Berlin’s Letters

June 10, 2009

Busy day today, again. Grr.  Nonetheless, I think it’s worth passing on this morning’s bit of theory news: they’ve finially published Isaiah Berlin’s letters, and apparently they aren’t all that good:

For the first 150 pages, in fact, you might wonder whether the author of these letters was much of a thinker at all. There is an awful lot of gossip and tittle-tattle about Oxford dons and society hostesses. Not much reflection on the terrible war that had just taken place, no substantial attempt to make sense of Nazism, Communism or Totalitarianism. Berlin’s relatives in Riga were murdered, he still had family in Stalin’s Moscow—and yet there is little attempt to engage with the dark times of the mid-20th century, or with those writers like Orwell and Milosz who were trying to do so.

And then, around 1949-50, something happens. The gears shift and he starts producing a series of letters about theories of history, liberty, Tolstoy, The Brothers Karamazov. Some of the letters are written to famous contemporaries : George Kennan, Edmund Wilson, and later, on freedom, to Spender and Karl Popper and on historical causality, to EH Carr. It is exhilarating to read—and tells us something interesting about Berlin. He has no interest in covering issues systematically. It is all about the sudden insight. Letters dawdle along and then suddenly erupt from nowhere: we’re off on a fascinating riff about the new religious writing in the 1950s or why computers will be more important than atomic energy, on Hegel and political philosophy or on ends and choices.

Methinks he would have made an interesting blogger.


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