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Berlin, Isaiah (1909–97)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD009-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 22, 2024, from

Article Summary

Berlin said that he decided about 1945 to give up philosophy, in which he had worked up to that time, in favour of the history of ideas. Some of his best-known work certainly belongs to the history of ideas, but he continued in fact both to write philosophy and to pursue philosophical questions in his historical work.

His main philosophical contributions are to political philosophy and specifically to the theory of liberalism. He emphasizes a distinction between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ concepts of liberty: the former is a Hobbesian idea of absence of constraint or obstacle, while the latter is identified with a notion of moral self-government, expressed for instance in Rousseau, which Berlin finds politically threatening. His anti-utopian approach to politics is expressed also in his view that values necessarily conflict; this irreducible ‘value pluralism’ may be his most original contribution to philosophy, though advances it through example and historical illustration rather than in semantic or epistemological terms. He also expresses himself against necessitarian interpretations of history, and in favour of an anti-determinist conception of free will.

Citing this article:
Williams, Bernard. Berlin, Isaiah (1909–97), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD009-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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