Ideas of Isaiah Berlin, by Theme

[British, 1909 - 1998, Born at Riga. At Oxford University.]

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1. Philosophy / B. History of Ideas / 1. History of Ideas
The great moments are the death of Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Romanticism
     Full Idea: Berlin says there were three great turning points: after the death of Aristotle (when Greek schools focused on the inner life of individuals, instead of as social beings), Machiavelli's division of political and individual virtues, and Romanticism.
     From: report of Isaiah Berlin (The Sense of Reality [1996], p.168-9) by Peter Watson - Ideas Intro
     A reaction: I have the impression that Machiavelli introduced a new hard-boiled ethics, which dominated the sixteenth century, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth century they fought back, and Machiavellianism turned out to be just a phase.
1. Philosophy / B. History of Ideas / 5. Later European Thought
Romanticism is the greatest change in the consciousness of the West
     Full Idea: Romanticism seems to me the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West that has occurred.
     From: Isaiah Berlin (The Roots of Romanticism [1965], Ch.1)
     A reaction: Far be it from me to challenge Berlin on such things, but I think that the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century (though acting more slowly and less dramatically than romanticism) may well be more significant in the long run. Ideas filter down.
20. Action / C. Motives for Action / 3. Acting on Reason / b. Intellectualism
Most Enlightenment thinkers believed that virtue consists ultimately in knowledge
     Full Idea: What is common to most of the main thinker of the Enlightenment is the view that virtue consists ultimately in knowledge.
     From: Isaiah Berlin (The Roots of Romanticism [1965], Ch.2)
     A reaction: I have always found this view (which seems to originate with Socrates) rather sympathetic. What is so frustrating about cheerful optimists who smoke cigarettes is not the weakness of will or strong desires, but their apparent failure of understanding.
23. Ethics / C. Virtue Theory / 3. Virtues / a. Virtues
If we are essentially free wills, authenticity and sincerity are the highest virtues
     Full Idea: Since (for romantics) we are wills, and we must be free, in the Kantian sense, controllable motives count more than consequences, and the greatest virtue of all is what existentialists call 'authenticity' and what romantics called 'sincerity'.
     From: Isaiah Berlin (The Roots of Romanticism [1965], Ch.6)
     A reaction: The case of the sincere or authentic Nazi shows the problems with this. However, I agree that sincerity is a key virtue, perhaps the crucial preliminary to all the other virtues. It is hard to imagine a flow of other virtues from an insincere person.
23. Ethics / D. Deontological Ethics / 2. Duty
The Greeks have no notion of obligation or duty
     Full Idea: There is an absence among the Greeks of a notion of obligation, and hence of duty, which is difficult to grasp for people who read the Greeks through spectacles partly affected by the jews.
     From: Isaiah Berlin (The Roots of Romanticism [1965], Ch.1)
     A reaction: This doesn't quite fit early section of 'Republic', in which morality is a mutual agreement not to do harm. Presumably the Greek word 'deon' refers to what needs to be done, rather than to anyone's obligation to do it(?). Contracts need duty? Cf. 4133
23. Ethics / F. Existentialism / 1. Existentialism
Central to existentialism is the romantic idea that there is nothing to lean on
     Full Idea: The central sermon of existentialism is essentially a romantic one, namely, that there is in the world nothing to lean on.
     From: Isaiah Berlin (The Roots of Romanticism [1965], Ch.6)
     A reaction: He tracks this back to Kant's view that our knowledge of the world arises out of our own minds. So what is there to lean on? Rational consistency? Natural human excellence? God? Pleasure? Anonymous duty? I like the second one.
25. Social Practice / A. Freedoms / 5. Freedom of lifestyle
Berlin distinguishes 'negative' and 'positive' liberty, and rejects the latter
     Full Idea: Isaiah Berlin draws a famous distinction between 'negative' and 'positive' concepts of liberty, and argues that the latter should be seen as a wrong turning (because totalitarian regimes have invoked it).
     From: report of Isaiah Berlin (Two Concepts of Liberty [1958]) by Adam Swift - Political Philosophy (3rd ed) 2 'Intro'
     A reaction: Swift argues against him, saying that positive liberty is not a single concept (it's three), and has aspects that should be defended. I think I'm with Swift on that. Is religious freedom a freedom 'from' something, or a freedom 'to do' something?
29. Religion / B. Monotheistic Religion / 2. Judaism
Judaism and Christianity views are based on paternal, family and tribal relations
     Full Idea: The notion from which both Judaism and Christianity to a large degree sprang is the notion of family life, the relations of father and son, perhaps the relations of members of a tribe to one another.
     From: Isaiah Berlin (The Roots of Romanticism [1965], Ch.1)
     A reaction: He compares this with Plato's mathematical view of reality. Key stories would be Abraham and Isaac, and Jesus being the 'son' of God, which both touch the killing of the child. Berlin means that the universe is explained this way.