Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Isaiah Berlin and Counter-Enlightement

From a discussion on Language Hat:

"I'm reading about that right now in Isaiah Berlin's "The Counter-Enlightenment," where he talks about Vico and Hamann and Herder and all those guys who saw difficulties with the program. People sometimes think Berlin was taking their side (I remember being quite taken aback by his long and quite favorable piece about the repellent Joseph de Maistre some years ago)"

As regards Berlin's essay on de Maistre, I rather liked it, and was also grateful for the epigraph from Hugo:

Un roi, c'est un homme équestre,
Personnage à numéro,
En marge duquel de Maistre
Écrit : Roi, lisez : Bourreau.

As for the counter-enlightement, for me, the most important observation of Berlin's was that, paradoxically, the Enlightement thinkers shared with the conservatives and Christian theologists of all kinds one fundamental approach: that all really important questions could be formulated, and that they all have answers that are not in contradiction with each other; as compared to this fundamental assumption it was not as important whether the answers were revealed by God, or were discoverable by science, or both, or whether all of them were knowable. Both the Enlightement thinkers and their early critics were living in a universe that could, in principle, be understood inside a single, non-contradictory, philosophical system.

Enter people like Machiavelli, saying that one can't be an efficient ruler and have a clear conscience, or people like Herder or even Montesquieu, saying that every culture can be only understood in its own terms. That was, for Berlin, at the root of both the Romantic movement and his own understanding of life as a tragic choice, not the search for a way to both eat and preserve the proverbial pie. What makes the choice tragic, in the original sense of the word, is that you have to reject something to have something else. This, I think, was the reason Berlin was trying to "stress test" the Enlightement and was so interested in its critics and in all manner of "against the current" thinkers.

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