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The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and…

The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History

by Isaiah Berlin

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These essays by Isaiah Berlin didn't quite strike a chord with me. I did recognize impressive erudition in them, but it was not the kind of erudition which would inspire me. The first two essays, Sense of Reality and Political Judgment, were disappointing because I expected something a bit more novel. Berlin's ideas about the nature of historiography seem to have been influenced by Collingwood's writings on the same subject, but in terms of philosophical depth they pale in comparison. The same goes for his perspective on political knowledge when compared, for example, to Woodrow Wilson's essay Leaders of Men. Although I agree with Berlin's main arguments in both essays, I think the same observations had been made by others before him with greater acuity.

The other essays in this book discuss the history of marxism, romantic thought, Russian art and so on. I don't mind reading broadly, but Berlin's style did not appeal to me. It's an understatement to say that he was "well read" in western classics. He's so deeply immersed in them that his every argument rests on what Rousseau, Kant, Marx or one of their innumerable followers had to say about a given subject. This is of course a good approach in the history of ideas, but Berlin's own contribution seems to be one of panoramic synthesis, not in-depth analysis. I think this book is suitable for readers who want to explore selected topics in 18th-20th century European thought through essays written in beautifully crafted but not very pointed language (some of Berlin's sentences are incredibly long). It is not well suited for readers who prefer to proceed systematically from premise to argument to conclusion.
  thcson | May 13, 2014 |
Sir Isaiah Berlin is one of my favorite authors. I have quite a few of his books. He writes about the history of ideas which covers a lot of territory. His knowledge of history, philosophy and literature is encyclopedic. In his obituary Henry Hardy wrote "he showed in more than one direction the unexpectedly large possibilities open to us at the top range of human potential". In other words he was a genius at what he did. I love to read his writing but I have to really study it because he gets over my head so quickly. It is work but it is worth it.
This book like several others is a book of essays that was put together by Hardy. Berlin's essays contain more real content than most books and my copy of this book is full of underlining and margin notes done to get the most I can out of what he wrote. I have not studied anything this thoroughly since law school. At the same time his writing is so fluid and full of detail that I find reading it enriching and enjoyable.
The essays are all on different topics. Several discuss aspects of topics that appear often in Berlin's writing. The title essay discusses a basic question in the study of history. He wrote a short interesting book called The Hedgehog and the Fox about Tolstoy's philosophy of history from War and Peace. Berlin's "sense of reality" is what governs what we can and can't know about history. He concludes that the limited knowledge of the facts of history restricts the ability to make broad conclusions about trends in history.
The essay starts out using Stalin and Hitler as examples of the fallacy of the idea that there is some type of human progress in history. Berlin challenges the validity of "systems of history" such as those of Hegel or Marx. There are simply too many variables in the facts of the past to be able to know them much less explain them. Marx may have had some good insights but when his ideas were supposedly put into practice the results he predicted did not come about. That is an incredibly simplistic explanation of one of the ideas in the essay.
Much of Berlin's writing focuses on the effect of the Romantic movement on Western thought. He considers the Romantic Revolution to be the third great turning point in European thought and behavior. Romanticism was a movement that brought about the destruction of the notion of truth and validity in ethics and politics and changed our outlook on the world. Prior to Romanticism one of the central tenets of Western thought was that for every question there is one correct answer, even if we don't know what it is right now. The Romantic movement introduced the concept that some questions have no answer and there could be two conflicting answers to the same question. I have been reading a book by Berlin titled The Romantic Revolution.
The revolution started with the writings of Rousseau and Kant. Their ideas on the free choice others to develop the concept that the greatest act of the individual is the creation of something out of nothing. If the individual really has free choice they are not limited by any objective factors. One individual's choice may be contrary to that of someone else and be equally valid. Motive replaces consequence as the highest value of morality. A person could be admired for their sincerity even if you disagree with their ideas. A good example was the praise by the Governor of Virginia for John Brown's sincerity and commitment. That same Governor was happy to see Brown hang for murder and inciting a slave revolt. This revolution created another imperative that governs our actions. However low we rate the morality of Napoleon we admire his accomplishments and consider him a great man. Now we go back and forth from one ideal to the other in our judgment of what is good or right. This creates a logically unsatisfactory but enriched capacity for understanding men and societies.
One of my favorite essays is about the Marx and the First International. The First International began the international socialist movement in London in 1864. Berlin wrote an excellent biography on Marx which I have read and enjoyed. Berlin shows step by step how Marx created an ideology that became the weapon for the working class in their struggle against the capitalist exploiter. Later in the 19th century socialism dissipated into a movement that became one more voice in the political equilibrium that governs society. It helped to create a better world for the working class that lessened their misery and in most countries eliminated the need for the revolution Marx predicted. In the countries like Russia or China where revolutions took place there were no great masses of working people. The great masses of workers formed political parties and developed faith in gradualist methods. Now members of the socialist trade unions sit on the board of directors of corporations instead of fighting at the barricades. Marx used his great insights into industrial society to predict a world that never came to pass. His great theory of history ran aground on the numerous variables in the facts of human life and society.
In an essay on nationalism Berlin wrote "a craving for recognition has grown to be more powerful than any other force today." My first thought was that this idea is applicable to the individual as well as society. What else but a craving for recognition motivated Jared. L. Lougher to shoot 19 people on January 8, 2011, or inspires people to become contestants on "American Idol". In Berlin's essay he talks about how this idea motivates the struggle of small nations and minorities all over the world. I am always amazed by Berlin's ability to encapsulate in a few words an insight that has such a wide application.
There are a total of nine essays in the book. Every word in his writing has a purpose and you must read the book for yourself and develop your own conclusions. To say the book is excellent is damning with faint praise. Reading one of these essays was like attending a lecture given by a very wise man speaking to me in an engaging personal manner. Explaining in clear direct language some knowledge he had gained that he wanted to pass on. I am sure I would have come out of the lecture with a smile on my face basking in the moment. ( )
2 vote wildbill | Jan 23, 2011 |
not easy to read, but strong views ( )
  robertg69 | Jun 17, 2007 |
Berlin's work is of major importance in developing a thorough understanding of political thought and its development in the modern world.
  Fledgist | Jun 7, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0374525692, Paperback)

The publication of a new book by Sir Isaiah Berlin is always a welcome thing, and The Sense of Reality is no exception. In this volume the eminent scholar gathers nine long essays, eight previously unpublished, on the ideas that have governed European history for the last three centuries: nationalism, liberalism, and especially Marxism. Always seeking to draw moral lessons, Berlin wonders aloud why it is that humans admire men stirred by the lust for power or jealousy of others, or monomaniacal vanity--including notable figures of history like Peter the Great and Napoleon. He proposes a few answers in this study of ideas brought to power, and those answers are always illuminating.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:17 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Isaiah Berlin's The Sense of Reality at last makes available an important body of previously unknown work by one of our leading historians of ideas and one of the finest essayists writing in English. Eight of the nine pieces included here are published for the first time, and their range is characteristically wide. The subjects explored include realism in history, judgment in politics, the history of socialism, the nature and impact of Marxism, the radical cultural. revolution instigated by the Romantics, Russian notions of artistic commitment, and the origins and practice of nationalism. The title essay, starting from the impossibility of historians being able to re-create a bygone epoch, is a superb centerpiece.… (more)

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