Berlin, I.: The Crooked Timber of Humanity

I’ve first hear Isaiah Berlin being cited some seven or eight year ago in the Adam Curtis’s “The Trap. We Will Force You to be Free” documentary [1]. The essay that Curtis references is The Two Concepts of Liberty. In this essay Berlin explores to concepts which he calls ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ liberty’. I remember being impressed by the Curtis’s resume and making a mental note explore further, may be read the original.

Fast forward some two-three of years. I was reading the opening pages of the Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise which the author opens up by citing Berlin’s essay The Hedgehog and the Fox. This is now very interesting, I though, I should probably read the original paper.

Fast forward to now. I finally got hold of the collection of Isaiah Berlin’s essays “The Crooked Timber of Humanity”… which incidentally contains neither “The Two Concepts..”, nor the “The Hedgehog..”.

The more I read and reread the essays the less I find it possible to provide any kind of summery to this incredible collection. One reason is Berlin’s dense in compressible writing style which makes it hardly possible even to extract a stand alone quote let alone provide a resume of the whole note. Instead I’ll simply keep a couple of extracts below. The book itself is immensely intellectually entertaining. I especially like the notes on Joseph de Maistre which are also available as Berlin’s lecture recordings below.

The decline of Utopian ideas in the West, p.24-25: “Let me put them [the main assumptions of the western thought] in the form of three propositions, a kind of three-legged stool on which the central tradition of western political thought seems to me to rest. […] The first proposition is this: to all genuine questions there can only be one correct answer, all the other answers being incorrect. If there is no correct answer to it, then the question cannot be a genuine one. […] The second assumption is that a method exists for the discovery of these correct answers. Whether any man knows or can, in fact, know it, is another question; but it must, at least in principle, be knowable […]. The third assumption, and perhaps the most important in this context, is that all the correct answers must, at the very least, be compatible with one another. […] At best, these truths will logically entail one another in a single, systematic, interconnected whole; at the very least, they will be consistent with one another […]”.

The decline of Utopian ideas in the West, p.36: “In due course the humiliated Germans began feebly to imitate their French models, and this, as often happens, was followed by a cultural reaction. The wounded national consciousness asserted itself, sometimes in a somewhat aggressive fashion. […] This is common enough response on the part of backward nations who are looked on with too much arrogant contempt, with too great an air of conscious superiority, bu the more advanced societies. By the beginning of the eighteenth century some among the spiritual leaders in the devout, inward looking German principalities began to counter-attack. This took the form of poring contempt on the worldly success of the French: these Frenchmen and their imitators elsewhere could boast of only so much empty show. The inner life, the life of the spirit, concerned with the relation of man to man, to himself, to God – that alone was of supreme importance; the empty, materialistic French wiseacres had no sense of true values – of what alone men lived by”

The decline of Utopian ideas in the West, p.48: “Immanuel Kant, a man very remote from irrationalism, once observed that ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.’ And for that reason no perfect solution is, not merely in practice, but in principle, possible in human affairs, and any determined attempt to produce it is likely to lead to suffering, disillusionment and failure.”

European Unity and its Vicissitudes, p. 197: “Few things have played a more fatal part in the history of human thought and action than great imaginative analogies from one sphere, in which a particular principle is applicable and valid, to other provinces, where its effect may be exciting and transforming, but where its consequences may be fallacious in theory and ruinous in practice. It was so with the romantic movement and its nationalist implications.”

The bent twig, p.261: “Nationalism to many liberals and socialists in the west appears to be mere  chauvinism or imperialism, part and parcel of the ideology of that very establishment which has robbed the victims of their birthright. […] Is this not one of the best illustrations of the Marxist thesis that one of the greatest wrongs the ruling class does to its subjects is to blind them to their true interest, to infect them with its ideology, dictated by its own interests, as if they were identical with those of the oppressed?

