Re-reading (amongst other things) Isaiah Berlin’s wonderful collection of essays, The Crooked Timber of Humanity. The title is based on a quotation from Kant “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”
At heart it is a passionate defence of diversity and the liberty to choose.
He traces his realisation that more than one system of values exists in principle as well as in practice to Machiavelli, and blames a lot of the ‘-isms’ that caused so much turmoil and cruelty in the last century to a belief in absolute values running from Plato, via the French Enlightenment, to Marx. Berlin witnessed the Russian Revolution first hand as a young boy in St. Petersburg, so knows from experience – not just theory – what he is talking about.
One of his heroes is clearly the German philosopher Herder, pupil of Kant, who taught in Riga – the town of Berlin’s birth. Herder reacted against French rationalism and a belief in absolute values and argued that values are culturally-determined and that our whole way of thinking is dictated by the language we are brought up with. This pre-dates the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis by about 200 years.
Nowadays the accepted wisdom seems to be somewhere between Sapir-Whorf and the opposite view of Chomsky who thinks that language is at bottom universal, or Pinker, who seems not to believe that we think in language at all. Who knows?
But the idea that not everything human can be unified into one all-embracing system, and that many of our problems arise from believing that we should try to find and impose one, is one that is of bigger relevance than ever today.
Being able to enter into other world-views and understand and feel them, rather than just know about them, is a must-have skill for the 21st century.
The Germans have a good linguistic distinction for this, which Berlin mentions – the difference between ‘verstehen’ which is more like understanding by putting yourself in someone else’s place, and ‘wissen’ which is more like scientific knowledge.
Deep thinkers, these Germans!