Letters 1975-1997 by Isaiah Berlin review – the ultimate insider who loved to talk

Stefan Collini in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_1361 Sep. 11 19.49There must now be a risk of Berlin-fatigue setting in. This is the fourth large volume of his letters, and it comes on the back of seven collections of essays and other occasional pieces assembled by Henry Hardy before Berlin’s death in 1997, plus a further seven since. Berlin recognised that it was the devoted Hardy’s efforts that “have suddenly converted me from someone who has hardly written anything into an almost indecently prolific author”. There have also been a biography, at least two series of interviews, several full-length studies, and two Festschriften. It seems doubtful whether his writings on liberty and on value pluralism would, by themselves, have merited such a small industry of attention had he not also known everybody who was anybody. Rare is the memoir or biography of a leading intellectual or cultural figure in Britain who flourished between the 1930s and 80s in which Berlin does not make some kind of appearance. As a result, his personality may have come to seem more important than his intellectual achievements. As he cheerfully confided when about to receive yet another honour: “I do not complain; to be overestimated is not the most painful of states.”

As a historian of ideas, Berlin was wide-ranging, even learned in an eccentric way, but that way was far removed from the contemporary academic model of specialised “research”. He moved easily in the company of the thinkers from the 18th and 19th centuries who most interested him – figures such as Vico, Herder and his great hero, the Russian liberal Alexander Herzen. He understood the outlook of such writers, drawing on a kind of intellectual empathy to reanimate their ideas for later generations, but he did not build up a thickly textured context of lesser minds or grub around in archives. Though he was well informed about the intellectual history of the period from the late 19th to the late 20th centuries, he found it much less congenial, regarding it as, at best, a silver age, at worst a thin epilogue to the main action. As he confessed to one correspondent: “I feel firmly tied to the values of the 19th century.”

That allegiance could make the famously genial Berlin a surprisingly dyspeptic observer of the late 20th century.

More here.