Berlin, I.: The Crooked Timber of Humanity

Paxman, J., The English: A Portrait of the People

1480976451377-94fd5e8b-b35e-4942-b200-6c1592592412-01Paxman’s “The English..” is a collection of essays that discuss what sets apart those who call themselves ‘English’ as regards their values, heritage, aspirations. The comparison is mostly done against other peoples of the UK and the West.

The author attempt at identification of these differences is done in three ways:

  • by trying to see the English from the foreigners’ eyes, i.e. by citing the reports and diaries of the notables who visited England, including Dostoevsky;
  • by looking at the English stereotypes of the foreigners to understand what the image of the Other tells about the English themselves;
  • by understanding what is the perception of the ideal England by the English themselves is, which terms to be a ‘pseudo-cottagey’ misty hill utopia.

The discussion is seemingly intentionally inconclusive, and the goal seems to be discussion itself, rather than actually trying to find ‘the answer’. The style of the text matches its (lack of any particular) goal: the narrative advances by historical anecdote and the odd statistic, and when you’ve heard a couple of dozen of the the book simply ends.

Some of the reviewers of the book cited Paxman’s lack of focus and less (significantly less) than scientific approach as the weak points of the book. But then again this is basically the question of expectations: the author is neither a historian, nor a sociologist, and he does not pretend to be.

He some times makes statements such below, producing a whole new general theory of  democracy and city growth in two sentences:

On isolation and freedom, p. 34: “Freedom from the fear of sudden invasion also promoted individual freedoms: more vulnerable countries justified strong, top-down systems of government which could summon an army at day’s notice. The fact of being an island even dictated the shape of English cities: when there was a natural defense in the sea, there was no need for towns to be contained within walls; the consequence was that they grew higgledy-pigggledy”.

And it can be argued that this statement has little basis except for the authors opinion. But the book is explicitly not serious and for entertainment purposes only. Having this in mind, I would say that this is a quite enjoyable light reading.

Some assorted quotes:

On the selectivity of the historical memory, p. 64: The image engraved on the hearts of patriots was that of General Gordon making his last steps of a fort in Khartoum, as heathen savages overwhelmed the gallant British garrison. In fact, what made Britain rule the worlds was better displayed at the battle of Omdurman twelve years later. […] what determined the outcome was the fact that the British happened to have six Maxim guns. As the Dervish forces rushed the lines, the gunners had only to get the range. The casualty figures tell it all: 28 British dead for 11,000 Dervish. “It was not a battle but execution,” wrote an eyewitness.

On peacetime heroism, p.79: “The magazine [This England] has its own ‘Silver Cross of St George’, awarded to heroes nominated by readers, like the retailer who defies regulations by continuing to sell paraffin by the gallon, instead of in liters.”

On the strictness of the religious dogma, p.95: “I once asked the Bishop of Oxford what do you needed to believe to be a member of his Church [of England]. A look of slight bafflement crossed his face. ‘An intriguing question’, he answered, as if it had not occurred to him before. […] When the bishop went on, he opened with an inevitable English preface, ‘Well it rather depends’.

On the latter theme there’s a quite characteristic episode of ‘Yes, Minister’.

Paxman, J., The English: A Portrait of the People

B. Oakley, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science

img_20161204_080424-01B. Oakley’s  “A Mind for Numbers” [ru, en] is one of those books which make you feel embarassed to admit purchasing and worse still reading them. I’m coming clean now admitting that I’ve done both.

One extenuating circumstance would be that I’ve been again in a rush an in need of an airplane companion. Another is that I saw Oakley’s class at the Coursera  and thought that a book might be its useful substitute.

I won’t write much because there isn’t much to write about.

Book’s content is neither related to math, nor sciencce despite the title.

It is another one of the hoards of self help books. Its message is also simple and does not require the 200+ pages the author devotes to it (spoilers): if you want to learn something than a) do your homework, b) exercise consistently as you are not going to acquire persistent k owledge in a learning blitz, c) may be use a pomodoro technique.

The bottom line is that the book is worth neither time, nor money it costs.

B. Oakley, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science