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Saturday, November 8, 1997 Published at 01:39 GMT


Philosopher and political thinker Sir Isaiah Berlin dies

The philosopher and historian of ideas Sir Isaiah Berlin died in Oxford on Wednesday aged 88.

Thought by many to be the dominant scholar of his generation, the death of Sir Isaiah, an extraordinary, life-loving man with a mind like an encyclopaedia, leaves a hole in the intellectual life of Britain impossible to fill.

"A fox" intrigued by many ideas

In 1953 Isaiah Berlin published a book called The Hedgehog and the Fox. Foxes, he wrote, are people who know many things; hedgehogs know one big thing.

It was in part a study of Berlin's literary hero, Tolstoy, whom he described as a fox who wished at times that he was a hedgehog.

Isaiah Berlin was perhaps also a fox, intrigued by many ideas, unendingly curious, open-minded and pleading above all for tolerance.

Advocate of tolerance and pluralism

He was born into a Jewish family in 1909 in the Latvian capital Riga. Witnessing a man being overpowered by police and dragged away during the Russian Revolution made him a convinced anti-Communist, although he was never strident in any of his criticisms.

When he was 10 the family came to Britain which, he believed, was the best country for him. "I think on the whole, so to speak, people are more tolerant. And if liberal civilisation is what we're in favour of, then I think of the great countries of the world, I think, perhaps, it comes top of that," he once said.

Opponent of absolutisms

In lectures, essays and broadcasts, he argued for a greater understanding of the essential values of liberal civilisation - pluralism and liberty.

He was afraid of, and intellectually opposed to, absolutisms of any kind, and particularly the main intellectual absolutism of the 20th century, Marxism-Leninism.

The problem with absolute values, he argued, is that they often conflict. Complete freedom and complete equality were incompatible. "Complete equality means people above other people have to be kept down in order to promote chances for everybody. The two things (complete freedom and complete equality) can't be had together but are both perfectly noble ultimate ends. And one has to choose in the end," he argued.

"Now the idea that all values -- not all, but some values are incompatible, leads to the idea that utopias are intrinsically unattainable, not merely in practice but even in concept."

Isaiah Berlin went to school in London and to unversity at Oxford. The family spoke English at home but he read his way through his father's library of Russian literature, and later was to lecture in a number of languages.

During World War II he served in the British Embassy in Washington providing, Winston Churchill with a weekly summary of American opinion which was said to be Churchill's favourite reading.

After the war he was seconded to the embassy in Moscow where he met the poet and novelist Boris Pasternak and the poet Anna Akhmatova. This meeting became the subject of one of his most moving and memorable essays in a selection called Personal Impressions.

Queues to hear his lectures

He had professorships at Harvard and Oxford, honorary doctorates at universities all over Britain; he wrote books and essays on the ideas behind politics and philosophy - a short work on Marx published in 1939 is still one of the most readable there is on the subject; and he gave public lectures that people queued to attend.

He spoke at incredible speed because, some said, his mind worked so fast. He himself put it down to nerves, maintaining that all he wanted was to get to the end as quickly as he could.

He insisted it should be possible to express any idea, no matter how complex, in simple terms and direct language.

"He radiated life"

Professor Jerry Cohen, the current Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford University, a position which Sir Isaiah himself held for many years, remembers Isaiah Berlin as a man who was more alive than any human being he has ever known.

"He loved life. He radiated life out from himself. He was the most effervescent person one could ever know," Professor Cohen told BBC radio. "He was always bubbling and everybody around him couldn't but rejoice in that. There was nobody who disliked him. They couldn't."

"Pluralism of values" legacy

As for his intellectual legacy, Dr Samuel Guttenplan of Birkbeck College in London returns to the theme of pluralism. "He often said to me and many other people that, unlike other philosophers, he had no disciples. Nor did he want them. And I think what he meant in part by that was that there was no body of doctrine that could be specifically associated with his name," Dr Guttenplan told the BBC.

"But of course this was the usual kind of modesty, humility that Isaiah often expressed. And in fact, especially in the last 10 years, people have come to realise that although there was no particular doctrine, what he stood for -- the pluralism of values and the need to recognise the tolerance that goes with pluralism, and the particular way in which the pluralism of values is represented in our society and ought to be represented in more societies -- I think that will come to be seen as a major contribution."

Lover of music

Isaiah Berlin loved music. In a radio interview two years ago he said that at his funeral he wanted his friend, the pianist Alfred Brendel, to play the andantino from Schubert's piano sonata in A. Then he quickly checked himself.

"He's a great friend," he said. "I'd rather not put it on him (ie give him such a painful task). No, no. No, no. I'd rather not die."

Sir Isaiah Berlin's concept of the term liberal

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Hedgehog and the Fox - excerpt

Der Gast aus der Zukunft

Quotes from Isaiah Berlin

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