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 Ernest Gellner / 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.