Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas
by Isaiah Berlin
Viking Press, 394 pp., $16.95
Edmund Wilson once described Isaiah Berlin as “an extraordinary Oxford don, who left Russia at the age of eight and has a sort of double Russian-and-British personality. The combination is uncanny but fascinating.” But even these words from such a usually restrained source fail to do justice to the variety of gifts of this civilized and widely admired man who at one time or another has been a philosopher, a political theorist, an acute practical analyst of American and European politics, a historian of ideas, a biographer of Marx and translator of Turgenev, an active and influential participant in Jewish affairs, a long-time director of the Royal Opera House, founder of Wolfson College at Oxford, and President of the British Academy. Those who have been in his presence have witnessed his intellectual gaiety; he is a man of universal learning, a justly celebrated conversationalist, a man who inexhaustibly enlarges the lives of his colleagues, his students, his friends.
The four volumes of Isaiah Berlin’s collected essays and other writings that are currently appearing under the editorship of Henry Hardy should dispel the persistent myth that he has not found much time for scholarly writing among his many activities and that his work consists largely of critical and fragmentary occasional pieces that have no collective shape and express no single point of view.1 Berlin, as these volumes show, is a highly imaginative philosopher and historian of ideas who has repeatedly reminded us not to underestimate the influence of abstract ideas in human affairs, however harmless such ideas may appear when detached from their historical settings and microscopically analyzed by philosophers. He has reminded us that we cannot live without explaining the world to ourselves; that such explanations always rest on a conception of what is and can be; that whether we know it or not, insofar as we care about ideas at all, we are all participants in debates once familiar only to coteries of intellectuals.
Berlin sees his task as one of contributing to our self-knowledge by exhuming, clarifying, and criticizing the main ideas and values that lie behind our current conceptions of ourselves—of understanding historically whence we came, and how we came to be where we are now, thereby diminishing the dangers of being at the mercy of unexamined beliefs. This task requires rare psychological sensitivity, the capacity to enter into the consciousness of men far removed in space and time, and Berlin discharges it with grace and skill in the essays in the history of ideas collected in Against the Current.
In these portraits of thinkers from Machiavelli to Sorel he displays the powers of exposition, analysis, and lucidity familiar to readers of his other work. Berlin’s essays are neither chronicles nor exegetical exercises: he approaches ideas as incarnated in the men who conceived them; his subjects are never mere vehicles. Berlin is thoroughly at home with ideas in their personal and emotional, social or cultural embodiments—whether his subject is a humorless and fanatical reactionary like Joseph de Maistre or a fastidious dandy like Benjamin Disraeli, he manages to achieve an astonishing directness of contact with it.
His intellectual preoccupations and unparalleled gifts of imaginative reconstruction are brought together in these essays on men who dissented from shallow views of human nature: the ambiguous Machiavelli, the heroic and profound scholar Vico, the celebrated savant Montesquieu, as well as lesser known men, eccentric fanatics like Georges Sorel and J.G. Hamann, and the gentle visionary Moses Hess. Berlin, who has himself often stood apart from or against the fashionable trends of his own time, appreciates how all these men were treated by their contemporaries, more often than not, as “immovable, isolated rocks with their absurd appearance of seeking to arrest or deflect the central current.” All of them struggled with, or timidly grasped, or celebrated human freedom and the diversity of human values and patterns of life.
According to Isaiah Berlin, one of the deepest assumptions of Western political thought, found in Plato and scarcely questioned since, is “the conviction that there exist true, immutable, universal, timeless objective values, valid for all men, everywhere, at all times; that these values are at least in principle realizable, whether or not human beings are, or have been, or ever will be, capable of realizing them on earth; that these values form a coherent system, a harmony which, conceived in social terms, constitutes the perfect society.”
