A Review of John Gray's Isaiah Berlin

Book review from The Guardian
Copyright Guardian Newspapers, Limited Feb 7, 1995
Isaiah Berlin by JOHN GRAY, HarperCollins

The fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing. Isaiah Berlin has preached the virtues of foxes for so long, and so persistently, that he has become the veritable hedgehog of foxiness. His single idea is that we should not be dominated by single ideas. This is certainly how he appears in John Gray's study: "The central claim of this book is that all of Berlin's work is animated by a central idea of enormous subversive force."

Gray's Berlin is in fact very much more hedgehoggy than the original. In fairness to Berlin, it must be stressed that there is no evidence that he has endorsed Gray's very large claims for either the originality or the importance of the implications of that one central idea. Gray's Berlin is, for better or for worse, more coherent and tidy than the real person. He is also rather more troubled. Gray clearly identifies deeply with Berlin's system of thought, enters into it, and then worries persistently about its tensions and stresses, and seeks a way out. This focus on a single theme, and the almost anguished perplexity, are attractive features of Gray's book: in the original, one senses a lack of perturbation, which goes ill with the seriousness of the problems discussed, but is all of a piece with the complacency with which Berlin's philosophical generation can be charged.

What is this idee maitresse (to use Gray's phrase)? In Gray's own words, it is the "rejection of (the) monist vision, (the) pluralist insistence on the diversity and incommensurability of genuine human goods". Gray attempts to disconnect Berlin from the dominant Oxford or Linguistic philosophy of the postwar period, but on this point he is less than convincing. He himself quotes a passage from Berlin castigating "a false theory of meaning", namely the theory that language and reality both possess a simple homogeneous structure. This was the idee maitresse of that movement, and by damning all past philosophy for its alleged failure to appreciate that one key idea, it left no room for (among other things) political thought.

Berlin both used the central idea of Oxford philosophy as one of his premises or inspirations and, more significantly perhaps, found a place for political philosophy which was at least compatible with it. Political philosophy could continue to exist as a history of political ideas, dividing theorists into those who failed to appreciate pluralism and were therefore wrong and possibly guilty of abetting totalitarianism, and those who recognised it, thus practising a semi-passive style permissible to the linguistic movement. Berlin claimed to find predecessors for this vision in Machiavelli, Vico, Herder and Tolstoy.

Gray strongly dislikes Berlin being called a relativist, and castigates Leo Strauss for "characteristic obtuseness and perversity" for saying this. I must plead guilty to similar perversity and obtuseness. Gray seems to think that the attribution of relativism can be avoided by describing Berlin's position as an objective discovery. But this is just verbal hocus-pocus. To say that two values or visions are incommensurate is to say that they cannot be evaluated by some single measure or expressed in the same idiom (or translatable idioms). No meaning, therefore, can be attributed to the idea of rational choice between them. That is relativism. The mildly unusual and valuable thing about Berlin's relativism is that he focuses on rival values within single breasts.

Having denied the existence of this relativism, however, Gray proceeds to struggle manfully and attractively with the problems engendered by it. Does this incommensurate pluralism entail liberalism? You might think so, for if it obtains, only a liberal regime will allow its citizens to pursue their diverse and incommensurate aims. But on the other hand, the idee maitresse also gives carte blanche to holders of illiberal values: religious fundamentalists, for example.

Like other relativists do, Berlin allows himself a non-relativistic meta-theory: "Claims can be balanced, compromises can be reached . . . Priorities, never final and absolute, must be established." Because incommensurate alternatives cannot be sorted out by reason, let us haggle. Fine. A politics of open-ended compromise: splendid, I for one am all for it. But once again, what can you say to the partisan of uncompromising virtue? He too stands - with great emphasis - for one of those incommensurate values. That is his trouble.

Gray calls this vision "agonistic liberalism". This means: we are in favour of a free market in values, but can't really give you reasons without thereby contradicting the very thing we are commending. A number of things are missing from this vision. Pluralism, like patriotism, is not enough. A free society needs the idea of standards of criticism which are not under its own control: which are, if you like, transcendent.

The philosophical movement for which Berlin provided an acceptable style of political theory, itself banned social transcendence in the name of banning metaphysical transcendence. The custom of the speech community was to be sovereign and ultimate. That was its crucial weakness, and it would also seem to inhere in the position described by Gray. The other missing element is a concern for the real institutional conditions of freedom. Gray mentions Max Weber, but goes on to say, preposterously, that Weber failed to give "any account of the sources of such clashes . . . in conflict between different social forms"! Weber did more than any other man before or since to lay bare the concrete social foundations of those warring gods. Berlin's liberalism has virtually no historical sociology. Berlin has often conveyed his lack of respect for this kind of inquiry.

Gray notes an affinity between his hero and currently fashionable "postmodernism". Superficially, Berlin's elegant detachment could not be more different from the self-indulgent, self-righteous, undisciplined subjectivism of the recent fashion. The trendies relativise all cultures so that they can "deconstruct" them and so that all cultures should be equal and the sins of imperialism expiated; Berlin's pluralism invokes only recognition of irresoluble conflict. The end result, however, as Gray observes, is similar. Gray offers a translation, well up to the worst standards of postmodernist prose. Berlin, you might say, is the Savile Row postmodernist.