The Crooked Timber of Humanity

Started reading Isaiah Berlin’s The Crooked Timber of Humanity recently and so far I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Berlin has a poetic style to his philosophical writing – something often frowned upon, mostly by those inclined to analytic philosophy, and generally regarded as a superfluous in academic publications, but I admire his style because I can appreciate good prose no matter where I find it. I don’t think, in other words, it gets too much in the way of his argument. Berlin traces the intellectual heritage of utopianism in Western philosophy and outlines the common themes of its various guises, such as the theme of a now decadent age which was preceded by a golden age of perfect happiness and harmony. In the very first chapter, he notes that in addition to this, another common trend one finds is the optimistic rationalism of those whose ambition it is to find a way back (or forward, as with Plato) to a new state of harmony and if not total perfection at least maximal happiness, human flourishing, eudemonia or whatever else you may want to call it.  Three underlying assumptions of this enterprise are that the universal principles necessary for reaching this (more or less) perfect state (1) exist (2) are logically compatible with one another and (3) must, at least in principle, be knowable.

Whether they are knowable not just in principle but in practice depends on one’s rationalistic tradition: e.g., for Christians this knowledge certainly existed and was available but not to human beings, who are born into sin and ignorance and darkness; but for many 17th and 18th century philosophers and men of what would later be called ‘science’ this knowledge was available both in principle and practice and once sufficiently collected would allow us to engineer a society maximally conducive to human well-being. More broadly speaking, if these universal principles exist then there are four possible ways to access them: metaphysical insight, divine revelation, scientific investigation or philosophical argument. Those who believe in the first method tend to follow some kind of mystical tradition; though who believe in the second, a religious one; for the third, the natural sciences; and fourth, rationalism. And of course, there may be various combinations of these four. For the logical positivists, the natural sciences alone can tell us about the world. However, logic (here, included under the category of “philosophical argument”) is indispensable because it allows us to identify the relationship between evidence and theory. Christian apologists rely not only on divine revelation, but philosophical argument, as well as what they take to be evidence in favor of the existence of God.

As Berlin outlines what he believes to be the fundamental assumptions and common threads in Western utopianism, one is confronted with the revealing observation made by William Warren Bartley III in The Retreat to Commitment that the history of Western epistemology is essentially the replacement of one authoritative ‘source’/‘justification’ of our knowledge by another. For Plato, it was the Forms; for Descartes, the indubitable certainty of the cogito; for Locke, the testimony of the senses; for theologians, God. Similarly, in the long tradition of utopianism we find contesting views over the epistemological foundation for discovering the principles of the Utopian society. Yet, we also find throughout the history of Western thought, an undercurrent of skepticism (usually found in conjunction with some form of relativism) which denied, undermined, and challenged the utopian traditions from Plato to the French philosophes to modern progressives, social democrats, New Atheists, scientists, etc. – to those, especially, who profess to value skepticism but who are, for us, not genuine (or at least, consistent) skeptics.

That skeptical undercurrent is very much still present today. In epistemology, it comes via critical rationalism, especially as understood by David Miller. CR denies the existence of any alleged foundation for knowledge. However it is very important to note that it does this without invoking relativism, and it is this which distinguishes CR from traditional forms of skepticism. CR is not relativistic, it’s simply anti-foundationalist in the most consistent and thorough-going way that I know of.

It’s also worth noting that the intellectual path Berlin traces coincides with that of what Hayek considers ‘rationalistic individualism’ in his Individualism and Economic Order, which is opposed to what he considers the true individualism of John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville and others. Hayek is critical of the former for the same reasons Berlin is: they assert that rationalistic individualism actually leads to the opposite of individualism – collectivism. It’s also no coincidence that Hayek was strongly influenced by Popper and vice versa.


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