We may desire, for example, both expensive missiles to protect “national security” and freedom from burdensome taxation; an excellent secondary educational system for all but not an admissions policy which overlooks merit or the effects of past discrimination; equal rights for all but not unwanted, neighbors. These conflicting sentiments are expressions of more abstract values we prize—justice, freedom, happiness, security, loyalty. It is a common conviction (or hope) that these conflicts are apparent, that our various values can be somehow harmoniously realized—or at least ranked in importance—perhaps by the efforts of some especially clever thinker, a politician or religious savior or sociologist, or by the use of some method, scientific or philosophical, or by some technological invention.
This conviction is familiar enough, but is it true? Berlin thinks that it is not, and his criticism of it is expressed—as so often in his work—through inspection of the ideas of the historical figures he believes were especially prominent in undermining it. His essay on Machiavelli is an eloquent portrait of a man who questioned this psychologically attractive doctrine in uncompromising fashion. As Berlin claims, “it is this rock, upon which Western beliefs and lives had been founded, that Machiavelli seems, in effect, to have split open.” (“The Originality of Machiavelli”)
In Berlin’s view Machiavelli’s central aim was to provide a set of therapeutic maxims designed to help the statesman in restoring Italy to a position of security and stability, vigor and magnificence, to create “a state conceived after the analogy of Periclean Athens, or Sparta, but above all the Roman Republic.” To do so, the statesman must be realistic, “pagan”: he must be prepared to use terrible measures to ensure the general good, be willing to kill the innocent to create a show of strength, to deceive and betray and falsify. Once he has embarked on the course of transforming a diseased society, he cannot be squeamish. As Berlin expresses Machiavelli’s point,
to be a physician is to be a professional, ready to burn, to cauterise, to amputate; if that is what the disease requires, then to stop half-way because of personal qualms, or some rule unrelated to your art or technique, is a sign of muddle and weakness, and will always give you the worst of both worlds.
The code of behavior the statesman must apply is not a game of skill unconnected with morality but a new ethic concerned exclusively with the good of all, with public, not personal, morality—and certainly not with the popular Christian personal morality of Machiavelli’s time, which dictated humility, kindness, compassion, sanctity, and the quest for salvation in personal life.
Berlin finds much to criticize in Machiavelli’s thought: “His human beings have so little inner life or capacity for cooperation or social solidarity that, as in the case of Hobbes’s not dissimilar creatures, it is difficult to see how they could develop enough reciprocal confidence to create a lasting social whole, even under the perpetual shadow of carefully regulated violence.” But Machiavelli’s “vision of the great prince playing upon human beings like an instrument” with the aid of a novel morality condoning murder, hypocrisy, and fraudulence raises a disturbing question which Berlin regards as “the nodal point of Machiavelli’s entire conception.” Can these different moralities—the public “paganism” of the prince and the personal ethics of the Christian—be held by the same man at the same time?
Berlin believes that Machiavelli rightly held the two moralities to be not merely in practice but in principle incompatible. He thus posed a problem of choice: “one can save one’s soul, or one can found or maintain, or serve a great and glorious state; but not always both at once.” Two moralities, two sets of virtues, two ethical worlds—with no common ground—are in collision. Each is coherent and integral; we cannot have both. Machiavelli shocked his contemporaries (and many others since) by frankly renouncing Christian morality, but, Berlin claims, he did so “in favor of another system, another moral universe,” “a society geared to ends just as ultimate as the Christian faith, a society in which men fight and are ready to die for (public) ends which they pursue for their own sakes.”
Machiavelli’s problem of choice, Berlin suggests, has outlasted the specific conflict to which it was addressed and lives with us still, not merely in its obvious applications to such questions as the propriety of the conduct of our statesmen, or indeed any officials authorized to protect the public good, but more pervasively, in a wide variety of cases in which he claims we must, like Machiavelli’s men, choose between incompatible values.
Suppose, he has asked on another occasion, we were placed in charge of a hospital’s supply of kidney machines, costly machines vastly outnumbered by those who suffer from diseases from which they would provide relief: “If there is a great scientist who suffers from a kidney disease, should the only machine we have be reserved for him alone? Should we use the few machines we have for only gifted or important people who, in our view, confer a lot of benefit on society? If some child is dying whom the kidney machine might save, how do we decide between them?”2 In deciding, should we think only of the happiness of mankind and therefore reserve the machine for the scientist, who is more likely to confer greater benefits on humanity than the child? But then doesn’t this clash with the view that all human beings have certain fundamental rights, that we cannot grade lives in importance, that all have an equal claim to be saved? We must decide and yet what are we to do?
