Book review: Isaiah Berlin’s “The Power of Ideas”

I picked up The Power of Ideas after Isaiah Berlin kept popping up in the cited sources of A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. It turns out it’s no coincidence that Taylor cites him so much; checking Taylor’s Wiki page, his doctoral advisor was Isaiah Berlin! I’ve encountered the name before, so I made sure to add him to my list of people I should probably know.

Taylor cites Berlin to support his argument of plurality of ideas, not only within society, but even within a single person– counter to some Enlightenment ideas of uniformity:

Modernity has invested deeply in the myth of the single, omnipotent code. But there are theorists, such as Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville, and in our century, Isaiah Berlin, who have recognized that we have to given our allegiance to more than one principle, and that those we essentially hold to are frequently in conflict.

He also cites Berlin as an example of a moral philosophy of self-authorization, the idea that your goals can be self-determined, rather than invoking God or some super-natural deity to direct your life:

Berlin invokes “the ideal of freedom to choose ends without claiming eternal validity for them”. He acknowledges that this was not recognized in the past, and may not be in the future, “but no sceptical conclusions seem to me to follow”.

Berlin dealt in the currency of ideas. As a historian of ideas, he tries to flesh out how they arise, how they impact history, and how they change over time. You learn throughout the pages of his book that there is a sharp divide among philosophers about how ideas operate in history. Berlin takes the side that ideas have power, and that they have causative effects. Ideas come first. On the other side is Marx and other determinists, who believe that ideas are shaped by the environment, by economic conditions, by necessity. Ideas are post-hoc justifications by people in power to justify their power over others. It removes the idea that truth can really be attained, because philosophy itself is just a series of power plays.

The collection is pretty eclectic: some give you a broad swath of ideas, including a history of the Enlightenment and a history of Romanticism. Others are very specific, for instance, his sketch of Giambattista Vico, an Italian philosopher whom Berlin credits with the invention of the history of thought:

What was his discovery? The heart of it is this: that men were able to understand their own history in a fashion different from and, in Vico’s view, superior to that in which they understood the works of nature; and, as a corollary of this, that to understand something, and not merely to be able to describe it, or analyze it into component parts, was to understand how it came into being– its genesis, its growth– and that its essence consists in coming to be what it is; in short, that true understanding is always genetic, and, in the case of men and their works, always historical, not timeless, and not analytic.

It sounds like he was a bit of a hero for Berlin, even if he isn’t well-known today. You get into some niche areas as well, including the personalities behind Russian Communism (it’s actually not Lenin; he credits Plekhanov as the father of Russian Marxism) and some insights into the founding of the state of Israel.

I’ll just give a few of my favorite ideas, since it’s hard to focus on any one topic. I really liked his insights into Romanticism. I have studied Romanticism before, and I consider myself a bit of a Romantic myself, in the pattern of C. S. Lewis and his idea of Sehnsucht which he describes in The Pilgrim’s Regress:

The experience is one of intense longing. It is distinguished from other longings by two things. In the first place, though the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight. Other desires are felt as pleasures only if satisfaction is expected in the near future: hunger is pleasant only while we know (or believe) that we are soon going to eat. But this desire, even when there is no hope of possible satisfaction, continues to be prized, and even to be preferred to anything else in the world, by those who have once felt it…In the second place, there is a peculiar mystery about the object of this Desire. Inexperienced people (and inattention leaves some inexperienced all their lives) suppose, when they feel it, that they know what they are desiring. Thus if it comes to a child while he is looking at a far off hillside he at once thinks ‘if only I were there’; if it comes when he is remembering some event in the past, he thinks ‘if only I could go back to those days’.

Berlin seems to uncover some ambiguity in Romanticism:

[Romanticism came with a] new emphasis on the subjective and ideal rather than the objective and the real, on the process of creation rather than its effects, on motives rather than consequences; and, as a necessary corollary of this, on the quality of the vision, the state of mind or soul of the acting agent– purity of heart, innocence of intention, sincerity of purpose rather than getting the answer right, that is accurate correspondence to the ‘given.’… the celebration of all forms of defiance directed against the ‘given’– the impersonal, the ‘brute fact’ in morals or in politics– or against the static and the accepted, and the value placed on minorities and martyrs as such, no matter what the ideal for which they suffer

To me, this sounded like our current state of affairs in politics is a rather Romantic mood. You could easily pick a set of these as defining social justice warriors or the new wave socialists out in politics (I couldn’t help but think of AOC’s statement that I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right and I can imagine Ben Shapiro shooting back Facts don’t care about your feelings.) I think we should be concerned when sincerity of purpose is considered of more value or weight than facts. You can get into a lot of trouble when leaders are making decisions in total ignorance of the facts, or choosing to ignore facts. Of course, there’s the opposite extreme where you have all facts but no moral compass. Either way, both have led to historical atrocities. Pick your poison. We need balance.

He has another interesting piece The Search for Status that argues that when many marginalized groups are fighting for “liberty” they are actually fighting for “status.” He argues that throwing the word “liberty” around willy nilly is irresponsible, and we should be careful including all sorts of ideas under it. Here’s the opening line:

We often speak of demands for liberty made by oppressed classes or nationalities. But it is not always individual freedom, nor even individual equity, that they primarily want. What they aspire to is not simply unhampered liberty of action for their members, nor, above everything else, equality of social or economic opportunity, still less assignment of a secure and carefully determined place in a frictionless, organic, ‘monolithic’ State devised by the rational lawgiver. What they want, as often as not, is simply recognition– of their class or nation, or colour or race– as an independent source of human activity, as an entity with a will of its own, intending to act in accordance with it (whether it is good, or legitimate, or not), and not to be ruled, educated, guided, with however light a hand, as being not quite fully human, and therefore not quite fully free.

Interesting argument, and I do think that traditional definitions of freedom are as valued today. It reminded me of Jonathan Haidt’s (and Thomas Sowell’s) discussion of the different between procedural justice and distributive justice in The Coddling of the American Mind, though they don’t totally align. While Twitter and Facebook didn’t exist in Isaiah Berlin’s day, this essay seemed eerily appropriate in an era of virtue signalling.

A great series of essays. Isaiah Berlin was a great mind. He’s fairly accessible for an academic. Like his graduate student Charles Taylor, Berlin is very nuanced in his approach: he doesn’t dismiss counter-arguments, but rather seeks to engage them. He pulls out a variety of topics that you may not have thought before. I left feeling bad that I don’t know Russian, because I would love to read everything by the 19th century Russian intelligentsia.

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