Loose Texture and Bovine Sympathy (Isaiah Berlin)


I picked a fight on FB with Jewish philosophy friends, something having to do, I asked, with why so many of them devote themselves with such gusto to historical relics, moral creeps, and political reactionaries. It should be said that by these I did not mean Judah Halevy or Maimonides, who are monuments, not relics. The relics I meant to indicate were the German thinkers like Schmitt, Strauss, and Taubes, the patterns of whose thinking was so drenched in the politics of Weimar and fascism. By way of alternatives, I offhandedly tossed out Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper. I had read the former after 9/11 as an antidote to the Schmitt craze sweeping left academia. Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies is on my Sunday-reading list along with Hans Kelsen (this will take a number of months). I’m getting to these precisely now in response to the current political climate, having already read through Mark Lila’s two breezy volumes of essays on political reaction and intellectuals, The Shipwrecked Mind and then the The Reckless Mind.

I was not so surprised by the response to Popper, whom, like I said, I haven’t read. Berlin, I assumed, was a fairly safe mention. Turns out he wasn’t. While I realize Berlin lacks the intellectual fizzle of the negative dialectician, I was goaded by the criticism to take a quick back to take a look at Berlin in order to justify my recommendation of him. Yes, indeed, the Four Essays on Liberty are dull, even superficial. They were almost all originally presented as public addresses; one of the essays appeared in the journal Foreign Affairs. There is something, indeed, too breezy for the specialist in the way Berlin covers the ground of intellectual history. That quality does not lend itself to deep or close reading. As light fare, the essays are meant to go down easily, I suppose.

So what’s in it in Berlin, as I read him, is not “intellectual history,” but rather as a model for how one thought and lived in such a way as to shore up basic human and humane values in the face of totalitarianism and modish totalitarian thinking. In these terms, Berlin, as a monument, stands opposed to values-absolutism, political-theological obscurantism, social atomism, decisionism, prescriptive intellectual negations, and the posing of irresolvable “predicaments.” His work stands for ambiguity, blurriness, pluralism and commonality, tolerance, human fallibility, individual responsibility, and compromise. His are not the intellectual virtues of the perfectible small-scale polis or the paideic community, or the aesthetic virtues of the avant-garde in painting and in music, but the more quotidian and even banal values of a modern liberal democracy in all its imperfections.

In the immediate wake of 9/11 I expressed in a semi-private conversation my own sense of intellectual dis-ease to a senior colleague. Overly dramatic I framed it in terms of the profound anxiety and even fright that I would feel then sitting stuck at night in traffic on the George Washington Bridge, and how little the radical theorists like Zizek and Badiou were able to speak to these fears. Himself an important name in continental theory, he recommended that I read Berlin. I’ll preserve his anonymity but I still appreciate him for the suggestion. At this more recent provocation of a younger colleague, whom I had myself provoked, I raced through the essays in the collection of essays Liberty, which include the original Four Essays on Liberty, to reorient myself. I was on my way back and forth, now racing along from downtown to uptown on the #1 subway after deciding to postpone my summons to jury duty. Ripping around in these essays, I was home before I knew it, as if in a manner of minutes.

While the “Two Concepts of Liberty” is the most rightly famous of the essays, this little bit by Berlin caught my eye, where he writes, “Since no solution can be guaranteed against error, no disposition is final. And therefore a loose texture and toleration of a minimum of inefficiency, even a degree of indulgence in idle talk, idle curiosity, aimless pursuit of this or that without authorization –‘conspicuous waste’ itself– allow more spontaneous, individual variation (for which the individual must in the end assume full responsibility), and will always be worth more than the neatest and delicately fashioned imposed pattern” (“Political Ideas in the 20th Century” in Isaiah Berlin, Liberty, edited by Henry Hardy, pp.92-3).

I transcribe these lines knowing full well that I should take upon myself the same engagement expressed in this sentence. For the sake of “individual variation,” I should, in general, take Berlin more to heart on this point. Instead of being the liberal reactionary that I am, I should tolerate with more “indulgence” what I would otherwise and too quickly write off as the “idle talk” and “idle curiosity” of colleagues in their own “aimless pursuit” of this or that “conspicuous waste,” this or that idea drawn from the modern history of political reaction. For me, the key phrase communicated in this passage is “loose texture.” Instead of being too wound up around a concept, it is a notion, a fancy perhaps, that lets itself out and ruminates, cow-like. Indeed, as a piece of writing, this is a moral and political looseness that opens out and is made manifest in the very ambling gait of the very long sentence itself.

With Berlin against the contempt he thought Hegel and Marx showed for them, my own predilection is for the philistines. Writing with no little irony of his own, Berlin offers by way of paraphrase “the image of peaceful and foolish human beings, largely unaware of the part they play in history, building their homes, with touching hope and simplicity, upon the green slopes of what they think is a peaceful mountainside, trusting in the permanency of their political way of life, their own economic, social and political order, treating their own values as if they were eternal standards, living, working, fighting without any awareness of the cosmic processes of which their lives are a passing stage” (“Historical Inevitability,” Ibid., p.113). While Berlin was not unaware of the danger of illusion, the key phrase in what is, again, a long, lugubrious sentence is “touching hope and simplicity.” The sympathy expressed for the ordinary virtue of otherwise bovine creatures is part of the “loose texture” held up, here in this essay, against modern avatars of impersonal forces” and the “sociological zoology” that Berlin ascribed to Comte (p.91).

Not a predator, not a cannibal, not even a great intellectual historian, what recommends itself in Berlin is liberal fallibilism, not as wishy-washy, but as a stubborn principle of political morality.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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