Berlin is careful to point out that this kind of conflict is not like the familiar ones we encounter in daily life; it is not like the business of adjusting the demands of work and leisure, or of choosing between a trip to the beach and remaining at home to watch a television program—a conflict that might be removed by having a television set one could take to the beach. The kind of choice in question is radically unlike that in common speech and thought, where we choose among different courses of action—what school to attend, what stock to invest in—with the help of stable, previously held values and standards: living near our families, getting the best return on our money. Such values serve as a secure basis for measuring the merits and demerits of the options.
In the dilemma posed by Machiavelli, we are dealing with a less familiar, more radical, kind of choice: there is no stable background of standards against which we can appraise the alternatives, no common criterion whereby a rational decision between them can be made. There are just the competing alternatives; we must somehow settle for one of them. As Berlin expresses it, such “choices must be made for no better reason than that each value is what it is, and we choose it for what it is, and not because it can be shown on some single scale to be higher than another.” No alteration of our circumstances, no new technology or scientific knowledge can remove such conflicts. “Whom shall I save, the scientist or the child?” is not a fact to be discovered but requires an action, a spiritual movement making one moral attitude to the problem ours—an “invention,” as Berlin puts it, obedient to no pre-existing rules. This radical kind of choice can be protracted and painful precisely because it concerns alternatives we care deeply about.
Machiavelli, says Berlin, “helped to cause men to become aware of the necessity of having to make agonizing choices between incompatible alternatives in public and private life (for the two could not, it became obvious, be genuinely kept distinct).” But, as this remark suggests, the “agony of choice” discovered by Machiavelli is double, not single: the moralities of the personal and public spheres of life are distinguishable; and they can collide. But a choice of the one affects the choice of the other. If we must have “dirty hands” in public life, we may find it impossible to remain Christians in personal life; if we are humble seekers of salvation in personal life, we may find it impossible to pursue the realization of the successful state. We are agonized in two ways: we must choose not merely what we are to consider virtuous in the personal sphere, but in the public sphere as well, and each of these very different kinds of choices inevitably will refer to the other.
And of course the same problem of choice arises within these spheres in addition to arising between them. We could well be forced, for example, to make the sort of choice described by Machiavelli as a part of public morality—to choose, for example, between values like freedom or security. Is not the man who is troubled whether taxation is compatible with individual liberty concerned with a problem of this kind? As for personal life, do we not face Machiavelli’s problem of choosing between incompatible values and ways of life when we ask ourselves whether we should become involved in social issues or “drop out”; whether we should devote our lives to active involvement in a consuming cause or to scholarly research; whether, like Gauguin, we should dismiss our responsibilities to our family and flee to an undisturbed paradise in order to cultivate our genius?3
As Berlin sums up, Machiavelli discovered that “ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that not merely in exceptional circumstances, as a result of abnormality or accident or error—the clash of Antigone and Creon or in the story of Tristan—but (this was surely new) as part of the normal human situation.”
If what Machiavelli wrote is true, “the idea of the sole, true, objective, universal human ideal crumbles. The very search for it becomes not merely Utopian in practice, but conceptually incoherent.” As Berlin interprets him, Machiavelli planted “a permanent question mark in the path of posterity” by his discovery of the diversity and incompatibility of human values—of “pluralism.”
These themes arise again and again, not merely in these essays, but throughout Berlin’s work. “If, as I believe,” he writes,
the ends of man are many and not all of them in principle compatible with each other, the possibility of conflict—and of tragedy—can never be wholly eliminated from human life, either personal or social. The necessity of choosing between a solute claims is then an inescapable characteristic of the human condition.4
These contentions are of immense importance for that branch of philosophy called “moral theory,” many of whose practitioners continue to seek ways to harmonize or systematically order our deepest values. Berlin nowhere, so far as we know, rashly claims that all systems of this kind are necessarily false. Nor, on the other hand, does he merely assert that some such systems have been false. In agreement with the fundamental insight of Machiavelli, Berlin views conflict among values as a permanent feature of life which no system or theory is likely to remove.
