Isaiah Berlin: A Value Pluralist and Humanist View of Human Nature and the Meaning of Life

By: Connie Aarsbergen-Ligtvoet

Published by Rodopi, Amsterdam/New York, ISBN 90-420-1929-8         

Aims and Method of this Study 

Aim, Approach and Main Thread

In the past two decades the Western world has become increasingly plur­alistic. There is a great deal of diversity, especially with regard to the (mor­al, aesthetic and epistemological) frameworks which people use in making judgements. The most important reason for this situation is undoubtedly the mass immigration of non-Western people who often hold very different views on, for instance, the relationship between the sexes, the place of honour in customs and morality and the sep­aration of religion and state. But the processes of individualisation and secularisation of the original Western population have also accelerated in the past decades. Many Wes­terners regard themselves literally as auto-nomos, i.e. living by the values and rules they themselves make or choose to embrace. The dif­ferences be­tween cultures and subcultures have turned out to be more pro­found than expected. The optimism with regard to the integration of non-Western immigrants into Western society and the trust that the in­dividu­alisation of Westerners would not lead to antisocial behaviour have turned into a profound concern as to how a set of common values and norms can be established that this culturally diverse population as a whole would support (see, for instance, Etzioni 2003).

This awareness of the profound nature of pluralism is not new. Already in the 1950s Sir Isaiah Berlin began to publish on the conflictive and non-harmonious nature of pluralism. Berlin’s fundamental notion is that in our (moral) universe[1] not only is there a diversity of values and ends but that which we consider to be good and worthwhile is itself filled with tension and inner conflict. We are confronted not only with the problem of the in­compatibility of values and ends but also with that of incommensurability. There is no commonly shared standard or yardstick available by which these value conflicts can be resolved. For today’s multicultural challenges Berlin’s contribution to the theory of pluralism is indispensable. He shows that there is not only moral diversity but that there are alsoconflicts within “the good”, including different value systems and different concepts of justice for resolving these conflicts.

The fields of philosophy of religion and interreligious dialogue have not sufficiently taken up Berlin’s notions of value pluralism. This means that these fields have not benefited from Berlin’s insights into the roots of ideologically and religiously inspired violence which Berlin connects with the denial or negation of value pluralism. For the latter reason alone Berlin’s ideas need wider application.

Isaiah Berlin himself did not systematise his views. There have, however, been a number of studies in the area of political philosophy that reflect on Berlin’s fruitful ideas for a world struggling with different views of the good life. To make Berlin’s ideas more accessible to areas outside that of politics, in particular, those of the philosophy of religion and interreligious dialogue, I will describe Berlin’s view of human nature and the meaning of life. I will approach this from the perspectives of both philo­sophical anthropology and the philosophy of religion. This entails that Berlin’s basic ideas will be treated as a worldview that includes not only a specific view of human nature and the meaning of life but also truth claims about the nature of the (moral) universe and ideas on how the human situation can be improved. (In religious terms the latter would be called a soteriology).

In this study we should not expect a fully elaborated political or moral philosophy on how to deal with moral diversity and value conflicts. Berlin was first of all a historian of ideas. Yet in his worldview we can find the building blocks that preceed political and moral application.

Central in Berlin’s world-view is of course his view of human nature. He combines his perspective of value pluralism with a view of human na­ture that belongs to the humanist family. It is difficult to indicate the essence of the latter, as it has many forms and meanings, but one of its central characteristics—which is also present in Berlin’s thought—is a positive belief in the human ability and potential to solve humanity’s problems. This includes the willingness to resolve value conflicts in a decent way (chapter 1.4), the ability to understand one another (chapter 5) and the presence of a basic morality (chapter 6). Berlin’s combination of value pluralism with this positive humanism is not self-evident. Value pluralism could equally well be combined with a much darker view of human nature, stressing the inability to understand one another, the lack of a commonly shared morality and human beings as innately evil. Such a distrust of human nature could lead to a preference for conservative politics, whereas Berlin’s more optimistic view leads to the defence of a liberal and open society. Berlin therefore combines his value pluralism with a liberal humanism. I have used the term “humanist family” deliberately, because I wish to approach humanism as a worldview in a non-holistic way. As in any other worldview, there are within humanism various schools, overlappings and combinations with other religions and worldviews, which makes it difficult to point to “one” essence or core. Berlin himself had difficulty defining humanism and did not label himself as such. Yet, not only as a “believer” in human potential but also as a defender of human dignity, of liberty, of diversity and of universal morality we can recognise many “typical” characteristics of the humanist family in his basic ideas. The combination of this with his perspective of value pluralism also makes Berlin an important challenger to humanism. He is particularly critical of those movements that, however well intended, tend to crush diversity, such as the utopian and socialist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the cosmopolitan developments of today.

