Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas by Isaiah Berlin, Henry Hardy, Roger Hausheer, Mark Lilla

By Isaiah Berlin, Henry Hardy, Roger Hausheer, Mark Lilla

In this impressive choice of essays, Isaiah Berlin, one of many nice thinkers of the 20 th century, discusses the significance of dissenters within the historical past of ideas--among them Machiavelli, Vico, Montesquieu, Herzen, and Sorel. together with his strange powers of inventive new version, Berlin brings to lifestyles unique minds that swam opposed to the present in their times--and nonetheless problem traditional wisdom.

In a brand new foreword to this corrected variation, which additionally features a new appendix of letters within which Berlin discusses and additional illuminates a few of its issues, famous essayist Mark Lilla argues that Berlin's choice to renounce a philosophy fellowship and develop into a historian of principles represented no longer an abandonment of philosophy yet a choice to do philosophy by means of different, might be larger, ability. "His intuition informed him," Lilla writes, "that you examine extra approximately an idea as an idea in the event you recognize whatever approximately its genesis and comprehend why yes humans chanced on it compelling and have been spurred to motion via it." This choice of interesting highbrow photographs is a wealthy demonstration of that belief.

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At the earliest, it may be thought to have come into being during the last half of the eighteenth century, a close relative of historicism, pluralism and relativism, and of the various historically based comparative disciplines: anthropology, philology, linguistics, etymology, aesthetics, jurisprudence, sociology, ethnology. Its central preoccupation consists in a large-scale extension of the ancient injunction ‘know thyself ’ to the collective historical whole, the civilisation or culture, in which the individual self is embedded, and of which it is in no small measure a product.

The significance of his doctrines has become apparent only in the centuries since his death, and, as Berlin suggests, some of the most important among them are coming into their own for the first time in the present day. He was probably the first thinker ever to formulate explicitly the thesis that there is no universal, immutable human nature; he revived the ancient doctrine that men truly understand only what they themselves have made, and gave it a revolutionary twist by applying it to history: we understand historical processes, which everywhere bear the stamp of human will, ideals and purposes, as it were from ‘inside’, by a species of sympathetic insight, in a way in which we cannot understand the ‘senseless’ ‘external’ operations of nature, which we did not ourselves make; building, perhaps, on the dim insights of French jurists and universal historians, he virtually created the concept of a culture, all the activities of which bear a distinctive mark and evince a common pattern; he developed the closely connected notion that a culture progresses through an intelligible succession of phases of development which are not connected with each other by mechanical causality, but are interrelated as expressions of the continuously evolving purposive activities of men; he saw human activities as being in the first place forms of self-expression, conveying a total vision of the world; and, perhaps most exciting of all, he created the notion of a new type of knowledge, the reconstructive imagination, or fantasia, the knowledge we acquire of other men at other times and places through entering into their general outlooks, their ways of seeing themselves and their goals –­a form of knowledge which is neither wholly contingent nor deducible a priori.

There can be few more paradoxical chapters in the history of modern European thought. The doctrine that the sole path to knowledge was afforded by the natural, empirical sciences; that all statements with a claim to truth must be in principle publicly testable by any rational being; that there were and could be no other sources of genuine know­ledge, transcendent or non-rational –­these principal tenets of the French Enlightenment encountered increasing opposition from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, even in France itself.

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