The Making of Isaiah Berlin

by Mario Clemens

Henry Hardy, the main editor of Isaiah Berlin, has invented a new genre, a sort of “making-of” for academic publishing. If Hardy will not have many emulators – and I doubt that he will – this is only because of the lack of stories equally suitable for such an approach.

Hardy’s book, with the seemingly odd title, “In search of Isaiah Berlin. A literary journey” consists of two independent parts. First, Hardy tells the story of an editor (himself) who struggled with an author (Berlin) unusually reluctant to have his works published. In the second part of the book, Hardy discusses some perceived obscurities within Berlin’s writings, which he had the chance to address in a vivid correspondence that lasted for slightly more than two decades, from 1975 until Berlin’s death in 1997.

Hardy first met Berlin in the early 1970s when studying philosophy at Wolfson College, Oxford, where the latter served as president. Hardy had already some experience with editing, an activity that suited his temperament. “Evidently the process of gathering together a jumble of material and turning it into a presentable form appealed to my somewhat obsessive and organizing nature” (p. 24), Hardy observes. A friend of him, who knew of those qualities and who understood that Berlin’s scattered and widely unknown oeuvre was in dire need of editing, suggested to Hardy to contact Berlin. Once the later had agreed that a couple of his writings be published as a book, Hardy started by compiling a bibliography; an undertaking that proved hard in a time before the internet and with Berlin remembering only parts of what he had written. When done, the list of Berlin’s writings contained 137 items – even those close to Berlin were astonished, not least since Berlin had been regarded as a great thinker – a great thinker –  but one with a rather poor publication record. 

In between spring 1978 and autumn 1980, four volumes with ‘selected writings’ appeared: “Russian Thinkers” (1978), “Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays” (1978), “Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas” (1979) and finally “Personal Impressions” (1980). It followed a comparatively quiet decade for the duo Hardy/Berlin, which nonetheless produced the fruit of yet another volume; in 1990, “The Crooked Timber of Humanity” appeared.

Isaiah Berlin at the Erasmus Prize ceremony in Amsterdam, 27 October 1983 (Source: Nationaal Archief NL/Rob C. Croes, released to public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of the 1980s, Berlin had reached the conclusion (or perhaps better: had been convinced by others) that it was best to ensure that his ‘posthumous writings’, as he mockingly called them, were better edited while he was still alive. Once the funding was secured, Hardy became Berlin’s full-time editor, dealing with the massive treasure of unpublished material that he had discovered only shortly before when he was allowed to take a look at the heaps of unsorted and half-hidden unpublished papers in Berlin’s Oxford home, Headington House. Hardy continued his work beyond Berlin’s death in 1997 and when he ‘retired’ in 2014 had edited (or co-edited) 22 books, mainly comprised of compilations of lectures, essays, and letters; most of them had been substantially improved in the editing process in terms of accuracy while some had even been compiled from different manuscripts and recordings.

What may sound like a smooth story of success was, in fact, the result of a constant struggle. Not only was Berlin hesitant to publish, but he also changed his mind regularly. On one occasion – the “Philosophical Papers” were ready for print, all the editing was done, and the unavoidable minor fights about what papers to include and which not had been fought –  Berlin suddenly doubted that the volume should be published at all (p. 41).  As Hardy reports, “throughout our relationship I felt I had to push as hard as I dared, at every step, in order to secure the best outcome that I could in the face of Berlin’s ingrained self-doubt, hesitancy and caution.” (p. 31).

Why, one inevitable wonders, was Berlin so reluctant to have his works published and re-printed? In some cases, Berlin gives the impression that he doesn’t take himself too seriously and hence couldn’t care less whether his writings were being published. There is a certain plausibility here, since, how could it otherwise be that such an enormously productive author did not take any action whatsoever to further his reputation by (re)publishing, many of his already written texts?

However, indifference can not be the whole story, as this would explain his lukewarm reaction to the offer to get his writings (back) into print, but not his active resistance to it; indifference would have meant to not care either way. Apart from a couple of reasonably plausible objections against the publication of this and that particular piece, what seems to lay at the bottom of Berlin’s notorious reluctance to publish is captured in a sentence of a letter Berlin wrote to Hardy: “‘Fear shame’ (…) I think this is probably the governing motto of my life.” (p. 78). Berlin must have suffered from an almost neurotic fear to embarrass himself in public. A character trait that also let him prepare lectures and public speeches with extreme care: “Lectures always involved compulsive over-preparation, endless refining from sixty pages to thirty, then to ten, and finally to single-headings on a single piece of paper, which were ignored when he entered seance-like state of performance” (Ignatieff, p. 225).

