Isaiah Berlin's Liberal Humanism

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2023

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In this dissertation I trace Isaiah Berlin’s efforts to find a “less internally contradictory” and “less pervertible” concept of liberty. I argue that Berlin’s political philosophy is grounded in a resolve to treat persons as individuals and as capable of choice, a position I call liberal humanism. These two commitments, liberalism and humanism, are ontological: liberalism posits that choice is both desirable and possible for human beings; humanism affirms that the individual person is the fundamental unit of politics, or the entity to which one might ascribe choice, agency, and freedom, and that attempts to divide individuals into sub-personal entities or to aggregate them into super-personal ones are dangerous paths towards dehumanization. Each of the four chapters of this dissertation traces a transformation of the choosing self that leads to equivocation and contradiction, producing situations in which persons are metaphorically “free” while literally unfree. Ultimately, I portray Berlin as a deeply anti-metaphysical thinker, a skeptical anti-idealist who, in the spirit of his hero, the Russian writer Alexander Herzen, sought to avoid the sacrifice of human beings on the altars of abstraction.

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Spisiak, Brian Daniel (2023). Isaiah Berlin's Liberal Humanism. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/29178.

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