Sir Isaiah Berlin

Sir Isaiah Berlin, OM (June 6, 1909–November 5, 1997), was a political philosopher and historian of ideas, regarded as one of the leading liberal thinkers of the 20th century.

Born in Riga, then part of the Russian Empire, he was the first Jew to be elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. From 1957 to 1967, he was Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University of Oxford and helped to found Wolfson College, 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 writings on the theme of individual freedom in society.

Berlin's work on liberal theory has had a lasting influence. His 1958 inaugural lecture, "Two Concepts of Libert", in which he famously distinguished between positive and negative liberty, has informed much of the debate since then on the relationship between liberty and equality.

Berlin was born into a Jewish family, the son of Mendel Berlin, a timber merchant, and his wife Marie, née Volshonok. He spent his childhood in Riga, Latvia and St Peterburg (then called Petrograd), witnessing the Russian Revolution of 1917, and arriving with his family in Britain in 1921.

In the United Kingdom, he was educated at St Paul's School, London, a private school, then at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he studied Greats (Classics) and PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). He was to remain at Oxford for the rest of his life, apart from a period working for the British Information Services in New York (1940—2), and the British Embassies in Washington, D.C. (1942—6) and Moscow(1945—6). In 1956, he married Aline Halban, née de Gunzbourg. Berlin was a friend of the British philosopher Alfred Ayer.

Berlin died in Oxford in 1997, aged 88, and is buried in Wolvercote cemetary.