“A Berlin for Historians”

Cracraft, James. "A Berlin for Historians." History and Theory, 41, Oct. 2002, pp. 277-300.


“On his death in 1997 Isaiah Berlin was widely hailed as a leading philosopher of political liberalism. This article takes the position that Berlin’s philosophical views, particularly those on freedom and cultural pluralism, can also be construed as a valuable guide for historians working in the present, “postmodernist” climate of debate. It further argues that Berlin’s character and career, the subjects already of considerable critical inquiry, lend added authority to these views. The focus is on three lengthy essays on history written by Berlin in the 1950s, one of which was first published in the first issue of this journal. The article concludes, following Berlin, that it is the responsibility of historians, as historians, to recognize the often incommensurate plurality of ultimate values to which their fellow human beings historically have subscribed and to judge, as judge they sometimes must, with that recognition fully in mind. If the result of these as well as the other choices that they make is a plurality of histories, of contending subjects, approaches, methods, and outcomes, that is only to be expected, indeed welcomed. It is freedom in practice, and infinitely preferable as such to any known alternative.”