In Memoriam: Isaiah Berlin
When I read last week of the passing of Isaiah Berlin, the British philosopher, I instantly thought of a letter received some three-and-a-half years ago welcoming me to Harvard University. The signatory was President Neil L. Rudenstine, and the message was one of preparation: be willing to learn what you have not learned, to think what you have not thought, to do what you have not done. It was the summer before my first year at the College and--as the President told me and some 1,600 other recipients of the mass mailing--I did not know what was in store for me. So I decided to take the President up on at least one piece of his advice: read Isaiah Berlin's The Crooked Timber of Humanity.
This collection of essays was not to be found at my local Barnes & Noble on Long Island. And, eager as I was for Harvard-stamped wisdom, I decided against waiting out a special order. Instead, I ventured to the downtown Barnes & Noble, the largest bookstore in the world at the time, and found one lonesome paperback hidden amidst its gigantic stacks and narrow aisles. Twelve dollars later, I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Isaiah Berlin. (Apologies to all fellow small-bookstore fans for not being able to tell a more pleasant tale of finding that special, most thoughtful and desperately desired book at anything other than a branch of the biggest bookstore chain in the country.)
What I encountered in the first essay, "The Pursuit of the Ideal," was a magical world of thought that seemed to me wonderful but overly complex. After all, I had not even heard of Kant, much less been able to name-drop The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals in section. Yet despite all the references to Herder, Plato, Machiavelli and Voltaire, I detected some resonance in this history of ideas. What "a priori" meant I did not know, but the basic themes I understood. Berlin was saying that theories were wonderful stuff, great to think about and even more fascinating to create; that there is no limit to where theory can lead in the real world (I knew at least of Marx); but that there is not a singular universal truth. Values, the grounding for theory, are specific to cultures, yet what underlies all of these pluralistic cultures is a common humanity which allows us to study foreign civilizations past and present and to communicate with them as well as with each other.
Nice, I thought. But true? Was Berlin really classifying all these wise men as products of their times? Was he snubbing Rousseau's social contract as less than eternal? If that is what he is saying, then what is there to learn, beside the names and dates and buzzwords associated with these famous, antiquated theories of which Berlin writes? Moreover, what was I to do at the College in order to sort out one from another, to judge Tolstoy from Trotsky? Was this what I was going to encounter in the fall: questions? How many questions could a person ask? Wasn't I looking for answers? Hadn't I applied to Harvard for an education? Isn't an education supposed to include definite knowledge? How could the president of this great University recommend to an incoming student that he or she read essays that celebrate the frailty of theory, the partiality of truth, the heralding of experience?
Yet he had. Rudenstine had asked me to read this essay of names. Today, I understand why. It has nothing to do with the names or the theories behind those names. It has everything to do with the concept of wrestling with truths and not rushing to definite conclusions or accepting utopian visions and partisan platforms. The concept of systematic perfection, so central to the purposes of Gov 10, Ec 10 and Social Studies 10, is a false messiah. The best that can be learned from the ideas of political or moral reasoning offered in these courses are insights, not whole worlds. The solutions to questions are not answers but further questions, and those "answers" always necessarily sound a delightful cacophony. That is, the insights gleaned from civilizations are there to be pondered alongside one another, not necessarily with approval, but nevertheless with appreciation.
The notion of the perfect whole, the ultimate solution, in which all good things coexist, seems to me to be not merely unattainable--that is a truism--but conceptually incoherent.
Indeed, this is what Harvard has taught me. All those books in Widener and Lamont are worthy not so much for the revelations in each but for the collective truths housed therein. And, in each of our educations, the various kernels of wisdom picked up from this course and that are not themselves the keys to wisdom, but as a whole, the plurality of them, the bounty of diverse thought, is the substance of truth, which is what this University stands for and what it teaches. But it teaches this truth, veritas, only by teaching it in parts. It is to the credit of the University that President Rudenstine is able to assign Isaiah Berlin to incoming students as a symbol of a free and open school, of the limits and dangers of thought and of the value of our humanity to concepts of truth. Isaiah Berlin lives on in this message.
Joshua A. Kaufman's column appears on alternate Thursdays.