If Berlin might be called a perfectionist in this sense, he surely wasn’t one in another sense. When, for instance, asked by Hardy if he could possibly give him the source for a quotation used in one of his texts, he replied: “Again, you don’t need a reference, it is a very famous formula (…), always attributed to Barrès, nobody bothers about where it is to be found – like ‘blood and soil’ as a Nazi slogan (did Hitler use it in Mein Kampf or somewhere else? Who knows, who cares?)”. (p. 77). On which Hardy comments: “For me the fact that nobody so bothers is an increased incentive to pin down the original source. I care.” (Hardy, p. 77). Their striking difference in temperament – also a source of tensions on rare occasions – must be considered a fortune, as it led to an extremely productive work relationship. Hardy’s pedantic nature not only led him to detect – like a tracker dog, as Ignatieff puts it – every missing source and incorrect quotation but also ask for clarifications when he felt Berlin was being vague or contradictory in his arguments. The later partly served the practical purpose of getting manuscripts ready for print but was also driven by Hardy’s personal obsession with specific questions. “My close work on his texts”, Hardy explains, “reopened for me questions about his thought that had long preoccupied me – even tormented me – and I began to ask these questions in my letters. I am astonished today at the patience and thoroughness with which he replied, and it seems to me that, taken together, his answers constitute an important supplement to his published work, clarifying it at certain crucial points and preventing natural misinterpretations at others”. (p. 133). Selected parts of this correspondence combined with interwoven commentary by Hardy form the second part of the book, evidently of particular interest toexperts on Berlin’s thinking.

The book’s second part contains delightful passages such as when Berlin explains that he had always felt that there should be a third category in addition to ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’, as he doesn’t understand what ‘God’ is supposed to mean; “‘agnostic’ means one who doesn’t know,; ‘atheist’ means one who doesn’t believe; but there is no word for one who doesn’t understand”. (p. 216) Apart from such beautiful passages, the second part of the book can best be understood as an inherent critique of some of the central concepts of Berlin’s writings with the attempt to reduce internal inconsistencies and present Berlin’s ideas in the most precise way possible. This attempt manifests in the form of selected passages from their correspondence as well as taking the form of posthumous philosophical comments provided by Hardy.

Although Hardy worked hard in his letters to lead Berlin to a clarifying explanation of this or that passage or idea, there are occasions where he does not succeed and is left with the impression that this might be because Berlin simply does not know the answer himself. Hardy – on a different occasion – makes the interesting observation, that Berlin’s later writings suffer from a lack of productive critique:

“When Berlin turned from pure philosophy to the history of ideas, and increasingly took on the role of a public moralist, he moved into territory that was sparsely populated in his immediate intellectual environment, and populated, if at all, by persons not specially inclined or able to subject his observations to the exact and exacting challenge of a Frank Hardie [Berlin’s tutor at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, “who taught him philosophical self-discipline”; Ignatieff, p. 49]. In short, he became intellectually imprecise because no one stood up to him.  (…) Again and again, I have had occasions to regret that Berlin was not challenged earlier and more rigorously. If he had been, we might today be less puzzled about some features of his outlook.” (Hardy, p. 170-171)

“In Search of Isaiah Berlin” is the testimony of an editor that devoted the better part of his life to a search for Isaiah Berlin – literally, when digging out unpublished texts buried in Headington House, and metaphorically when trying to find the appropriate meaning in blurry or even contradictory passages of Berlin’s writing.

The second part of the book is an essential contribution to the study of Berlin’s ideas, providing not only helpful commentary but – through its drawing on many hitherto unpublished letters – entirely new insights and bases for further debate. In the first part of the book, Henry Hardy shares his “literary adventure”, starring two unequal heroes with opposite talents, whose meeting let the one find his true vocation while turning the other from an alleged “salon virtuoso” into one of the most important political thinkers of the 20th century.

Henry Hardy: In Search of Isaiah Berlin, A Literary Adventure
I.B.Tauris, London/New York 2018.
ISBN: 978-1788312448
320 pages, £20.00.

Michael Ignatieff: Isaiah Berlin, A Life.
Metropolitan Books, New York 1998.
ISBN: 978-0805055207
356 pages, US$32.00

Mario Clemens is a staff member of the Institute of Conflict Management (IKM) at Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder).