Berlin, Isaiah. “The Sense of Reality: Studies in Ideas and Their History”, edited by Henry Hardy and with a new foreword by Timothy Snyder, Princeton University Press, 2019.
The Final Essays
“The Sense of Reality” is a collection of nine brilliant essays on “ideas and their history.” Berlin’s compelling prose looks at the world of ideas and explains it clearly to us. This is Berlin’s last published collection of essays and they reflect Berlin’s lifelong fascination with the history of ideas. He explores 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..
Berlin’s career spanned the 20th century: He witnessed the 1917 revolution in Petrograd, has had diplomatic postings in Washington and Moscow, and has headed Oxford’s Wolfson College, the British Academy, and the Royal Opera. His activities have generated a variety of occasional work–lectures, conference papers, radio programs, etc.–from which this collection has been assembled. All of the essays carry Berlin’s informed fascination with the history of ideas.
Berlin is a philosopher of history as well as a historian of ideas, and these nine engaging, previously unpublished essays, broadcasts, talks and lectures were written or delivered between 1950 and 1972 and confirm the scholar’s breadth of vision, humanistic outlook and enormous erudition worn lightly. Deeply skeptical of system-builders of all types, whether Marxists, metaphysicians, Darwinians, positivists or scientists, he regards “”-isms”” as traps that have been constructed throughout time. In “Political Judgment” he asks what makes a politician wise or gifted, bristles with practical intelligence. In “The Romantic Revolution” he argues that 18th-century romanticism, with its emphasis on subjectivity and the inner life, had a transforming effect on ethics, politics and aesthetics. These essays gives us detailed looks at irrationalism, doctrinaire ideology, prejudice and amoralism, and these he names the Counter-Enlightenment.
Berlin writes for the man on the street, to the general reader and he is easy to follow as he offers a particularly important vision of human experience and political conduct.