Russell. For instance, did the Russian peasant gain or lose by becoming a literate urban-dweller? Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn give markedly opposed answers to this question, and neither of them can easily be ignored.
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Gray’s dislike of Berlin being called a relativist leads him to abuse Leo Strauss as endowed with “characteristic obtuseness and perversity.” Clearly I am guilty of the very same perversity and obtuseness, for everything Gray says, convincingly and in the main eloquently, about Berlin’s position, makes clear that it is a form of relativism. The avoidance of the supposed stigmata of relativism is achieved only by presenting the position as the recognition of an objective truth- the fact that we experience conflicts of values between which there is no moral bridge. But this is just verbal juggling. The incommensurateness thesis is not dictated by facts. It is a theoretical position adopted vis-? -vis the facts.
In effect, not only does Gray characterise Berlin as a relativist, while avoiding the word and denying the imputation, he struggles passionately with the problem which the re-named or camouflaged relativism engenders. The truth of the plurality of incommensurate values might perhaps help liberty, by showing that no values must be imposed on anyone. Alas, this won’t work, for this position must also allow illiberal values their place in the sun. This is the basic trouble with the initially tempting idea of enlisting incommensurateness on the side of tolerance: the values and visions endorsed by the procedure also include total and intolerant ones, which are neither inconspicuous nor unimportant in history. In the end, in a passage in which, characteristically, eloquence tries to plug the hole left by lack of arguments, Gray settles for a liberalism devoid of foundations. There is an anguished, un-complacent quality about this part of Gray’s argument which I find endearing. He can’t get out of the tangle but it is a good sign that he tries so hard.
Relativism deprives us of the means-indeed of the right-to express deep revulsion. Given those incommensurates, how do you cope with societies which contain slavery, gulags, female circumcision, or gas chambers, and whose apologists might well invoke that deep pluralism? The right to female circumcision is on occasion demanded by its victims, for the practice does fulfil their values: as good an example of incommensurate values as you’ll ever find.
Ultimately, Gray’s manner of dealing with the problem of truly repugnant societies is shallow. We may have plural and conflicting values, but, says he, there is an inner core of values which is shared by us all, or very nearly so; and societies in which, for instance, “some human beings have the status of chattels,” can be condemned without worrying about incommensurability, thanks to that “minimum content of core human values.” So we can exempt slavery, gulags and gas chambers because nearly all mankind does so, or because, though values may be incommensurate, nevertheless these practices violate these possibly conflicting values.
All this is worthless: it has never been established, nor is it plausible, that some global plebiscite really would condemn these practices by a convincing majority (would we vote as individuals or as cultures, and who would decide the electoral units?). In fact, the number of societies permitting slavery or similar abominations is quite high, so that the claim to exclude them by a pan-human consensus is absurd. Nor could one accept the idea that the views of minorities in this global value-referendum should be damned. Still less is it the case that these practices violate all values, and for that reason cannot benefit from the argument from the legitimacy of incommensurate values. Is Aristotle to be excluded from that Oecumenical Constituent Assembly (convened, presumably, by Unesco) which will draw up the Charter of Universal Consensual Values? Those who practiced these things also invoked certain values, whether or not we share them. Racial purity, stability, an inherent ranking of human types, the maintenance of a warrior ethic, progress or excellence through competition, the protection of the Revolution from its enemies, the implementation of the eternal Word of God and so on. They are not my values, but they are values, and once you have deprived yourself of the means of damning values, in the name of their incommensurateness, you have to face the logical consequences. Plebiscites certainly won’t help you.
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Like other relativists, Berlin grants himself a non-relativistic meta-theory: the relativism is the public face presented on stage, but behind the scenes, values are in fact ranked according to merit. Apparently, incommensurateness prevails, but backstage Berlin allows himself a positive and general political theory. Just because values are plural and incommensurate, Berlin recommends politics of compromise and balance. This is a most commendable piece of advice-and I for one am happy to follow and advocate it. But is it exempt from that pluralism of incommensurate (hence equal) values which is at the base of everything? If it is not exempt, then who is to stop religious fundamentalists from finding compromise on religious principle unacceptable? If it is exempt, then what happens to the theory itself? This criticism has already been made by Perry Anderson, as Gray rightly points out, but it is fundamental and deserves to be repeated.
Gray has placed Berlin in the context of the history of abstract thought. The fate of liberty, it sometimes seems, depends on the quality of arguments deployed in the philosophical journals. So far, on the whole, I have followed Gray’s conventions in this matter. But as Gray makes large claims for Berlin as a prophet of a new liberalism, it is also appropriate to see Berlin against the backcloth of the real world.
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In this century, the fate of liberty has been rather strange. It seemed to be doing well at the beginning of the century. Then, a terrible trough: the catastrophe of the first world war, the reaction of left and right anti-liberalism; a very close-run war with right illiberalism, followed by a conquest of half Europe by left illiberalism. And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, back to square one: a Whig theory of world history seems plausible after all, liberty is winning. Providentially, the world seems constructed in a manner which favours freedom. Some have concluded from this that history is at an end (Berlin’s Oxford colleagues thought it had never happened), and that from now on, mankind and freedom will live with each other, happily ever after.
I do not share this complacent optimism. Liberty has gained its victory, in contemporary history, thanks to the economic and hence military effectiveness of liberal societies. To put it brutally, it has ridden to victory on the back of consumerism. Shopkeepers and pluralists repeatedly beat warriors and true believers. Thank God for that. So long as the shopkeepers, allied henceforth to speculators and promoters, and perhaps fixers and mafiosi, and others, keep winning, and so long as the logic of their internal situation keeps them in turn politically tolerant (whether or not they are also familiar with warring gods), well and good.
