Isaiah Berlin and the Enlightenment

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Here’s the description provided of the book edited by Laurence Brockliss and Ritchie Robertson, Isaiah Berlin and the Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2016): « Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) was recognized as Britain’s most distinguished historian of ideas. Many of his essays discussed thinkers of what this book calls the ‘long Enlightenment’ (from Vico in the eighteenth century to Marx and Mill in the nineteenth, with Machiavelli as a precursor). Yet he is particularly associated with the concept of the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’, comprising those thinkers (Herder, Hamann, and even Kant) who in Berlin’s view reacted against the Enlightenment’s naive rationalism, scientism and progressivism, its assumption that human beings were basically homogeneous and could be rendered happy by the remorseless application of scientific reason. Berlin’s ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ has received critical attention, but no-one has yet analysed the understanding of the Enlightenment on which it rests. Isaiah Berlin and the Enlightenment explores the development of Berlin’s conception of the Enlightenment, noting its curious narrowness, its ambivalence, and its indebtedness to a specific German intellectual tradition. Contributors to the book examine his comments on individual writers, showing how they were inflected by his questionable assumptions, and arguing that some of the writers he assigned to the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’ have closer affinities to the Enlightenment than he recognized. By locating Berlin in the history of Enlightenment studies, this book also makes a contribution to defining the historical place of his work and to evaluating his intellectual legacy. »

Replique (from the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews)

The fox, it seems, was wrong about many things. Isaiah Berlin’s accounts of Marx are « all flawed in non-trivial ways, » writes David Leopold (p. 23). And « there is no doubt that he penned a few [falsehoods] about Hume, » asserts P.J.E. Kail (p. 69). Karen O’Brien tells us that « Berlin does not provide anything resembling an accurate or rounded account of Montesquieu’s thought, » while Christopher Brooke complains that « Berlin never seems to have felt that he really had to engage with Rousseau as a serious theorist » (pp. 79, 93). Marian Hobson concludes that Berlin is mistaken to think that either Diderot or Hamann « fit into a simple category » (p. 112). Ritchie Robertson insists that Berlin would have recognized how Machiavelli is part of an alternative, minority branch of the Enlightenment if not for his « at best incomplete » account of it (p. 139). John Robertson declares Berlin’s portrayal of Vico « historically incoherent » (p. 159). And Kevin Hilliard feels a need to note that he is « certainly not claiming that Berlin was all wrong » when it comes to his account of Herder (p. 174). Lastly, we hear from Ken Koltun-Fromm that Berlin’s description of Moses Hess is more or less « seriously flawed and misguided, » and from Derek Offord that Berlin is « very partial » about the members of the Russian intelligentsia, indeed so much so that he takes us outside « the realm of scholarship, as we tend to conceive of it in early twenty-first-century academe, and in the direction of apology » (pp. 177, 199). … Continue reading