To reduce such conflict hastily and artificially by logical or theoretical means is for him a species of self-deception that could be dangerous; as he has written, the notion that “it is in principle possible to discover a harmonious pattern in which all values are reconciled…seems to me invalid, and at times to have led (and still to lead) to absurdities in theory and barbarous consequences in practice.”5
If the “permanent question mark in the path of posterity” planted by Machiavelli is closely scrutinized, important consequences for our conception of human beings seem to follow from it. If it is an “inescapable characteristic” of our lives that we make choices among absolute claims, choices that may have fruitful or ruinous consequences for human life, then are we not in some sense unconstrained, undetermined, “free”? And if so, then doesn’t this indicate an important fact about “human nature,” about man and his actions, individual or collective, past or present? Berlin’s essays on “The Counter-Enlightenment” and on Giambattista Vico explore the historical growth and consolidation of the “pluralist” insights he commends in Machiavelli as they were extended by other thinkers to address this question.
The eighteenth-century French Enlightenment philosophers—Voltaire, Diderot, Helvetius, Condorcet—further developed, according to Berlin, the “ancient and almost universal” philosophical doctrine of the harmony of human values by combining it with a theory of human nature and by invoking the promise of new “sciences of man”:
The central doctrines of the progressive French thinkers, whatever their disagreements among themselves, rested on the belief, rooted in the ancient doctrine of natural law, that human nature was fundamentally the same in all times and places; that local and historical variations were unimportant compared with the constant central core in terms of which, human beings could be defined as a species, like animals, or plants, or minerals….
It was further believed that methods similar to those of Newtonian physics, which had achieved such triumphs in the realm of inanimate nature, could be applied with equal success to the fields of ethics, politics and human relationships in general, in which little progress had been made; with the corollary that once this had been effected, it would sweep away irrational and oppressive legal systems and economic policies the replacement of which by the rule of reason would rescue men from political and moral injustice and misery and set them on the path of wisdom, happiness, and virtue. [“The Counter-Enlightenment”]
In other words, human nature is fixed and determined; underneath the apparent diversities of men lies an unchanging “nature,” endowed with identical needs, motives, values. On this view, Machiavelli must have been in error: ultimate ends could not be in conflict; they are identical throughout the “species” of man, for is it not true that all men seek the satisfaction of hunger and thirst, the realization of security, justice, happiness? If Mongols, Hottentots, and Semites ostensibly differ from Parisians, the Enlightenment thinkers held, the new sciences of man will show this to be a mere surface phenomenon. Human beings can be studied as ants or bees are; what can be applied with success to nature can be applied with equal success to human nature. Everything that exists on this view can be explained and possibly even predicted by general laws.
In opposition to this body of beliefs, a great stream of dissident thought evolved in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, reaching its most astonishing and virulent peak in the work of the German Romantics—J.G. Hamann, his pupil J.G. Herder, F.H. Jacobi, the Sturm und Drang poets, and their assorted idealist and irrationalist successors. These men, who form the core of what Berlin calls the “Counter Enlightenment,” protested the facile transfer of scientific methods from the inanimate realm to the human: could Newton’s methods for plotting the movements of the planets, they asked, explain the efforts of an original artist? Could mechanics or indeed any general scientific theory offer understanding of a moral dilemma, the aspirations of those touched by God, the radical choices performed by the free and creative self—in short, the complex inner life of the spirit? In the case of some of the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, like the eccentric Königsberg sage Hamann, the preoccupation with the inner life led them to demand the total destruction of Enlightenment values. In his essay on Hamann, Berlin vividly describes how that thinker violently attacked not merely the claim that science has something to say about human nature but its claim to do anything useful at all.
