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November 5: Isaiah Berlin

November 5, 2013

Isaiah-Berlin[1]Russian-born British philosopher and social theorist Isaiah Berlin died at 88 in Oxford on this date in 1997. A descendant of Shneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad hasidism, Berlin left Russia with his well-to-do family after the Bolshevik Revolution. He worked for his entire adult life at Oxford, and was much admired as a lecturer; the Isaiah Berlin Lectures are held annually at Oxford’s Wolfson College. Berlin was a lifelong liberal whose attacks on political extremism and ideological fanaticism, beginning in the 1950s, were key parts of his intellectual arsenal. His 1958 essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” “remains one of the most influential and widely discussed texts” in political science, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “[A]dmirers and critics agree that Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty remains, for better or worse, a basic starting-point for theoretical discussions of the meaning and value of political freedom.” According to Marilyn Berger’s obituary for Berlin in the New York Times, “Sir Isaiah defied classification. A renowned scholar, he was also a bon vivant, a sought-after conversationalist, a serious opera buff and an ardent Zionist. He shattered the popular concept of the Oxford don surrounded by dusty books and dry tutorials. His was an exuberant life crowded with joys -- the joy of thought, the joy of music, the joy of good friends.” To see an interview with him that was withheld from the public until after his death, look below.

“Utopias have their value -- nothing so wonderfully expands the imaginative horizons of human potentialities -- but as guides to conduct they can prove literally fatal.”—Isaiah Berlin