But it would be folly to be confident that all this must necessarily continue. We have been very lucky, but we should not assume too complacently that our luck will hold. There are dangers ahead for our affluence-sustained liberty. I can think of at least eight of these.
First, government by growth cannot go on forever, although it will go on for a time. It has enabled countries capable of attaining growth to be liberal and at the same time maintain order, without the traditional, and perhaps unavoidably brutal methods. But saturation point must be reached eventually, when the washing-machine will no longer deputise for the executioner as the foundation of social order. Second, although mildly powerful technology aids liberty, a very powerful one may turn out to be its enemy. Third, late practitioners of industrialisation, and late industrialism generally, may no longer be conducive to that individualism which was indeed linked to early industrialism. Fourth, the extension of technology to the human field, if it does come about, may re-introduce extreme forms of inequality, for instance, by making it possible to purchase health and longevity at a high price. This in turn may undermine the affluence-induced attenuation of social conflict. Of course it would also enormously enrich the police armoury. Fifth, advanced industrialism both stimulates nationalism and yet also thwarts it by engendering massive labour migrations, thereby causing tensions which may not be contained by liberal methods. Sixth, a free market in incommensurate values, none of them socially or doctrinally underwritten, may produce an intolerable moral vacuum. Seventh, societies reaching late industrialism not from a pre-industrial traditional society, but from the ruins of a centralised “socialist” system, may in some cases be incapable of reaching even that logically incoherent but socially viable compromise which marks consumerist liberalism. Such societies may decline into criminalisation or neo-authoritarianism or worse, and be socially infectious. Finally, liberty in modern Europe was sustained by the multi-state system: authoritarianism never prevailed everywhere at the same time, liberty had its boltholes and could survive and then re-conquer. Modern technology, through the ecological and terrorist dangers it brings along, may necessitate the termination of political plurality. All liberal eggs may then be in the same political basket. Liberty will then lose its insurance through multi-basket distribution.
It behoves us to think of these dangers. Does Berlin help us? One should expect some help from an important, innovative prophet of liberalism. I very much agree with Berlin-or Berlin as presented by Gray-that his hard-nosed liberalism, based on a more perceptive account of our difficult moral situation, and perhaps inspired by an intimate experience of divergent cultures, is greatly superior to the illusions of what I call the Mayflower school (John Rawls, and others, who argue in a similar idiom, even if they do not reach the same conclusions).
Passengers on the Mayflower, when not sea-sick, worked out the charter of their new society, and this school uses a similar method. Its members suppose they can excogitate justice by stripping us naked of our cultural and personal attributes (“the veil of ignorance”) and then arguing from the residual naked being, held to exemplify human nature an sich, and secure a uniquely determined answer.
Incommensurate values appear to be so alien to the thought or experience of members of this school, that they blithely indulge in a mode of reasoning which assumes that it simply does not exist. These thinkers live, socially speaking, in the same world as Berlin, but one can only assume that the incommensurateness of his world and theirs has prevented them from genuinely communicating. This appears to be the most active school of current neo-liberalism. Without any doubt, Berlin’s “agonistic liberalism” is greatly superior to it.
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But something is still missing-a number of things, in fact. Berlin’s liberalism does take into account the contribution of doubt fed by diversity and conflict, but not the importance of objectivity. The possibility of criticism of a social and political order is an essential ingredient of liberty, but it doesn’t make sense unless it is accepted that independent criteria are at least thinkable. A society which is merely a “plural” congeries of styles and values cannot criticise any part of itself. Such was perhaps the condition of “pre-axial” societies, prior to the emergence of world religions. Modern liberty differs from its ancient predecessor not merely because it stresses individual freedom over collective self-rule: it also includes the notion of trans-ethnic or trans-political truth, which is not simply engendered by a culture and its practices. This absolutely essential element is missing from the liberal vision which is presented in Gray’s volume.
The other missing element is some kind of hard, concrete sense of the social context of liberal practices, such as is found, for instance, in the work of Max Weber, so bizarrely misrepresented by Gray in his book. Berlin has always been somewhat dismissive of sociology. But it is sensible to try to look at what happens to liberty in the real world.
Can liberty really be at the mercy of extremely abstruse and difficult arguments such as those found in Gray’s book, which a professional don such as myself follows only with considerable difficulty (and sometimes not at all)? This book gives the impression that the fate of liberty is decided only in the realm of thought, and of a rather selective history of thought at that. Should we not also look at some more earthy matters? If, at one end, this philosophy is insufficiently preoccupied with transcendence and objectivity, then, at the other end, it is far too ethereal, it gives the impression that the history of ideas is everything, or very nearly, and that non-intellectual constraints need not concern us.
But Gray does make a perceptive remark when he observes that some of Berlin’s views can be put in the jargon of post-modernism. There does, indeed, seem to be an overlap between “agonistic liberalism” and the wilder shores of current relativistic and subjectivistic fashion. The styles may be miles apart: the antinomian post-modernist may preach that worlds are “socially constructed,” so as to give them something to “de-construct.” Their relativism is in part a form of expiation for the sins of imperial domination. Berlin’s relativism, presented as the recognition of incommensurateness, is not (so far as I know) presented as a form of expiation for anything, but as the lucid recognition of the human condition. However, in Gray’s exposition, this insight is haunted by the perception that what is sauce for the liberal goose is sauce for the illiberal gander.There are too many unwelcome beneficiaries at the feast, and attempts to exclude them only end in a logical mess. So, while the roots of post-modernism and agonistic liberalism may differ, Gray is right to point to the connection. Perhaps we might call Berlin the Savile Row post-modernist.