Isaiah Berlin's letters

The third of four volumes of Isaiah Berlin's interesting and philosophical letters
June 19, 2013

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Building: Letters 1960-1975
by Isaiah Berlin (Chatto & Windus, £40)

In a 1967 letter to Arthur Schlesinger, Isaiah Berlin describes the “looks” directed towards him at a lunch in Oxford when the visiting Robert Kennedy had conveyed greetings from a mutual friend. “My colleagues…had always suspected that I moved in some social world not wholly identical with theirs.”

Many of the letters collected in this volume (the third of four) tend to confirm his colleagues’ suspicions. For example, in one short note to his wife sent from New Delhi, where he was attending a conference, Berlin says that he’d met the conductor George Solti on the plane and had “invited him vaguely to lunch” (one savours that “vaguely”). In another, he sends gushing thanks, from his suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, to Jacqueline Kennedy for an invitation to the White House (“the most memorable evening I have spent in the United States”).

Other letters, though, show a different side to Berlin: not the social gadfly or peripatetic star lecturer (much of this correspondence appears to have been composed in the air, as he flew from one visiting professorship to another), but the conscientious committee man (the title of this volume refers to the central role that Berlin played in the establishment of Wolfson College, Oxford). Students of his thought will find much of interest, too—especially the deepening of his interest in the thinkers of the German romantic counter-Enlightenment. “I have decided,” he writes to the philosopher Charles Taylor, “that Hamann is the man…”