Dr Henry Hardy
The Genius and the Pedant

Published on:

Tuesday 2 June

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The Leonard Wolfson Auditorium was packed on Thursday 28 May for the 2015 Berlin Lecture. Honorary Fellow Dr Henry Hardy entertained the audience with an enlightening overview of the life and work of Berlin himself, ‘The Genius’.

Dr Hardy has dedicated over forty years of ‘pedantry’ to maintaining, nourishing and compiling Berlin’s many works. The final volume of Berlin’s letters will be published in September, completing this major project.

Sir Isaiah Berlin was the founding President of Wolfson College, and in her opening address Professor Dame Hermione Lee acknowledged his phenomenal vision and fundraising efforts, which made Wolfson College what it is today. Philosopher and teacher, he is perhaps best known for his Four Essays in Liberty, published in 1969, and is said to have ‘published a great deal more after his death than during his life’, largely owing to Hardy’s work.

Hardy was a philosophy graduate student at Wolfson in the 1970s, and, in Professor Lee’s words, he ‘has been Isaiah Berlin’s great immortaliser’. During the presentation, Hardy achieved his goal of conveying ‘Berlin's own particular form of genius’ by using quotes and videos of Berlin to great effect.

One in particular captivated the audience, and provided great insight into Berlin’s character. In a recorded television interview, he likened the questions philosophers tackle to the unconstrained questions of children, and lamented the conditioning of children not to ask such challenging questions. His conclusion? ‘The children who are not so conditioned turn into philosophers.’

Hardy shared insights on what it was like to edit Berlin's work, in particular the frustrating, but at times hilarious, role of unravelling the many liberties Berlin took with his translations and quotations. Two original quotations in German and Russian were read out by Steffen Groß, before being contrasted with Berlin’s more creative translations, to emphasise this point. Hardy and fellow editor and Supernumerary Fellow Mark Pottle had the challenging task of identifying mis-referenced passages, a job which the advent of Google made a lot easier.

During his speech, Hardy had described Berlin’s fascination with the human character and quoted his former tutor as saying ‘Human beings are my landscape.’ After hearing his inspiring talk, Professor Lee observed that this quote was as apt for the role of an editor, as so beautifully demonstrated by Hardy and his achievements.

Full recording of the talk