Political Ideas in the Romantic Age is not a polished and completed book, but the unfinished revision and expansion of a lecture series that Isaiah Berlin gave at Bryn Mawr College is 1952, early in his career. The editor, Henry Hardy, gives a full sense of the state of the materials and of editorial decisions taken, and informs us that this is the last of Berlin's posthumous books. Joshua Cherniss's introduction is a thoughtful account of the work's place in the development of Berlin's thought. Although not the place to begin a study of his thought, this book has substantial value to the interested student of Berlin, by showing how a number of themes in his work, many of which would be fully developed later, were first presented.
Berlin's book is an inquiry into political ideas in the romantic age, which means that he must explore a range of political understandings that tend toward one or another kind of extremism. There is the Enlightenment's enthusiasm for progress achieved in natural science—the utilitarian approach—whose most interesting figure to Berlin is Claude Adrien Helvétius and whose best known figure to the English-speaking world is Jeremy Bentham. The utilitarians demanded rule by experts who would apply the successful approach of the natural sciences to social, moral, and political life, for society's well-being (itself understood in a rather problematic manner). Liberty took a decidedly secondary role or even fell by the wayside. On the other hand are romantic reactions to the Enlightenment, superficial rationality, the French revolution's excesses, and the rationalists' doctrinairism. Against the more modest and comprehensible "negative liberty" of liberals like John Locke and John Stuart Mill, these romantics developed a conception of liberty that Berlin calls, in perhaps his best known contribution to the taxonomy of liberalism and its critics, "positive liberty."
What is Berlin's own view? As an intellectual historian, he speaks chiefly of the ideas of others, without dwelling on his own position; but he does not hide his sympathies and antipathies. He accepts as definitive David Hume's critique of the attempt to guide moral action through an appeal to nature and, more generally, the attempt to derive judgments of value from the understanding (scientific or other) of facts about the world. He expresses the sharpest disagreement with thinkers who get so enthralled by their political projects that they sanction the infliction of vast miseries on human beings. Of the thinkers he discusses in this book, Berlin himself seems closest to John Stuart Mill, with one important difference. Mill showed "a characteristic lack of historical insight" that Berlin connects with the view that Mill's mind, while very clear, was "not very imaginative." Berlin, by contrast, believes that the historical approach to the study of human things is crucial to grasping the character of an age, a people, a culture, in a sympathetic manner that typically eluded past thinkers. But given the deep diversity of cultures, Berlin is convinced that in regarding "ultimate purposes...there can in the end be no argument, only assertion and counter-assertion, and attempts to convert by persuasion or by violence." Berlin's position could be described as Millean liberalism, tempered and deepened by a historical understanding, but also at risk of being undermined by a pluralism of incompatible values that threatens to end in relativism.
Despite his own convictions Berlin discusses romantics who found liberalism superficial or unsatisfying with thoughtful sensitivity and sympathy. To give one example, though himself at odds with much that is fundamental in Herder's political aspirations, he writes (in one of his typically lengthy sentences):
Certainly those who read in the works of Herder...that the community was an indissoluble whole of persons seeking to serve a common goal, bound by impalpable relations of language and kinship and blood, and a common soil and common experience for many centuries, seeking to realize a form of life which alone they understood and loved and felt to be their own, for the survival of which they were prepared if need be to die, cannot be blamed if they found that such formulations came closer to their own experience than anything they might hear from Bentham or Spencer or Russell about the rational purposes of society, its use as an instrument for the provision of common benefits and the prevention of social collisions, miseries and injustices between individuals....
Berlin's historicism sheds light on a thinker's achievement by showing how he broke with the dominant trends of his time, most notably in the case of Giambattista Vico. In the face of critiques of historical knowledge variously presented by Descartes, Puffendorf, Bossuet, Hobbes, and Spinoza, Vico argued that history, as what human beings have themselves "made," is more fully knowable than nature. "It is difficult to overpraise Vico's originality," Berlin writes, "when we remind ourselves of the time at which he lived."
On the other hand, Berlin, as a historian of ideas, sometimes falls short of sympathetic understanding. The weak side of his approach reveals itself above all in his treatment of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Berlin recognizes Rousseau's immense power and influence, including his crucial effect on Immanuel Kant, yet he feels sure that Rousseau's work does not merit close study. "It is neither easy nor profitable to examine Rousseau's views," he says, "as many of his critics have done, as if they form a coherent and logical whole, or even as if portions of them do so." Although Rousseau himself admitted to paradoxes in his writings while claiming that a coherent insight informed them all, Berlin urges one not to waste time testing this possibility. He is so confident that Rousseau is entirely a child of his times that he presents Rousseau as chiefly giving vent to lower-middle class resentments against sophisticated, socially prominent intellectuals. This belittlement leads Berlin to read Rousseau carelessly and to propagate a surprising number of errors about his thought. Not only refusing to deal with Rousseau's careful arguments about the general will, Berlin goes so far as to write that Rousseau "preaches it with the peculiar fanaticism with which a man propounds a solution which he has discovered for himself, and with the almost lunatic intensity of a somewhat crack-brained visionary who has demonstrated some cosmic solution to his own satisfaction, by some peculiar private arithmetic." The improbability of such a judgment is shown by the altogether different view of the general will taken by Kant—not one to be seduced by half-mad preachers. The shortcomings in Berlin's treatment of Rousseau probably derive from his failure to give serious thought to Rousseau's reflections on the problem of philosophical rhetoric, especially in an age with a prejudice in favor of enlightenment.
The example of Berlin's intellectual history—engaging and informative overall but deeply flawed in its discussion of certain thinkers—moves me to try to articulate a general reflection on the value for the political philosopher of the history of ideas. On the one hand such intellectual history has great value. It gives one a sense of the context in which philosophic works were written, some knowledge of which may be indispensable in knowing the writer's subject. It can survey the climate of opinion in which the author worked, so than one can more easily discover the author's influences. It can give a useful sense of the opinions and presuppositions held by the likely addressees of the philosophic writer, so that one can better surmise the writer's rhetorical strategies. On the other hand, by considering the times and circumstances in which an author wrote, one is tempted to come to too quick and easy an interpretation. This is not a problem if the author in question is an ordinary one, by which I mean a writer shaped in most regards by his times. But if an author thinks at a level of profundity and originality that leaves behind the constraints and characteristic opinions of his times, then Berlin's approach risks encouraging us to overlook the deepest thoughts of the deepest authors. The historian of ideas may end up striking a boastful or condescending pose toward a great thinker who is in fact his superior. The penalty for this error occurs of itself: it is failure to understand thought that could deepen one's own understanding.