About Isaiah Berlin

The Grand Central Station of Berlin studies is the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library, website of The Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust,  maintained by Henry Hardy, and hosted by Wolfson College, Oxford. The Virtual Library seeks to catalogue or publish all known writing by Berlin, and all writing of significance about Berlin.

A page in the Virtual Library collects material relating to Berlin’s birth and early life in Riga.

An essay, by Joshua Cherniss and Henry Hardy, published in the The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, provides a comprehensive introduction to Berlin’s life and work. It needs to be read in full; but here is a paragraph from the conclusion:

Berlin was, for much of his life, an intellectually lonely figure, pursuing the history of ideas in an academic setting that was unreceptive to it, and advocating a moderate liberalism in a time dominated by ideological extremism. And yet this plea for moderation and advocacy of liberalism was shared and taken up by many others at the time. His interest in political philosophy and dedication to the defence of liberalism anticipated the work of John Rawls (who had been influenced by Berlin during a stay at Oxford while a young academic); yet the resurgence of political theory initiated by Rawls’s work coincided with a period of eclipse in Berlin’s reputation. Berlin’s concern with the problem of culture anticipated the centrality in political theory of questions of identity and membership that began in the 1990s; his sympathy for the sentiments and needs underlying nationalism, which set him apart from many liberal theorists of his own time, presaged the revival of ‘liberal nationalism’ in the works of younger thinkers such as Michael Walzer, David Miller, Yael Tamir and Michael Ignatieff. His attack on monism, on the quest for certainty and the project of systematic knowledge, has led him to be embraced by some proponents of anti-foundationalism such as Richard Rorty. Yet Berlin’s work remains difficult to assimilate to intellectual movements or projects such as postmodernism or multiculturalism, the excesses and obscurities of which provoked quizzical scepticism in him towards the end of his life