Thursday, January 21, 2016

Isaiah Berlin’s Liberalism

Concise appraisal of Isaiah Berlin’s thought by Gerald F. Gaus: “Thus, it seems that to the extent Berlin is a pluralist [with regard to values], he is not a liberal; and to the extent he is a liberal, he is not a pluralist.” This is the conclusion reached after carefully and charitably analyzing Berlin’s argument that an appreciation of the incommensurability of plural values rationally entails liberalism. Berlin, however, appears to have eventually abandoned that claim, as Gaus notes, coming simply to endorse “a pluralism limited by rationally agreed-upon moral truth” [thereby placing him back firmly in the Enlightenment, rather than the ‘post-Enlightenment’ tradition]. Finally, writes Gaus, “to the extent his doctrine endorses liberalism, it is not his pluralism, but his ‘rationalistic’ conviction that we can uncover common objective truths [through an appeal to human nature], that does the philosophical work.” Please see Gaus’s important book, Contemporary Theories of Liberalism (Sage, 2003): 25-55.

For an introduction to Berlin’s philosophical views, see this SEP entry by Joshua Cherniss and Henry Hardy (one of the few entries, if I’m not mistaken, with a photo!)

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