Sir Isaiah Berlin

The first President of Wolfson College

Portrait of Sir Isaiah Berlin, taken in Bologna in 1994.

“To the claims that can be made on his behalf, as the most historically minded of twentieth century liberal philosophers and the most philosophical of historians of ideas, there should be added a third claim: that he was the only philosopher to leave behind him an institution in the image of his own ideals.”

– Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (1998)

Before Wolfson

Isaiah Berlin was born in 1909 in present-day Latvia, then the Russian Empire. The son of Marie and Mendel Berlin, a wealthy Jewish timber merchant, Isaiah’s early years were spent in moneyed surroundings in Riga, Andreapol and Petrograd (now St Petersburg). Following the October Revolution of 1917, the Berlin family made plans to leave Russia, finally settling in Britain in 1921. The events of the Revolution would prove to have a formative impact on Berlin’s mature work, in particular his abhorrence of violence and advocacy of value pluralism. Quickly mastering English, Isaiah was educated in London before his acceptance to read literiae humaniores at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Graduating in 1928, he subsequently took a second undergraduate degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics before being elected to a Prize Fellowship at All Souls.

This first period of Berlin’s life concluded with the Second World War, in which Berlin was turned down for military service as a foreign national. Desperate to participate in the war effort, Berlin gave up his teaching job and made plans to work as an attaché in Moscow, seeding pro-British news stories in the Soviet press. These plans were disappointed when his partner turned out to be a Soviet agent, and Berlin instead spent much of the war producing press surveys from Washington D.C. for the British Ministry of Information. He later travelled to Russia, where he famously met Anna Akhmatova, and returned to Oxford in 1946. It is this period of his life that established Berlin’s early reputation as a society personality and abilities as a conversationalist, according to his biographer, Michael Ignatieff.

Berlin’s reputation rapidly grew after the War, and it was during this period that he met his future wife, then Aline Elisabeth Yvonne Halban (although they had coincidentally travelled on the same boat when Berlin first went to New York in 1941). Much of this time was occupied with appointments at universities in the United States, and despite his dislike of writing Berlin also published prolifically, the fruits of which included the popular essay The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953). Aline worked with him on the French translation, and their collaboration brought them closer. They married in 1956.

In 1957, Berlin accepted a knighthood (though not without qualms), and was appointed Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College later that same year. He now enjoyed considerable celebrity thanks to his radio lectures, and was renowned as one of the foremost public intellectuals of his day.

“By the 1960s Berlin had a unique reputation, neither as a historian nor a philosopher, but as an idiosyncratic combination of the two.”

– Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life

a True College

Photo of Berlin with Isaac Wolfson and Harold Macmillan after Berlin's speech at the opening of the new Wolfson College buildings, 12 November 1974

Sir Isaiah had already considered applying for the Presidency of Iffley College. He was discouraged, however, by the the lack of resources: “without money and without graduates the college does not seem genuine to me,” as he wrote to the literary critic Sir Maurice Bowra. It was being solicited by the Fellows of Iffley that changed his mind. Friends and colleagues attempted to dissuade him – but Berlin took up the Presidency on the condition that he could secure “funds to build and endow a true college, with generous accommodation for graduate students,” as his friend Joseph Alsop insisted. Doubtful of his fundraising abilities, Sir Isaiah set about gathering support for his nascent college in early 1966. As he wrote to the Wolfson Foundation in March of that year, he was convinced that without the expansion of graduate education in the United Kingdom, the result would be national “intellectual and technological stagnation.”

“I have been Wolfsoning. If Wolfson produces the building & Mac [McGeorge Bundy] the endowment, I shall be fatally committed. I am still thought pretty mad (though less so) but burn with faith.”

– Isaiah Berlin to Joseph Alsop, 13 March 1966

The business magnate and philanthropist Sir Isaac Wolfson had been considering a significant bequest to the University, and in late June of 1966 agreed to donate an unprecedented £1.5m, to be matched by funding from the Ford Foundation in the United States, then under the leadership of Berlin’s friend McGeorge Bundy. The College was renamed Wolfson in honour of its benefactor, and the search began for architects who could realise what had once been unthinkable: a new, fully-funded Oxford College, dedicated to graduate research.

Our Architecture

Our Grade-II listed site, integrated into the lush surroundings of the River Cherwell, was designed by architects Powell & Moya and completed in 1974.

Find out more Arrow

Berlin’s Legacy

Sir Isaiah finished his term as President of Wolfson College in 1975, when he was succeeded by Sir Henry Fisher. He left the College just as it was finally established on the banks of the River Cherwell, but his spirit persists in the egalitarian, democratic and unpretentious atmosphere for which Wolfson is famous. He left his mark on our architecture – particularly the curved ‘Berlin Wall’ that he championed after a trip to Portofino – but more than anything endowed the College with the “new, untrammelled and unpyramided” ethos that continues to define our community today.