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Encounters with Isaiah Berlin

Story of an Intellectual Friendship


Andrzej Walicki

The volume contains Isaiah Berlin’s letters to his Polish friend, Andrzej Walicki, and Walicki’s detailed account of Berlin’s role in his life. Berlin actively promoted Walicki’s books on Russian intellectual history not only because of his own interest in the subject. Above all he wanted to promote Russian intellectual history as a separate, internationally recognized field of study and, therefore, warmly welcomed Walicki’s firm intention to study it in a systematic way, with the aim of providing a comprehensive synthesis of all important currents in pre-Revolutionary Russian thought. Already at their meeting Berlin discovered in Walicki a promising candidate to help him in laying foundations for Russian intellectual history as a legitimate part of the universal history of ideas; as a discipline rewarding in itself and particularly relevant for rediscovering the great traditions of the Russian intelligentsia and setting them against the stifling dogmas of Soviet totalitarianism.


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Isaiah Berlin as I Knew Him 9


Isaiah Berlin as I Knew Him 1. First encounter My first meeting with Isaiah Berlin took place at All Souls College in Oxford at the beginning of 1960. At the time I held a scholarship from the Ford Foundation and had stopped over at St. Anthony’s College in Oxford on my way to the USA. My talk with Berlin was to last about 20 minutes but extended to two hours, largely because of the uncommonly strong intellectual bond that developed be- tween us from the very start. We talked in Russian which loosened my tongue and introduced an element of spontaneity. Berlin instantly found out that the ideas we were talking about were not only independently thought over by me, but also personally lived through; he became interested in how this came about. So I told him about my ex- periences from the Stalinist period: about the brutal ideological campaigns fought against me at the Warsaw Faculty of Russian philology, about my desperate at- tempts to impose “reconciliation with reality” upon myself—after the example of the Russian Hegelian Vissarion Belinsky—and about the failure of those attempts, about a moral revolt against alleged historical inevitability, following the example of Alexander Herzen.1 It turned out that this topic was particularly near to my in- terlocutor, and that also he, in his essay Historical Inevitability, tackled the prob- lem of necessitarian historicism as an instrument of moral blackmail that was meant to compel acceptance of communist totalitarianism. I knew that such...

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