According to Berlin, Hamann saw analysis, classification, deduction, and system as “infantile” efforts to “confine the unconfinable”; nature, he thought, could not be caught by the simple nets put up by the French and English scientists. Hamann held that only the man who feels and loves, the artist and the poet, can fully understand nature: that faith in things unseen was the foundation of true knowledge; art or religion provide truth, not the “stuffed dummy” called “reason” which creates foolish rules—“walls of sand built to hold back the waves of an ocean”—and systems which ignore “the teeming variety of the living world, the untidy and asymmetrical inner lives of men, and crush them into conformity for the sake of some ideological chimera.”
Berlin writes, “No system, no elaborate construction of scientific generalities, will, in Hamann’s view, enable a man to understand what is conveyed by a gesture, a look, a style, or to understand a line of poetry, a painting, a vision, a spiritual condition, an état d’âme, a form of life.” Hamann’s challenge in his fulminations against the Enlightenment was, in Berlin’s words, “How dare these pathetic pedants impose on the vast world of continuous, fertile, unpredictable, divine creation their own narrow, dessicated categories?” (“Hume and the Sources of German Anti-Rationalism”)
Hamann’s celebration of natural variety and the free, rich, spontaneous patterns of the will and the inner life was shared by other German Counter-Enlightenment figures—Herder, and later Schelling, the Schlegels, Novalis, Fichte—and indeed artists and thinkers in other countries like Coleridge and Wordsworth, Blake, Chateaubriand, Stendhal and Emerson, Carlyle.
Berlin is sharply aware of the excesses of the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers—their haste, their gross errors of detail, their eccentric prescriptions, their wild mythologies—but he sees in their work sound intuitions, expressed perhaps most fully and coherently by Herder, but anticipated, with far greater force and depth, a half-century before him by the “obscure, poverty-ridden Neapolitan recluse” Giambattista Vico, a lonely professor of rhetoric “who might have had a decisive role in this counter-movement if anyone outside his native country had read him.”
According to Berlin, Vico was the most powerful of the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, a man who in a single, complex vision discredited in advance the Enlightenment conceptions of human nature, the perfect society, the progress of humanity, the nature of history, a thinker who has a claim to be the founder of the history of ideas, of comparative cultural history, comparative anthropology, law, religion, aesthetics—indeed, of the modern “social sciences.” Vico set in train the idea, as Berlin puts it, that
history did not consist merely of things and events and their consequences and sequences (including those of human organisms viewed as natural objects) as the external world did; it was the story of human activities, of what men did and thought and suffered, of what they strove for, aimed at, accepted, rejected, conceived, imagined, of what their feelings were directed at. [“The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities”]
Vico argued that history is neither a tissue of gossip and travelers’ tales (as the celebrated Descartes had argued a century earlier), nor “a collection of factual beads strung on a chronicler’s string,” nor (as his younger contemporary Voltaire thought) a disparate mass of instructive and entertaining truths retrieved from the past.
Closely linked to this view of history, Berlin claims, was Vico’s bold idea that human nature is not unchanging—as the Enlightenment held; that human nature is not like a fan (or a peacock tail) that opens out over the centuries, with all its qualities and properties present (but hidden) at the beginning. In place of these views, Vico appealed to a radical new principle, that the “nature” of man is his history. Moreover, for Vico, man’s history reveals that human beings have changed over time in vitally important respects: men were once savage brutes; now they are democrats; but—in his famous “cyclical theory of history”—they will be brutes again.
In Vico’s view, shared by Berlin, men have had different values at different times and in different circumstances. They have employed different concepts or categories of interpreting their experience; as these patterns have changed, so have men’s reasons for acting, their ruling conceptions of good and evil, happiness and humor, their duties, their song, art, dance. The values men cherish have changed over time, on this view, as the interests, needs, desires in which these values are rooted change, as the ideas men formulate in response to the questions they ask of the world become obsolete.
