Isaiah Berlin-sloppy thinker?

I’ve decided to move my blog over to WordPress, since it seems to have more editing options and users. Those interested in the older posts will have to read them at

The Chronicle has published a story on Isaiah Berlin, whose legacy has been a popular subject recently. As one of the 20th century’s foremost liberal thinkers (alongside Rawls and Popper) and master of the essay form, Berlin deserves recognition. His work on Russian thought went far to popularize the subject in Europe and America at a time barely anyone was writing on it. Yet as this essay points out, Berlin was also something of an intellectual posturer, trading accuracy for style and rhetoric. Too often he was also unwilling to engage thinkers on their own terms–for example, his essay on Rousseau in Freedom and Its Betrayal is particularly bad (although to be fair, it is a transcribed radio address.) The lecture on de Maistre in the same volume is almost identical to an essay written some three decades later and included in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, shows a certain laziness to delve deeply into a subject or reevaluate his thoughts once they had been made. The fact that he never put out extended monographs at a time when the essay was in decline as an academic way of writing also negatively affects his legacy.

All this makes Berlin a frustrating thinker to deal with. Reading him today, the contrast between his wide-ranging knowledge and occasional brilliant moments of insight, on one hand, and  the shallowness of his analysis on the other, becomes ever more apparent.


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