Isaiah Berlin: Russo-Jewish Roots, Liberal Commitments, and the Ethos of Pluralism

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Isaiah Berlin contributed significantly to the study of the history of nationalist ideas in modern Europe, to the revival among political theorists (and others) of interest in nationalism as a theory, and to the articulation of theories of “liberal nationalism” in the 1990s. Berlin was also a life-long Zionist, whose reflections on the impulses behind nationalism owed much to his reflection on the condition of Jews in the diaspora. While Berlin’s views on nationalism have long claimed attention, and while there has more recently been excellent work done on his Jewish identity and commitment to Zionism, the connection between both his liberalism and his views on nationalism, and his personal background and experiences, remains to be more fully explored. Deploying biographical reconstruction and textual analysis, I here undertake to draw such connections, emphasizing how Berlin’s personal condition and the response to nationalism that it influenced in turn shaped his liberalism. I conclude that Berlin’s experiences coming from a specifically Russian-Jewish background, as well as his position in British society, his wartime service in the British government, and his intellectual formation, significantly shaped his views on nationalism. I also suggest that both his response to nationalism and his advocacy of a distinctive liberalism reflect Berlin’s commitment (never made fully explicit) to a pluralistic ethos, which itself may be seen as a response to the condition of Jews (and other minorities and migrants) in the modern world.




Cherniss, J. L. (2017). Isaiah Berlin: Russo-Jewish Roots, Liberal Commitments, and the Ethos of Pluralism. International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, 30(2), 183–199.

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