Today is a centenary of a Latvian born Isaiah Berlin, one of the foremost thinkers and social philosophers of the last century, today probably most famous for his 1958 Oxford lecture Two Concepts of Liberty which proved immensely influential and has since been printed several times in different collections of essays.
Often referred to as a “philosopher”, Berlin was actually pretty much sui generis. In his own words, he gave up philosophy for the history of ideas, ‘a field in which one could hope to know more at the end of one’s life than when one had begun’.
Another well-known piece from his prolific output is The Hedgehog and the Fox, which actually was a long essay on Tolstoy’s view of history. The title refers to a line thought to belong to a 7th century BC Greek poet Archilochus that goes ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’. For Berlin, this meant a distinction between seeing the world as a function of one single big idea (as for example Plato, Dante, Hegel and Nietzsche did) or believing that no such single idea exists (like Aristotle, Montaigne, Molière, Goethe or Joyce) and that the world consists of a wide variety of different thoughts and experiences. According to this division, Berlin himself would certainly have to qualify as a fox.
If there is a central theory that can be attributed to Berlin then this would be so-called value pluralism – often confused with relativism which Berlin explicitly rejected. The problem with absolute values, as Berlin argued, is that they often conflict – complete freedom and complete equality, while both perfectly noble ultimate ends, are incompatible. For Berlin, human values were entirely of human origin, rather than universal truths that have to be somehow discovered, so there is no transcendent criteria for deciding between them. It is impossible to know which value is ultimately “right” – what this means is that one simply has to choose in the end.
Berlin always insisted it should be possible to express any idea, no matter how complex, in simple terms and direct language. This was no doubt one of the big reasons why there were long queues to his lectures and why he is such a widely read and influential thinker – and probably remains so for at least another century or two.