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Isaiah Berlin: A Life

by Michael Ignatieff

The main challenge of capturing Isaiah Berlin as a biographical subject is that he was a talker. Philosophers are said to privilege the spoken over the written word, but even among his philosophical peers his volubility was extraordinary. People of all social strata, political stripes, and intellectual levels were bowled over like skittles by the force of his rhetoric. How does a biographer capture such a phenomenon?

Michael Ignatieff bases his narrative on interviews he recorded during the last 10 years of Berlin’s life. He describes Berlin’s distinctive “melodic gabble” and traces its genealogy, pointing out that what his audiences took as the voice of an Oxford intellectual was actually a Latvian Jew’s impersonation of his English contemporaries. For the substance of that gabbling, Ignatieff quotes, paraphrases, and summarizes. He also charts its effect on the Kennedy White House, English and Israeli statesmen, other Oxford philosophers, Harvard intellectuals, American undergraduates, and ordinary British radio listeners.

Canadian-born Ignatieff, with his Russian family heritage, long-time residence in England, and stints at Harvard and Cambridge, is well positioned to understand Berlin’s background and the various international forums of his later activity. Berlin came to England at the age of 12, was educated and spent most of his life at Oxford, worked in Washington during the Second World War, and made memorable sorties to Russia and Israel.

Because of his conflicting national and racial loyalties, his fluency in various tongues and his sometimes contradictory political positions, Berlin is a profoundly enigmatic character. Ignatieff, skirting lightly over the personal life, makes no bold attempt to solve that enigma but treats him with filial deference. His major accomplishment is conveying through Berlin a sense of how lively the world of ideas can be. One often hears lamentations these days on the absence of the public philosopher. Intellectuals from other countries or centuries are sometimes invoked as exemplary figures. Canadian candidates are suggested, though these are generally pop or pseudo-intellectuals who rarely merit serious consideration from professional philosophers. Ignatieff has given us a portrait of a liberal thinker who filled that role.