To the extent that I am aware of Sir Isaiah Berlin's academic output, it is hard for me to fathom why he was idolised by a resonant establishment to such an extent as to make him appear to be towering over far greater thinkers. Having said that, there is no doubt, Sir Isaiah Berlin offers messages rich in content and highly pertinent and formative to the philosophy of freedom
(thus, the much discussed conceptual pair of negative versus positive freedom is associated with his name - see my Negative Liberty and Positive Liberty (2/2) - A Tug-of-War),
some of the best of which I wish to write about in this post.
Liberty beyond Rationalist Preconceptions
His seems to be a vision of liberty that corresponds in a number of interesting ways with my own: Sir Isaiah's idea of freedom transcends the classical accounts of liberty handed to us by Kant, Locke, Mill or more recent thinkers of liberalism, all of whose reasoning being rooted in some form of rationalist preconception.
Berlin rejects, as I have come to do myself, the project whose aspiration it is to erect liberty as a self-contained system, a settled truth, a wisdom received once and for all.
Berlin lets enough reality into his theorising to be able to acknowledge that the sum of human imagination, volition and social interaction contains and produces an irreducible pluralism, i.e. fundamental and irreconcilable divergences among human beings - a state of affairs that precludes the harmony and compatibility of interest and views that is required to subsume an entire community under one common concept of the public good.
His concept of liberalism, or perhaps better his account of liberty
diverges not only from utilitarianism but also from Kantian ethics and from Lockean theories of fundamental rights, in denying that a coherent political morality can be formulated that is expressed in a single principle or an ordered system of principles.
Gray, John (1995), Isaiah Berlin, HarperCollins, ( p. 61 - emphasis added)
The Stoic Mission of Liberty - A Meta-Scheme to Manage Rival Principles
That is not to say that principles do not matter; but they become downright dangerous if they are not worked into a meta-scheme that incorporates rival principles and makes them coexist without cannibalising one another thanks to the jealous energy inhering in their mutually exclusive universal claims.
The emphasis that I added to the above quote is on "system." When liberty is construed as a "system," liberalism loses touch with its central ideal, morphing into just another ideology vying for supremacy in the minds of the people. Liberty is fundamentally pluralistic, and characteristically, yet not unconditionally, open-ended as to political perceptions and ideological preferences. She offers a meta-scheme ensuring peaceful coexistence in the form of robust conditions of freedom, which ensure dissension without cannibalisation.
The abolition of the welfare state, for instance, may be a demand of liberalism, while at the same time, it may not be a compelling implication of freedom. We may disagree as to the various institutions and practices of the welfare state and in criticising them make reference - with good grounds - to the robust conditions of freedom, but if these latter are kept intact in a welfare state, we cannot claim that all in all liberty is being violated in inordinate measure or even abandoned altogether.
We may still be working with principles, with milestones that we are not prepared to remove, other than with the utmost circumspection and against the slackening friction of elaborate procedural inhibitions. First and foremost, these principles of ours are landmarks that delineate a vast playing field in which countless interpretations of a possible free society can be acted out, under the condition that the unresting building stages of a free society are truly open to ongoing revision and do not systematically bar forces from political competition that qualify as non-cannibalising players.
Incommensurables and Tolerance
For my purposes, what I find particularly valuable in Sir Isaiah Berlin's account of liberty are two aspects: his
(1) flair for incommensurables in the way people interpret (a) the world in which they live and (2) the nature of their interrelationships, (for more see Agonistic Liberalism (2/2) - Incommensurables) and his
(2) understanding of the need for convictions and mechanisms promoting mutual tolerance which equip us to cope with the inevitable circumstance of having to live with one another in the presence of highly rivalrous, agonistic personal attitudes.
When it attempts to establish itself as a system, liberalism becomes part of the problem of dogmatic intolerance. Unlike freedom, which comprises "convictions and mechanisms promoting mutual tolerance," liberalism as a system inevitably tries to crowd out other systems. By the very nature of an all-encompassing, all-purpose system, it is absolutely self-centred and thus ultimately intolerant, and may, indeed, degenerate in ways described in my series Liberty and Totalitarianism - Michael Polanyi (3/3) - Catastrophes in the Old World.
In fact, it appears that in order to become virulent in reality the vicarious totalitarianism of the radical liberal requires some transformation, a migration into a different ideological environment, as his original conviction prevents him from becoming politically effective.
The Dreaded Mark-Down of Liberalism
It may be my own, rather than, Berlin's conclusion, though we are close enough to each other in this respect, that by denying liberalism its yearning for being a system, one thereby ascribes to any variant of liberalism only a subordinate role within in the choir of voices that make up the choral singing of a free and therefore pluralistic society. It is this prospect of subordination that makes it so hard for the liberal to give up his passion for system.
Renouncing the closure that accompanies the idea of a system eventuates in much dreaded indeterminacy and a smaller, less powerful identity, one full of caveats, one of mere equality or even submission amidst the ado of challenging voices in the choir of freedom.
The liberal is no longer admitted as the sole authoritative judge of liberty. He has to make do with a small share in a larger process of collective ascertainment.
Liberty - A Balanced Play of Aggravation and Pacification
Forcing a view of liberty as system entails another high cost: it makes the liberal blind to the fact that not only does liberty mass-produce strife, she also comes up with ways of handling this strife, so that the overall outcome may still be a constructive one on balance.
If we appreciate with sufficient clarity the ubiquity of incommensurables among energetic peoples and human beings, we may start to wonder how peace and progress is still possible, and only then does our mind open up to the possibility that liberty affords us not only direct, consciously designed but also evolved roundabout ways to mitigating and usefully channelling the ideological turmoil which is her appointment to unleash.
A Free Society Is a Politicised Society
Of necessity, a free society is a highly politicised society, politicisation being the immediate effect of admitting freedom. Hence, in a free society, we express ourselves politically far more intensely than ever before owing to a higher rate of popular inclusion and more extensive, variegated and effective options for political action. With the consequent heightened need and incidence of political responses from free individuals, we quite naturally avail ourselves more copiously of political tools and processes to resolve or contain the political initiative and variety necessarily brought forth under liberty.
This imperative implication of liberty is relegated from the horizon of the liberal, who dismisses politics and the state as a natural evil, no less dogmatically as those who dismiss free markets as a natural evil.
In this way, the liberal misses the essential stoic mission of freedom: to let variety - the creative turbo of mankind - sprout while finding means to diffuse the tensions building up under conditions of unrestricted resourcefulness.
Continued in Agonistic Liberalism (2/2) - Incommensurables.