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Isaiah Berlin - biography

Sir Isaiah Berlin OM (6 June 1909 – 5 November 1997) was a Russian-British philosopher and historian of ideas, regarded as one of the leading thinkers of the twentieth century, and as the dominant liberal scholar of his generation. He excelled as an essayist, conversationalist and raconteur; and as a brilliant lecturer who improvised, rapidly and spontaneously, richly allusive and coherently structured material. He translated works by Ivan Turgenev from Russian into English and, during the war, worked for the British Diplomatic Service. The Independent stated that "Isaiah Berlin was often described, especially in his old age, by means of superlatives: the world's greatest talker, the century's most inspired reader, one of the finest minds of our time ... there is no doubt that he showed in more than one direction the unexpectedly large possibilities open to us at the top end of the range of human potential". In 1932, at the age of 23, he was 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. He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1963 to 1964. In 1966, he played a crucial role in founding 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 his writings on individual freedom. The annual Isaiah Berlin Lectures are held at both Wolfson College and the British Academy each summer. Berlin's work on liberal theory has had a lasting influence.

Berlin was the only surviving child of a wealthy Jewish family, the son of Mendel Berlin, a timber industrialist and direct descendant of Shneur Zalman (founder of Chabad Hasidism), and his wife Marie, née Volshonok. He spent his childhood in Riga (then part of the Russian Empire; now capital of Latvia), and later lived in Andreapol´ (a small timber town near Pskov, effectively owned by the family business) and Petrograd, witnessing both the February and October Revolutions of 1917. Feeling increasingly oppressed by life under Bolshevik rule, the family left Saint Petersburg on October 5, 1920, for Riga, but encounters with anti-Semitism and difficulties with the Latvian authorities convinced them to leave, and they moved to Britain in early 1921 (Mendel in January, Isaiah and Marie at the beginning of February), when Berlin was eleven. In London, the family first stayed in Surbiton, then within the year they bought a house in Holland Park, and six years later in Hampstead. Berlin's English was virtually nonexistent at first, but he became fluent within a year.

Berlin was educated at St Paul's School (London), then at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he studied Greats (Classics). In his final examinations, he took a First, winning The John Locke Prize for his performance in the philosophy papers, in which he outscored even A. J. Ayer. He subsequently took another degree at Oxford in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics), winning another First after less than a year on the course. He was appointed a tutor in philosophy at New College, Oxford, and soon afterwards was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. While still a student, he notably befriended Sir A. J. Ayer (with whom he was to share a friendly rivalry for the rest of his life), Sir Stuart Hampshire, Richard Wollheim, Sir Maurice Bowra, Sir Stephen Spender, J. L. Austin, Christopher Isherwood and Nicolas Nabokov. In 1940 he presented a philosophical paper on other minds to a meeting attended by Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge University. Wittgenstein rejected his paper in discussion but praised Berlin for his intellectual honesty and integrity. Berlin was to remain at Oxford for the rest of his life, apart from a period working for British Information Services in New York from 1940 to 1942, and for the British embassies in Washington, DC, and Moscow from then until 1946. Berlin was fluent in Russian and English, spoke French, German and Italian, and knew Latin and Ancient Greek. Meetings with Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad in autumn 1945 and January 1946 had a powerful effect on both of them, and serious repercussions for Akhmatova (who immortalised the meetings in her poetry). He befriended Boris Pasternak, and was responsible for smuggling a typescript of Doctor Zhivago out of Russia to England. In 1956, he married Aline Halban, née de Gunzbourg, who was from an exiled half Russian-aristocratic and half ennobled-Jewish banking and petroleum family (her mother was Yvonne Deutsch de la Muerthe) based in Paris.

Berlin died in Oxford in 1997, aged 88. He is buried there in Wolvercote Cemetery. On his death, the front page spread of The Independent wrote: "he was a man of formidable intellectual power with a rare gift for understanding a wide range of human motives, hopes and fears, and a prodigiously energetic capacity for enjoyment - of life, of people in all their variety, of their ideas and idiosyncrasies, of literature, of music, of art." The front page of The New York Times concluded: "His was an exuberant life crowded with joys – the joy of thought, the joy of music, the joy of good friends ... The theme that runs throughout his work is his concern with liberty and the dignity of human beings ... Sir Isaiah radiated well-being."






Article author: Uri Daigin
Article tags: Biography
The article is about these people:   Isaiah Berlin

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