Sir Isaiah Berlin

(1909-1997)


Sir Isaiah Berlin, a philosopher and historian of ideas, was regarded as one of the leading liberal thinkers of the twentieth century.

Berlin was born as an only child into a wealthy Jewish family, the son of Mendel Berlin, a timber merchant, and and was a descendent of Israel ben Eliezer. Berlin spent his childhood in Riga, the capital of Latvia, and later lived in Andreapol´ and Petrograd, witnessing both episodes of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The family moved to Britain in 1921, when Berlin was twelve. In London, he lived in South Kensington and later Hampstead. He was educated at London's St. Paul's school, then at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he studied Classics and Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Berlin remained at Oxford for the rest of his life, with the exception of a two-year period between 1940 and 1942 working for British Information Services in New York and the British embassies in Washington, DC and Moscow. In 1956, he married Aline Halban.

Berlin was the first Jewish person to be elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls College at Oxford. From 1957 to 1967, he was Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1963 to 1964. In 1966, he helped to found the Wolfson College at Oxford, and became its first President. He was knighted in 1957, and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1971. He was President of the British Academy from 1974 to 1978. He also received the 1979 Jerusalem Prize for his writings on individual freedom.

Berlin's work on liberal theory has had a lasting influence. His 1958 inaugural lecture, Two Concepts of Liberty, famous for its distinction between positive and negative liberty, has informed much of the debate since then on the relationship between liberty and other values.

He excelled as an essayist and as a brilliant speaker who was known for delivering richly allusive and coherently structured material. He lectured often at Oxford University and was a broadcaster on the BBC Third Programme. He usually spoke publicly without the use of a script. Many of his essays and lectures were later collected in book form.

Berlin died in Oxford in 1997 at the age of 88. He is buried there in Wolvercote Cemetery


Source: Wikipedia

Photo: Clive Barda