History then, for Vico and Berlin, is a process of man’s self-creation, a transforming and correcting process; “a changing pattern,” Berlin writes, “of great liberating ideas which inevitably turn into suffocating straitjackets, and so stimulate their own destruction by new, emancipating, and at the same time enslaving conceptions.”6 Each integral culture or age generates its own unique mode of expressing its response to the world which is intelligible only to those who understand its own internal rules and style. Historical change is a sequence of births and deaths of forms of life, with valuable modes of expression lost irretrievably along the way, with others cropping up continually, not necessarily more valuable than their predecessors: there is no sense, on this view, in speaking of “progress” in history. There is no need to compare and grade on some single scale of merit each cultural phase and its creations and forms of life and action; indeed, it is not possible to do so, for they are evidently incommensurable” (“Vico and the Ideal of the Enlightenment”).
These pluralist views were remarkably original, as Berlin convincingly shows us by comparing them to those of the reigning arbiter of intellectual taste in Vico’s time, Voltaire. But Vico also boldly challenged the claim that scientific method as it was conceived in his time could dominate the entire sphere of human’knowledge, by asserting it was not applicable to history and humane studies. As Berlin puts it, Vico thinks that
to understand history is to understand what men made of the world in which they found themselves, what they demanded of it, what their felt needs, aims, ideals, were: he seeks to discover their vision of it, he asks what wants, what questions, what aspirations determined a society’s view of reality; and he thinks that he has created a new method which will reveal to him the categories in terms of which men thought and acted and changed themselves and their worlds. (“The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities”)
The “understanding” yielded by Vico’s new method is entirely different from that offered by the natural sciences: the new method is not just a matter of raising hypotheses and testing them by simple observation or the use of refined experimental techniques, as geographers or microbiologists or mineralogists do. We have, Vico and Berlin claim, a special relation to the objects of our investigation in the humane studies—in history, literary criticism, political theory, in much of anthropology and sociology, and indeed in much of what passes under the name of “social science.” We are, like our subject matter, human; we can claim the understanding that participants in an activity possess, as observers cannot.
If we are to understand a text, an instance of behavior, a historical event (such as Xerxes’ conduct at the Hellespont); if we wish to know why a financial panic took place, why bureaucracy diminishes productivity, why a people rebelled against their authorities; in short, if we wish to understand anything human, we need to do more than exercise our simple perceptions—discriminating differences of pitch and color; we need to do more than examine the physical states of our subjects—their weight, or blood pressure. As Berlin has written, we need also
the capacity for conceiving more than one way of categorizing reality, like the ability to understand what it is to be an artist, a revolutionary, a traitor, to know what it is to be poor, to wield authority, to be a child, a prisoner, a barbarian. [“The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities”]
This capacity, Berlin claims, is distinct from, and more complex than, that exercised by a physicist in gathering observational evidence, or testing a theory, in registering points of light, or tracing the tracks of invisible particles. Unlike “simple” perception grasping empirical facts, this capacity is part imagination, part memory, part intuition, always governed by the rich conceptual patterns in which we think of other human beings, and never reducible to inductive or deductive rules of scientific research.
In the humane studies, Berlin claims, the understanding of subject matter (and possibly some ways of testing—as against discovering—of hypotheses concerning this subject matter) consists to a large degree in the exercise by investigators of distinctive, imaginative capacities of this kind, capacities—or, as Berlin sometimes calls them, “knacks”—which allow these investigators to enter into the lives and outlook of other human beings and cultures, past and present, to acquire the sense of what “fits” and what does not in an interconnected body of human activities, to acquire the sense of anachronism they employ when, upon reading Shakespeare, they know straight off the passage could not have been composed by a Manchu or a Sumerian.
The investigator using this “new method” is able to obtain an “inner,” direct grasp of events akin to self-knowledge because he, like his subjects, is a thinking, planning, acting being. The “knowledge” that results from his efforts
is quite different from that in which I know that this tree is taller than that…. In other words, it is not a form of “knowing that.” Nor is it like knowing how to ride a bicycle or to win a battle, or what to do in case of fire, or knowing a man’s name, or a poem by heart. That is to say, it is not a form of “knowing how.” It is more like the knowledge we claim of a friend, of his character, of his ways of thought and action, a species of its own, based on prior personal experience, memory, imagination, and communication with other human beings.
