Members and friends of the College gathered on Friday 2 October to celebrate the launch of the final volume of the letters of philosopher and founding President of Wolfson College, Sir Isaiah Berlin.
Honorary Fellow Dr Henry Hardy, Isaiah Berlin Legacy Fellow Dr Mark Pottle and Research Associate Nicholas Hall had undertaken the mammoth task of selecting and annotating letters written by Berlin during the last 22 years of his life, publishing the result as Affirming: Letters 1975–1997.
Friends and colleagues gathered in the Haldane Room for the launch, which included an address by Professor Dame Hermione Lee and a brief PowerPoint presentation by Henry Hardy, including images and a video of Berlin. Becky Hardie, the book’s commissioning editor at Chatto & Windus, spoke warmly of her work with the editors on the project in recent years.
Henry Hardy came to know Berlin at Wolfson College when he became a graduate student in 1972, and has been editing his works over the past 40 years. Hardy previously presented a fascinating lecture on his working relationship with Berlin, The Genius and the Pedant, as the 2015 Berlin Lecture.
'[A] richly absorbing collection […]. Unlike most philosophers [… h]e preferred the messy human reality, with its intractable conflicts, to fantasies of rational harmony. […] Berlin had few illusions about the human world. Even so, he was happy to live in it.' John Gray, Literary Review
Berlin’s writings have received considerable attention since his death, largely as a result of Hardy’s painstaking efforts, including the creation and development of the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. It is unsurprising then that Affirming has already received several appreciative reviews, most recently from Duncan Kelly in the Financial Times. This final work makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the life and mind of this great man.
Update 3 November 2015: Additional reviewer comments
'It is Berlin at his best, reminding us that he was one of the great liberal thinkers of the postwar period.' David Herman, New Statesman, 23–29 October 2015
'starbursts of thought [...] texts full of gaiety, passion and temperance, which insistently resist the rampaging squaddies of mindless populism'
Richard Davenport-Hines, The Times Literary Supplement, 16 October 2015
'[W]hile there is a strong argument that readers should go through them in chronological order, those who give into temptation to flick through will be infinitely rewarded.' Andrew Ffrench, Oxford Times, 1 October 2015
'The fourth in the grand series of Isaiah Berlin's correspondence [...] keeps up the flow of high cultural commentary and gossip.' Jewish Chronicle
'Modest, polite and beautifully written, these letters can be viewed as open-ended conversations with kindred spirits. They are also an important attempt to document the history of the late twentieth century.' J. P. O'Malley, Prospect, 17 September 2015
'[A] richly absorbing collection […]. Unlike most philosophers, [… h]e preferred the messy human reality, with its intractable conflicts, to fantasies of rational harmony. […] Berlin had few illusions about the human world. Even so, he was happy to live in it.' John Gray, Literary Review, September 2015
'[Berlin] emerges from these letters as one of the great thinkers of the age. Anyone seeking to understand the twentieth century should acquire this volume, and its three predecessors. They will be both stimulated and enlightened.' Vernon Bogdanor, Daily Telegraph, 24 October 2015