The general aim of this study is to give a systematic description and analysis of the view of human nature and meaning of life that the humanist and value pluralist Sir Isaiah Berlin holds. The main thread running throughout this study is to show how Berlin’s value pluralism differs from relativism. The incommensurability thesis that Berlin, as a value pluralist, holds could easily lead to the conclusion that value pluralism is a form of relativism, the school of thought that, according to Berlin’s definition, “holds that there are no objective values” (CTH: 81). This is, however, not the case. In this study we will follow Berlin’s struggle with the following dilemma. As a pluralist, Berlin appreciated diversity, both culturally and morally. Yet at the same time he wanted to protect certain universal values. How can he combine both commitments? In our present multicultural societies this is a well-known problem and receives a great deal of attention in contemporary humanism. In his inaugural address On Human Dignity the Dutch humanist Fons Elders formulated this question as follows:

Humanism has a special position in the struggle between universal values on the one hand, and context-bounded values on the other hand. In the humanist tradition, both poles are intellectually and emotionally present. Many humanists have a strong need to see things in relative terms, but at the same time, they wish to maintain certain universal values or principles. The question is not whether this is possible, but how. (Elders 1992: 27)

By means of this analysis of Berlin’s oscillation between both commitments I will shed some light on how his value pluralism differs from relativist positions, as found in, for instance, contemporary conventionalism and postmodernism. For both epistemological positions there is no overarching standard or truth, and knowledge is simply a matter of convention or construction. Conventionalists, however, still attempt to avoid (radical) relativism by referring to the validity of particular standards. Like post­modernism and conventionalism, Berlin’s value pluralism can be regarded as a reaction to modernity. Already in the 1950s and 1960s Berlin resisted the ruling academic requirements in Oxford that squeezed the richness of reality into the narrow straitjacket of the sciences. To resist modernism, however, Berlin did not draw his inspiration from twentieth-century continental thinkers like Heidegger and Gadamer but from the Counter-En­lightenment (for Berlin the eighteenth-century reaction to the Cartesian domination in science) and Romanticism, leading to quite another philosophical position.

In this study I will look not only at the epistemological aspects but also at the ontological dimensions of this dilemma. We will see that Berlin os­cillates between the subjectivist and the realist position. The subjectivist position holds values are merely constructs of the human mind, whereas the realist position holds that values exist independent of the human mind. To explain the moral and cultural diversity on earth, the subjectivist position is attractive to Berlin because it supports his pluralism. Yet it has rel­ativist consequences that he seeks to avoid. The realist foundation provides a better foundation for the absoluteness of values. The drawback, however, is that this position easily leads to the monist belief that there is only one pre-given moral framework beyond time and change. Berlin wants to combine the advantages of both ontological positions without its drawbacks. Will he succeed in this?

A possible application of this study is interreligious dialogue.[2] One of the persisting problems in contemporary dialogue between religions and worldviews is that views of human nature and the meaning of life often remain hidden and implicit. If these views are not made explicit, one of the most important sources for religious conflict will be overlooked. For instance, we would still be unaware of the deepest obstacles to the acceptance of liberal democracies or to the integration of immigrants into Western society.

To reveal the basic assumptions within Western liberalism and humanism, the ideas and works of Isaiah Berlin are particularly insightful. This is not because Berlin is a typical liberal or humanist (if it is at all possible to speak of a “type”) but because he takes up dialogue with the Western tradition itself, in his own way, as an essayist (rather than as a systematic thinker) writing about the (Western) history of ideas. Berlin is self-re­flective enough to be aware of his own worldview (which he calls his Weltanschauung).[3] From this position he engages various (mostly Western) religions and worldviews critically. His work therefore contains not only profound knowledge of how humanism and liberalism differ from (Western and non-Western) religious perspectives but also insight into the controversies within the humanist and liberal family itself, such as the ten­sions between libertarianism and socialism, cosmopolitan and non-cosmo­politan forms of liberalism, individualist, conservative, communi­tarian[4] movements and naive and radical nihilist tendencies.