In Against the Current and in the more abstract writings collected in Concepts and Categories Berlin claims that the discovery by Vico of this special “mode of perception”—he admits that “knowledge” might be too strong a word for an activity “so obviously fallible” and in need of “empirical research to justify its findings”—marks the discovery of a central difference between the natural sciences (which need not employ it) and the humanities (which inescapably do), and confutes the possibility of a “scientific history.”
Berlin is, of course, entitled to claim that there may exist particular modes or capacities of cognition unique to the humanities. If the historian must understand what it is to be poor, the physicist is not concerned with what it is to be an electron. Still his account may be contested, and not only because he has not, as he acknowledges, explained exactly how people with radically different categories of thought “enter into” and “inwardly grasp” each other’s views. (Nor did Vico.) It may be that Berlin is tacitly assuming too superficial a conception of the natural sciences when he draws a sharp distinction between scientific “experience” and that brought into play in humane studies. If recent researches in the philosophy of science by T.S. Kuhn and others are correct, even ordinary experimental interpretations in science are laden with preconceptions, with concepts and categories, that may undergo radical change in the course of scientific development. To understand different comprehensive scientific theories or deal with new data, natural scientists might also have to use “the capacity for conceiving more than one way of categorizing reality” and perform efforts of “resurrection” and reconstruction similar to those cited by Berlin as distinctive of humane studies.
If even natural scientists can, and indeed may have to, grasp radically different ways of interpreting the natural world, and if even their observations are “theory laden,” the objectivity of science in some of the senses described by Berlin is open to question. Berlin himself in his earlier writings attacked the oversimplified accounts of historical knowledge as objective that were in vogue between the 1930s and the 1950s. It seems ironic that some philosophers would argue that his earlier account could in part be transposed to scientific knowledge as well and thereby challenge some of the distinctions he draws between the natural sciences and the humanities.
The issues are far from settled and often not even clearly understood. Berlin might claim that whatever difficulties there may be in the understanding of new scientific theories they can, once understood, be objectively tested; not so for all theories and hypotheses in the social sciences and humanities. There is much current debate about the kinds of cognitive skills and commitments that are involved in the understanding, testing, and accepting of scientific theories and hypotheses. The old empiricist claim that essentially the same methods can be used to test hypotheses in both the natural and social sciences is far from dead.
It should in any case be clear why the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, taken together, are of such importance to Berlin. As he says in these essays, they, more than any other group of thinkers, saw how intellectual confusion can result from the deliberate or unconscious application of scientific (or pseudo-scientific) methods and doctrines where they do not apply; and, despite their obvious shortcomings, they clearly saw that scientific methods could not adequately answer fundamental questions about human values. But perhaps even more important, they first set in motion ideas which provided the philosophical underpinning—the reasoned justification—for the facts Berlin claims were pointed out by Machiavelli: if men can choose, by their own lights, among incompatible alternatives, then their behavior could not be explained by appeal to a set of general laws—as some Enlightenment thinkers believed. They could not be the “mechanical” systems Condillac and perhaps in our own day B.F. Skinner take them to be; they could not be like computers or calculators. Their history must be an open process of self-creation, without a large strategy or inevitable trend.
This idea, half-expressed by the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, lies at the heart of Berlin’s work, and he has often expressed it with eloquence—the idea, as he once put it, that man is
incapable of self-completion, and therefore never wholly predictable: a fallible, a complex combination of opposites, some reconcilable, others incapable of being resolved or harmonized; unable to cease from his search for truth, happiness, novelty, freedom, but with no guarantee, theological or logical or scientific, of being able to attain them: a free, imperfect being, capable of determining his own destiny in circumstances favorable to the development of his reason and his gifts.7
But if human beings are, as the combined insights of Machiavelli and Vico suggest, free, spontaneous, choosing beings, with widely diverse values and cultural embodiments of these values, what political arrangements are best suited to their nature? How ought they to live in political association? We shall examine Isaiah Berlin’s views on these questions in a second article.