The Crooked Timber Of Humanity by Isaiah Berlin

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The Crooked Timber Of Humanity by Isaiah Berlin

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Gloria Nneoma Onwuneme
Reviewed by Gloria Nneoma Onwuneme
Summary: An essay collection of one of the most significant philosophers and historians of ideas of the twentieth century.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: July 2013
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 9781845952082

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The Crooked Timber of Humanity is a collection of essays by philosopher Isaiah Berlin, born in Riga, to, later in life, become an Oxford student and one of the institution's more notable alumni, continuing to influence the university by, among other things, cofounding Wolfson College. Altogether, the collection presents Berlin's observations of Western thought. The history of morals in the West was of particular interest to Berlin, as well as how these morals informed the more obvious changes in philosophy, literature, culture and much more.

Editor Henry Hardy makes his selections from works written by Berlin from the 1950s to the 1980s. They even include appendices of letters, responses to critiques of Berlin’s own writing and philosophy, and his review of Russell's A History of Western Philosophy, allowing for a better understanding of Berlin's standing in the topics he discusses.

The template for Berlin's explanation of the course of Western thinking, with which the reader will become very familiar, includes these key points: universalism reigned from Plato's time and culminated in the Enlightenment, to then be challenged by the nascence of Romanticism. In the 17th and 18th centuries, hints of pluralism appeared, to then, in time, coexist with both Romanticism and Universalism (in their own forms) to this day. I seem to notice a tone of finally whenever pluralism is first mentioned in each essay. And little wonder; Berlin was quite the champion of value pluralism.

Of great use to the uninitiated are the explanations of the concept of pluralism, as Berlin repeatedly takes it upon himself to stress just how distinct it is from relativism. I'd describe pluralism as being a school of thought advocating empathy in the realm of morals, in that its followers, without necessarily embracing the values of others, must actively makes the effort to appreciate why another individual might think of these values as natural. On the other hand, relativism is, according to Berlin, a field in which views are seen as what they are with no objective correlate; values are different, and that's that.

Exposés of these key moral systems are followed by criticisms. The universalists were idealists seeking to extricate the messy from existence, claiming that there is one true, universal, ethical code; observed variations in people can be stripped away to reveal Rousseau's natural man. French philosophers of the latter part of the second millennium, with Voltaire at the head, lauded the Enlightenment and generally thought that the nature of man was so defined that it could be studied the way in which natural sciences were. Even Marxism, which at least made it clear that mankind doesn’t remain in one set of conditions forever, preaches the reaching of a utopia at the end of the cycle of revolutions. But, not only is universalism impossible in practice, argues Berlin, it's not even really desirable; all men couldn’t possibly accept one uniform way of being satisfied, unless being coerced to by an authoritative, even totalitarian, force.

And after rigour, a riot. In this case, the natural response to the predominantly French universalist Enlightenment was Romanticism, starting in Germany. In an extreme form, this became about individuals pursuing their own ideals, or those of a group, or a nation, as opposed to a global, yet undiscovered, idyllic state. This form of individualism could easily be seen as spilling over into the notion of existentialism.

Strangely enough, the extremes of these opposing idea-factions have been at the core of Maistre, an adversary of products of both Universalism and Romanticism. He believed that the application of natural science to history, theology, and so forth, was folly, and yet he claimed that only the divine, or the divinely elected, should rule; individuals not worthy of power should be subjugated entirely. Nationalism, a sort of by-product of Romanticism, was an acceptable tool for maintaining order in a society. Altogether, the foundation of totalitarianism to be seen in the Fascist and National Socialist movements of the 20th century had been laid by a Savoyard philosopher in the late 18th century.

Some thinkers, most notably Herder and Vico, strayed from one-way outlooks; even Montesquieu wrote of how varying climates affect humans' temperaments differently, in a mildly misguided attempt to make it clear that different contexts can bring forth different values and that these aren’t necessarily inherently flawed. Vico was even identified as the begetter of historical anthropology. One could only be such an anthropologist with a pluralist outlook. It is of essence to what Vico called fantasia, an ability to mentally place oneself in the minds of people of the epoch of interest, to capture the mood, the reigning ideas, the situations resulting in the outcomes and values of the times.

Besides the fact that a new perspective was introduced to me, I enjoyed the way in which relatively abstract ideas discussed were shown to be well-anchored in the eras of their developments. These ideas pervaded the arts, politics, individuals and societies, which in turn sowed seeds for their growth. Universalism’s celebration of science led to Condorcet’s prediction of increased application of mathematics to social policy, a commonplace fact of today in combination with the extensive hold administration has on governance, as presaged by Saint-Simon. Romanticism brought forth literary works by Schiller, Kleist, and Ibsen, extolling solitude in the pursuit of an ideal. But they also left the legacies of totalitarianism and dangerously extreme nationalism. The arrival of pluralism seems to be the only moral framework intrinsically able to allow for the maintenance of Berlin’s global precarious equilibrium.

Through this collection, one is introduced to the very best of Berlin, the historian of ideas, as he, in a thoroughly engaging and informative way, guides one to significant posts on the path of Western thinking. The paradigm shifts traversed trace a painful spiral, springing from the Platonic and Socratic schools of ancient times to the present day and age of variation, continuing into the unknown.

For a greater understanding of the man Isaiah Berlin, I highly recommend a perusal of Enlightening: Letters 1946 - 1960.

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