Isaiah Berlin Lecture by Dr. Yoram Hazony

Sunday, 19 April, 2015 - 2:11 pm

Hazony.JPGWe are delighted to present the Isaiah Berlin lecture delivered at the Oxford University Chabad Society by Dr. Yoram Hazony, who is President of the Herzl Institute and former head and founder of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

It is humbling to come here to Oxford and stand in a place where Isaiah Berlin once stood and be tasked with sharing my own thoughts about Isaiah Berlin and his legacy and to think about the place of the Jew in contemporary philosophy and theology.

Let me begin this challenge by saying that if our subject is the place of the Jew in contemporary philosophy and theology, then there is no better place to begin than here at Oxford with Isaiah Berlin. In many ways we can think of his career that began in Oxford in the 1930s and didn’t end until the 1990s, a span of 60 years, as a career in which when he first entered there was almost no question whether there should be Jews as Jews contributing to philosophy and theology here in the heart of western Christian civilization. By the time he had concluded, a transformation had been worked such that today it’s not an exaggeration to say that such is the openness to hearing what Jews have to say within academia that both of the major camps of philosophy in the western tradition today, the materialists and the Christians, are eager, excited and enthusiastic to hear what the Jews have to say. So a few words about that mysterious transition over those 60 years.

Besides Isaiah Berlin, I think we should also name another Jew who was at Oxford for many of those years: AJ Ayer, Professor Berlin’s almost life long friend and rival. In a certain sense we can say these two Jews are almost the two bookends that describe the ups and downs of philosophy and the place of Jews in it during the 20th century. Ayer was the most famous ‘bad boy’ of the tradition that became known as logical positivism. He was in many ways the ultimate product of the tradition of what we call the enlightenment. By the time we reach Ayer’s famous ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ we reach a point in which the greatest, most powerfully articulated fruits of western philosophy, at least in the English speaking world, were being articulated in the service of a view which we can say had reduced truth, the

longing, search and desire for truth, to the methods of the physical sciences on the one hand and mathematics on the other. As Ayer was famous for saying: Anything that is not verifiable is nonsense. In so saying he led two generation of the greatest minds in the West to something that would be fair to call total contempt for things that were not the product of physical science, or things that imitate them, and mathematics.

Isaiah Berlin is almost universally regarded as a leading, or the leading, liberal thinker of the 20th century and the instinctive association that most of his admirers would have is to associate him with this tradition of enlightenment and Western liberalism. And yet it’s fascinating when one begins to dig into Isaiah Berlin’s works to see the way in which this extraordinary, subtle and gifted man devoted such a great proportion of his output not to the elaboration of the Enlightenment and the tradition that gave birth to Freddie Ayer but to paying close, painstaking attention to the tradition of its detractors, what in a phrase Berlin made famous and called the Counter- Enlightenment. The Counter-Enlightenment, according to Berlin, constitutes thinkers such as Vico, Hamman, Herder, Yakobi, even de Maistre, and Berlin brought his extremely formidable, philosophical and historical acumen to bringing these thinkers to life. Why? What’s the interest in these thinkers? I can only speculate. First of all, Isaiah Berlin, as we have mentioned, is a Jew. Jews have a tradition of being contrarian. This is an old tradition. Abraham, you will recall, becomes famous for being willing to challenge G-d. G-d said that the world is just one way, but Abraham had something to say about it, he believes the world would be just a different way, so he tells G-d so. There is something deep about the restless Jewish need and mission to puncture the accepted idols of the generation and I believe some of that is what we see in Professor Berlin.

Hazony9.JPGThese thinkers of the Counter-Enlightenment, ranged from quite different people, some of them reactionary, conservatives, socialists, romantics. But they are all people who countered the idea of the Enlightenment vision which consisted of the unshakable belief that there is one truth, in politics, in ethics, and metaphysics, and that truth is accessible to a rational mind. There’s also only one such thing as reason, and if you are that one thing, that rational being, then you can simply know the answers to all the questions and those answers are always universal and eternal answers, and they speak to absolutely everyone, and if you do not accept those answers that is because you are living in darkness.

Now, all of the Counter-Enlightenment figures that Berlin brought into the eye of the Enlightenment discourse - everyone of course knew that these figures had existed, but there had never been someone like Isaiah Berlin who stood before the Enlightenment community and said that you know your history is missing many of the most important aspects of it. He had never said that he was not sympathetic to the Enlightenment but he did present them in book after book and essay after essay with a critique so devastating as to make sure everyone understood that he thought their criticism was right. His did emphasize that in the end these views had contributed to Fascism. But he presented these thinkers with a passion and sympathy because of the fact that he believed that the things these people were saying were true. They were saying this universal reason that is the same everywhere and can’t be argued about eliminates everything that is particular about the human being - our histories, languages, the nations in which we live, in order to try and reach the truth. All those things that are particular, historical, poetic and impassioned, everything that is related to what is termed as the mere contingency of human experience, becomes worthless and, as Freddie Ayer said, nonsense.

The Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, however, said hold on; those things that you’ve described as nonsense are reality. They not just trivial, emotional, sentimental subjectivity, they are the reality in which human beings live and if you eliminate all of that then the human beings who are subjected to this universal, eternal rational system, cease to be human beings, drained of whatever it was that made them unique, with a special connection to reality and special connection to G-d and they simply become mathematical ciphers.

It’s interesting that this challenge in the writing of Berlin is presented out of the mouths of Germans and Frenchman, British and Irishman. And yet, when we as Jews listen to their critique of the Enlightenment, surely we can’t miss the Jewish perspective of what is being said. If we take a Descartes or Spinoza, Leibnitz or Kant, what was their objection to Judaism that made it so discredited in the enlightenment universities of the eighteen hundreds? Well it was just these things, as the Jews stand for history and Jews think they can learn theology from history. Lessing says, I can’t get over this ditch; I can’t get to learn about the eternal reality and the Divine through the corrupt instrument of historical writing which is contingent, flawed and misleading. Kant and Spinoza dismissed and had nothing but contempt for historic writings. It’s precisely the contingent they derided, and the particular they contested, which they called the material. The Jews are mired in the contingent of the material; they can’t rise to the heights of the universal philosophy.

Someone with an ear inclined to look for it can hear in Berlin’s writings his sympathy and extraordinary warm embrace of these Counter- Enlightenment thinkers who are rebels against the very enlightenment heritage which in his day was unchallengeable and the only thing that was worthy in the West. He looks at these thinkers, I believe, from the perspective of the Jew, who looks at the criticism of the Enlightenment against Judaism. He says implicitly, delicately to his enlightenment hosts and friends, I’m not going to go in the direction Freddie Ayer went, who for all his brilliance became a slave to this enlightenment machine, but I withhold my unequivocal support because a Jew and Judaism can’t really find their true place in this machine.


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