In sum, the primary aim of this study is to reconstruct Berlin’s view of human nature and the meaning of life. The main thread running through this reconstruction will be to show how Berlin’s value pluralism differs from relativism. The reasons for this study are twofold. First, I want to in­troduce the insights found in Berlin’s value pluralism to areas outside that of political science, in particular the field of philosophy of religion in order to enrich and complement the theory of pluralism. Second, this study can facilitate interreligious dialogue because it reveals the most basic assumptions in Western humanist and liberal thought which so often remains implicit and hidden to outsiders. In the final chapter this primary aim and main thread will be reflected in two different summaries (chapter 8.1 and 8.2): the first will summarize Berlin’s anthropology and the second will evaluate Berlin’s attempt to remain committed to both universality and particularity. This study will end (chapter 8.3) with an overview of the humanist strands in Berlin’s thought in light of a pluralist context. 


Unlike other twentieth-century thinkers, such as Scheler, Plessner, Jaspers and Gehlen, Berlin did not leave behind a systematic anthropology. His views of human nature and the meaning of life can be found scattered throughout his many essays. Berlin was not a philosophical anthropologist but a historian of ideas who expressed his own philosophical views in his essays. Berlin was not a systematic thinker but an essayist who was fully aware that the complexity of life can never be captured in a system. Reflection on human nature, however, has played a major role in Berlin’s history of ideas. The key to understanding past and foreign cultures is a good grasp of the ruling ideas of human nature. Throughout his essays Berlin has shown how implicit anthropologies often contribute to either human suffering or flourishing. Berlin rejected the idea of squeezing human nature into an essentialist or metaphysical teleological view. He did not want an essentialism that presupposed a fixed and unchangeable human nature or a fixed purpose and an appointed place for humans in the universe and, consequently, guidelines on how men and women should live. Instead, Berlin only describes a number of basic human characteristics that reflect the human condition without any (pre-given metaphysical) teleological views as to how life should be lived. From Berlin’s scattered anthropological ideas I have derived the following characteristics. Human beings

are confronted with value conflicts in personal and social life; they are doomed to choose and live in a non-harmonious and tragic moral universe (chapter 1);

have no hope of a harmonious society on earth (chapter 2);

are pursuers of ends with the power of choice, who shape their own and others’ lives (chapter 3);

have a need to belong to a group or community and to be recognised (chapter 4);

are able to understand one another and have a capacity of empathic (re­constructive) imagination (chapter 5);

are endowed with a basic morality (chapter 6);

are easily blinded by wrong concepts and categories, leading to unne­cessary suffering and self-inflicted “evil” (chapter 7). 

Central to this study will be Berlin’s so-called “mature” ideas as a value pluralist that dominated his intellectual life since the Second World War. In his long and productive life Berlin published philosophical essays from the 1930s right into the early 1990s. His ideas had already started to develop just before the war, when he was writing Karl Marx: His Life and Environment (1939). They came to fruition in the 1950s, after the Second World War and during the Cold War as a reaction to the horrors of the twentieth century. In this study I will deal only briefly with his pre-war thought. During the rest of his life his thought remained fairly stable, although there were some adjustments towards the end that will also be indicated in this study. Berlin gradually blunted the sharp edges of the value pluralism he initially expressed so boldly in the 1950s in order to escape radical relativist consequences.

In this study I will not only describe but also analyse Berlin’s thoughts. An important source of inspiration for this ‘descriptive analytic approach’ is Berlin’s value pluralism itself, namely the awareness of the presence of perennial value conflicts and the need to make difficult choices and compromises. By way of analogy, I assume that in his intellectual life Berlin also stood at many philosophical crossroads that required difficult decisions and confronted him with undesired consequences which he could not escape if he was to avoid greater disadvantages. In my approach I will in fact look more closely at what Berlin himself calls the “citadel” or “fortress” of a philosopher:

It was, I think, Bertrand Russell—Mill’s godson—who remarked somewhere that the deepest conviction of philosophers are seldom contained in their formal arguments: fundamental beliefs, comprehensive views of life are like citadels which must be guarded against the enemy. Philosophers expend their intellectual power in arguments against actual and possible objections to their doctrines, and although the reasons they find, and the logic that they use, may be complex, ingenious, and formidable, they are defensive weapons; the inner fortress itself—the vision of life for the sake of which the ware is being waged—will, as a rule, turn out to be relatively simple and unsophisticated. (FEL: 200-01; L: 245-46)

As indicated above, as a philosopher of religion, I will also approach Berlin’s value pluralism as a worldview, as a Weltanschauung that he needs to defend.

