Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Crooked Timber Of Isaiah Berlin

I find it more than bit amusing that John Quiggin has been posting at Crooked Timber for quite a while and only recently turned to the collection of essays under the same title and came away troubled by some of what he read.

I encountered Berlin's work the spring just before I married/graduated from seminary. Had I read it earlier, I might well have been able to have a more thoughtful conversation with it. As it happened, I read it - along with a few other works, like Rorty's Collected Papers; one of the first edited collections of the writings of Herder in English; and another of Berlin's favorite sources, the little-known Italian writer Giambattista Vico - at a time when my life was, needless to say, in a bit of an uproar. Trying to think through, in a critical way, all this new information, these alternative ways of seeing the world became a bit too much.

Which is not to say any of these works are devoid of positive content. On the contrary, even when Berlin is being snippy about Edmund Burke, or Rorty is insisting that we should live as if the things he claims to be the case are the case, heralding an age of lowered expectations but resigned acceptance which we can call happiness, there are things that need to be considered even as alarm bells are going off and red lights are flashing.

There is much to commend Berlin's view of a liberal pluralism as at least as descriptively accurate as a kind of philosophical realism that still hangs on to an undefined yet persistent idea of "human nature", to which our politics should be responsive. His largeness of moral vision - accepting difference, even incommensurability, as not denoting either some kind of ontological primitivism or moral viciousness - serves at the very least this function: It can keep us from believing, for even a moment, that we and we alone have stumbled upon the final theory, and are therefore obliged to impose it upon the world. Unlike Rorty's pessismistic, small-scale anti-realism - which is little more than acquiescence to an intolerable status quo because, well, things have always sucked, we just don't have the perspective to understand this, so suck it up and deal - Berlin at least have the virtue of understanding that human beings do, indeed, stake their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor for things and that this, too, is a positive moral stance.

At the end of the day, however, I am left with the feeling that Berlin got much more wrong than just Kant's intention in the line about crooked timber and humanity. Emerging from the corpse-strewn 20th century, it is too easy to surrender any commitment for which we should be willing to sacrifice because far too many human beings were sacrificed on the altars of various political and social ideas. Berlin is correct to write that the kind of liberal pluralism he advocates doesn't inspire people to do much; that is his intention. It is, in the end, a surrender to bare facts, without any sense that the other side of this same coin - about which he writes, but with far less passion - includes a willingness to sacrifice for certain social and political ends without ever pretending one has stumbled upon The One True Answer. One must face the reality that all answers are partial; one must also be willing to invest oneself because they are one's own answers to the on-going question, "How are we to live a fully human life, in a society that grants to all full access to the resources to achieve the same ends?"

Like far too many, including successive generations of the American ruling class, Berlin learned the wrong lesson from the midden heaps strewn across our recent history. One can mourn the dead, the uselessness of their loss, yet still believe and be willing to work and even fight for a world that is far better than what we have now. It is not at all "utopian" in the kind of derogatory way Berlin uses the word to believe that like-minded fellow human beings can and should be willing to work together, sacrifice together, to forward their vision of a better life for all. To acknowledge difference, and the full humanity of social and political visions far different, even antithetical to one's own, without insisting with equal vigor on the necessity to struggle against those one finds wanting in some moral way indeed does not inspire heroism. It inspires nothing more than a kind of dread acquiescence.

One can see the virtues of Berlin's exploration of the real human possibilities in other ways of living. One must also acknowledge not only how he, as George Scialabba wrote so well, made a "saw" of Kant's quip, but surrenders our very human birthright to make our world better than it is. In the face of giant steps backwards we in the west have made in recent decades, we should be seeking ways to struggle against a tide that will surely swamp us, a tide far more dangerous in its potential than any adherence to creed or vision that might inspire such a struggle. Our world deserves nothing less.

Virtual Tin Cup

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