Faculty Profile

Philosopher from Oxford

Descriptions of Isaiah Berlin range from "the most brilliant man in the Western World" to "the wittiest" to "the best conversationalist." You have an uncomprehending respect for people who so describe him for you feel they belong to the inner circle, the practiced. The outsider suspects the significance of the torrent of Oxford language which pours forth from this round and rumpled gentleman but seldom succeeds in keeping up with his pace. Berlin himself observes that his audiences "first struggle desperately but then sink under, staring with glazed eyes." One intense lady became so desperate that she finally interrupted, "I'm sorry, Mr. Berlin, but I don't speak Russian."

Berlin, who is a philosopher by profession and a Fellow of New College, Oxford, arrived at Harvard in January on what he calls his experiment in General Education. He's lecturing on the "Development of Russian Revolutionary Ideas" in the Regional Studies Program and assisting at the Russian Research Center.

Although he is modest about it, Berlin is well qualified in Russian studies. He was born in the Baltic city of Riga in 1909 and learned the language there. He moved to England as a boy and went to college at Oxford, where he later became a member of the faculty. He returned to Russia in 1945, however, for a year as First Secretary at the British Embassy in Moscow. Before taking the Russian post, he was with the Ministry of Information in New York from 1941-42 and then moved to the Embassy in Washington as First Secretary. For his war service the King made him in 1946 a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

At the Washington Embassy, Berlin's principal task was making political reports on the U.S. which were sent to London over the signature, "I. Berlin." Some of these came to Churchill's attention, and when another I. Berlin, better know as a composer than a political analyst, visited London during the War, the Prime Minister decided to entertain him at lunch. There are numerous versions of the meeting, but no official account has been published. It is said that Irving Berlin departed much complimented by the trust that Churchill put in his opinions on American affairs. But the Prime Minister had somewhat less regard for the analytical abilities of his supposed Washington observer.

After assisting in the preparation of the report on the Marshall Plan Conference in Paris in 1947, Berlin returned to Oxford, his permanent location. Though Harvard wanted him for a year, he refused to be lured away from New College for more than one term. He is now living in Lowell House, where he has become something of a legend. Since only those sitting next to him can make any sense out of his speeding talk, there is no little scramble for the advantageous positions at High Table. His enormous popularity among Cambridge society, his three or four-hour conversations standing in the Lowell courtyard late at night, and his refusal to make morning appearances have brought forth the rumor that he never gets up before noon. He denies this strenuously and insists that he rises at 9 a.m. every morning. He admits, however, that he is haunted by the tragedy of Descartes, who contracted a fatal "early morning virus" while in the service of the Queen of Sweden. Berlin, therefore, stays inside with his telephone and his breakfast until the sun is safely up.

Consequently, his course in Russian Revolutionary Thought is given in the afternoon. He says the course has been handicapped by the absence of English translations of important writings by nineteenth century revolutionists. "It's as if you tried to understand French Revolution knowing Diderot was in favor of science, Rousseau rather enthusiastic, Voltaire disliked Church--but all in Chinese, so can't bother with them."

About his students here and at Oxford, Berlin says, "Very serious, very earnest, very earnest indeed, but only want answers. Don't care about method. Why do I bother leading them round in a maze. Want to know what's good, what's bad. Students in 'twenties drank too much, too gay, didn't work hard enough, but wanted problems. No rush, no short-cuts."

He deplores the tendency in England and the U.S.--not at Harvard, he remarks diplomatically--of university professors to doubt the worth of their academic pursuits. "Outside always suspects Ivory Tower, but insiders now think asking questions too persistently is form of maladjustment. Research, secret joy, but go to Washington to justify it. Whole concept of university breaks down. Used to think disciplines just different ways of asking same question. Now want answers, not truth."

Berlin likes General Education, but hopes it will never have a faculty of its own. He respects the graduate school system and thinks that more should be done in England in that direction. Lastly he praises Harvard's "universal passion for music. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven everywhere--wonderful." But Isaiah Berlin is going back to let the hostesses of London tear each other part over him and teach philosophy at Oxford.