Berlin’s Biography

For readers interested in a detailed description of Berlin’s life, I refer them to Michael Ignatieff’s excellent biography Isaiah Berlin (1998). In this short summary of Berlin’s (intellectual) biography I will focus only on the roots of Berlin’s double commitment, namely his desire to protect universal values and to avoid radical relativism and at the same time his desire to allow and respect moral and cultural diversity.

Berlin considered himself to be very lucky to have survived the twentieth century. His Jewish relatives were less fortunate. His parents were forced to leave Riga (Latvia) during the Russian Revolution, not because they were Jews but because they belonged to the bourgeoisie. England turned out to be a good choice for this small refugee family. The young Berlin was a brilliant philosophy student and in the early 1930s he became the first Jew ever to be admitted as a Fellow at All Souls College (Oxford). In the pre-war years Berlin was mainly occupied with combating the logical positivist position which was prevalent at that time. In 1935 he was given the chance to develop his other philosophical talents and wrote a book on Karl Marx, which he finished in 1938 and which was well received. During the Second World War Berlin left Oxford to become a political analyst for the Ministry of Information and Foreign Office in Washington. He was aware, during the war, of the heavy persecution of the Jews but did not know about the death camps. His Jewish relatives who had stayed behind in Riga were almost entirely exterminated by the Nazis. During his stay in the USA in and just after the war, Berlin lobbied for an independent state for Israel. After the war he also stayed a while in the USSR where he became acquainted with a number of Russian writers and poets. One of them, Anna Akhmatova, was later persecuted for her contacts with Berlin. For his Zionist activities Berlin was offered a place in the Chaim Weizmann administration in Israel in 1948. However, he declined and returned to Oxford to become a histor­ian of ideas, fighting “the betrayers of freedom” [5] with his many essays and lectures.

In the post-war years Oxford was still under the positivist spell and did not consider Berlin’s history of ideas as proper philosophy at all. The general public, however, welcomed Berlin’s approach. His BBC radio lectures in the 1950s and 1960s on topics such as “Freedom and its Betrayal”and “The Roots of Romanticism” were popular. Berlin was embraced as one of the great liberal fighters against Communism. We will see in this study that Berlin’s liberal position is less classical and more social than is often supposed in general textbooks. In 1958 Berlin entered the field of political science with his “Two Concepts of Liberty.”Many excellent essays on various other topics followed. The terrible fate of the Jews in Nazi Germany and the dissident thinkers in the USSR made Berlin determined to protect basic universal values. This meant that he had to reject moral relativism.

Berlin’s intellectual biography also shows quite a different commitment, namely the protection of cultural diversity and particularity. Human lives should not be moulded into universal and monist systems of values and norms. Cultural diversity is an intrinsic value for Berlin. As a young man, he had read Machiavelli’s The Prince and Discourses and the differences between Christian and Roman morality struck him (CTH: 8). Further reading of the writings of Giambattista Vico and Johann Gottfried Herder made him aware not only of the richness and beauty of cultural diversity but also of the fact that each culture had its own centre of gravity, its own point of reference. Therefore, cultures should not be judged from without but only from within. One of the disturbing consequences of this view ­is that it could lead to the denial of the existence of universal and timeless truths. That would open the door to moral relativism, a philo­sophical position that would give Berlin nothing to use against those who excuse their atrocious acts simply by referring to their different cultural and moral backgrounds.

Berlin’s desire to protect both universal and particular values presents him with a philosophical challenge. Does he succeed in combining both commitments?

Word version


[1] Value pluralists use the term ‘moral universe’ to refer to the ‘world’ of values, norms and ethics that surrounds human beings. The ontological status of this moral universe is not immediately clear in Berlin’s work. In this study we will see that Berlin osciliates between a subjectivist (constructivist) and a realist position.

[2] This study has been done as part of the project “Why are Human Beings on Earth?” of the Free University of Amsterdam. In this project (1999-2004) the Buddhist, Christian, Moslem and Hindu philosophies of human life in a pluralist context have been studied as well. With these five studies a comparative religious anthropology is offered for the purpose of interreligious dialogue.

[3] Berlin defined Weltanschauung as the “general belief and attitudes towards life” and knew that a person’s Weltanschauung very much influences his or her moral, political, aesthetic and epistemological views (Quinton 1955: 417, 501).

[4] Communitarianism is a model of political organization that stresses ties of affection, kinship, and a sense of common purpose and tradition, as opposed to the meagre morality of contractual ties entered into between a loose conglomeration of individuals (Blackburn 1994:70). 

[5] This reflects the title of one of Berlin’s collection of essays based on his BBC radio lectures Freedom and its Betrayal (2002).