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Isaiah Berlin:
An Interpretation of His Thought
John Gray
With a new introduction by the author

Paperback | 2013 | $24.95 | £16.95 | ISBN: 9780691157429
240 pp. | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2
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Isaiah Berlin's Web Page

Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was the greatest intellectual historian of the twentieth century. But his work also made an original and important contribution to moral and political philosophy and to liberal theory.

In 1921, at the age of eleven, Isaiah Berlin arrived in England from Riga, Latvia. By the time he was thirty he was at the heart of British intellectual life. He has remained its commanding presence ever since, and few would dispute that he was one of Britain's greatest thinkers. His reputation extends worldwide--as a great conversationalist, intellectual historian, and man of letters. He has been called the century's most inspired reader.

Yet Berlin's contributions to thought--in particular to moral and political philosophy, and to liberal theory--are little understood, and surprisingly neglected by the academic world. In this book, they are shown to be animated by a single, powerful, subversive idea: value-pluralism which affirms the reality of a deep conflict between ultimate human values that reason cannot resolve. Though bracingly clear-headed, humane and realist, Berlin's value-pluralism runs against the dominant Western traditions, secular and religious, which avow an ultimate harmony of values. It supports a highly distinctive restatement of liberalism in Berlin's work--an agnostic liberalism, which is founded not on rational choice but on the radical choices we make when faced with intractable dilemmas. It is this new statement of liberalism, the central subject of John Gray's lively and lucid book, which gives the liberal intellectual tradition a new lease on life, a new source of life, and which comprises Berlin's central and enduring legacy.

In a new introduction, Gray argues that, in a world in which human freedom has spread more slowly than democracy, Berlin's account of liberty and basic decency is more instructive and useful than ever.

John Gray is the acclaimed, bestselling author of many books, including Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, Al Qaeda and What It Means To Be Modern, Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings, The Immortalization Commission: The Strange Quest to Cheat Death, and The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. He is professor emeritus of European thought at the London School of Economics and a regular contributor to the Guardian, New York Review of Books, New Republic, and New Statesman.


"Gray's book is as much a reconstruction as a presentation of Berlin's thought. . . . Gray's reconstruction is . . . impressive and revealing. It points persuasively to both the overall coherence and the internal tensions of Berlin's thought. . . . Gray has written an acute and illuminating exposition of Berlin's world view. . . . He probably gets closer to Berlin than anyone else has done."--Michael Walzer, New York Review of Books

"Gray is a forceful writer, an engaged political theorist with a serious interest in philosophical fundamentals."--Steven Lukes, Times Literary Supplement

"A careful study. . . .Gray astutely guides readers through the complex ideas of an important philosopher."--Publishers Weekly

"Isaiah Berlin's commitment to liberalism for all its difficulties remains solid, and Mr. Gray's argument is that this 'agonistic' liberalism is our best bet. . . . It is an argument not to be missed."--Colin Walters, Washington Times

"A masterly study of Berlin's political thought. . . . Gray brilliantly expounds in highly condensed prose Berlin's theory of pluralism, developing its direction and course, even where Berlin is silent, and explaining its political relevance."--Adam Wolfson, National Interest

"An excellent exposition of Isaiah Berlin's ideas. [Gray] is particularly interesting in his account of Berlin's idea of negative freedom."--William Phillips, Partisan Review

"A thought-provoking analysis…. Gray raises all of the right sort of questions about Berlin's position."--Choice

"Succeed[s] in bringing the daring of [Berlin's] thinking so clearly into view. . . . Berlin's commitment to liberalism for all its difficulties remains solid, and Mr. Gray's argument is that this 'agonistic' liberalism is our best bet. . . . It is an argument not to be missed."--Colin Walters, Washington Times

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Table of Contents:

Acknowledgements vii
Introduction to the New Edition 1
Introduction to the Original Edition 36
1. The Idea of Freedom 41
2. Pluralism 74
3. History 111
4. Nationalism 133
5. Romanticism and the Counter-Enlightenment 156
6. Agonistic Liberalism 175
Notes 203
Concise Bibliography of Berlin's Work 215
Index 223

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File created: 12/28/2015

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