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Russian Thinkers

4.28  ·  Rating details ·  576 ratings  ·  40 reviews
The theme that links the essays in this book, written over 30 years, is the phenomenon of the Russian intelligentsia, which Isaiah Berlin describes as the largest single Russian contribution to social change in the world.


Introduction: A Complex Vision, by Aileen Kelly

- Russia and 1848

- The Hedgehog and the Fox

- Herzen and Bakunin on Individual Liberty

- A Remarkable
Paperback, 336 pages
Published October 25th 1979 by Penguin Books (first published 1978)
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Aug 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
How I wish Berlin had written a novel! I loved his style and his eloquence, it made this complex matter so much appealing. This is, I gather, one of the most important books for the history of ideas, since it describes so accurately the philosophical/ethical and political notions developed in Russia in the tumultuous 19th century; the different aspects on religion, politics, the cultural chasm between Russia and western Europe, the collective guilt of serfdom (most of the thinkers were members ...more
Aasem Bakhshi
"Describe, don't explain". Though Wittgenstein perhaps wrote those words while discussing the epistemological value of science, one has to read Isaiah Berlin in order to see their true expository demonstration. This is no ordinary achievement. In more than one way, its an indispensable text; that is, its a marvel of literary criticism, a classical description of the inner-most structures of Russian thought, introduction to some of the brilliant minds and intellectual giants of 19th century ...more
Bryn Hammond
A classic, but at this distance I found it overly vivid and viewpointy. Probably because I didn’t see eye to eye with his portraits, or (want to) recognise his Turgenev, his Dostoevsky.

Funnily, Aileen M. Kelly sent me to Isaiah Berlin, of whom she is follower in Russian intellectual history; and she explains his great importance in the historiography, as a solitary figure against the tides of his day – yet she didn’t mention how different, in the end, her understandings of these thinkers are.
Greg Brozeit
This collection includes what is arguably Berlin’s most famous essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox. The quotation from which the title is taken is usually attributed falsely, “There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’” I suspect that many of those who ascribe the quote to Berlin have rarely read beyond that first line. But they would have missed Berlin's brilliant intellect and unique writing style ...more
Feb 02, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Without any doubt a superlative book by any measure. I can think of no better introduction to the origins of the Russian intelligensia - none, but then I've not yet read Mark Raeff's book. Nonetheless, in a series of justly praised essays, Berlin gives his account, necessarily hints outlines rather than presents a sustained, comprehensive account. [Sir Isaiah preferred to record his thoughts in essays and lectures rather than in sustained narratives - of which he wrote a few.]
What is most
Russian Thinkers is a classic work on Russian literature and ideas. Included in this excellent collection of essays Isaiah Berlin has a fascinating essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox. In this essay Berlin uses the distinction found in a fragment of the poet Archilocus that argues that there are two types of thinkers: Hedgehogs, who know one big thing and foxes, who know many things. Berlin goes on to categorize the great thinkers of the ages into groups based on this distinction. Hedgehogs like ...more
sister bluestocking
Jan 25, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: serious readers of literature
Recommended to sister by: script of Tom Stoppard's "Coast of Utopia"
Tom Stoppard brought this classic back into vogue when he cited it as inspiration for his recent epic, "The Coast of Utopia."

Thrilling, incandescent writing. Even if you only read "The Hedgehog and the Fox," the most celebrated essay in this justly celebrated collection, Isaiah Berlin's dazzling book deserves a place in your library.

The subject of "Hedgehog" is Tolstoy's inability to forge a scientific theory of history, but Berlin ranges effortlessly across 19th century Russian history,
Jul 18, 2012 is currently reading it
Do his insights really penetrate, or is it just the supremely self-assured prose? No, they do. Amazing essay on Tolstoy, even if a Tolstoy I barely recognize: "an incurable love of the concrete, the empirical, the verifiable, and an instinctive distrust of the abstract, the impalpable, the supernatural – in short an early tendency to a scientific and positivist approach, unfriendly to romanticism, abstract formulations, metaphysics. Always and in every situation he looked for 'hard' facts – for ...more
May 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I really liked this book. Berlin approaches his subject matter -- the Russian intellectual scene and its social context -- with warmth and feeling. He doesn't see the people he writes of and the projects that impassioned them as simply historical data to be accounted for. He soaks them in as human events, things with personal significance for all people. From the writings in this book, it isn't hard to guess that he learned this skill from the very writers he discusses here, like Turgenev, ...more
Stephen Selbst
Feb 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
In Russian Thinkers Isaiah Berlin surveys the century of intellectual ferment in Russia that led in nearly linear fashion to the disastrous Russian Revolution. At the commencement of the 19th century, Russia had a tiny educated class (less than 1% were literate), and it was oppressed by a repressive state, a sluggish bureaucracy, a Church swaddled in ignorance and hypocrisy, and an peasant class that lived in serfdom. When the amateur-hour Decembrist coup of 1825 predictably failed, it set off ...more
brendan d wynter
Jun 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Aug 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
From p. 104:

"It is a singular irony of history that Herzen, who wanted individual liberty more than happiness, or efficiency, or justice, who denounced organized planning, economic centralisation, governmental authority, because it might curtail the individual’s capacity for the free play of fantasy, for unlimited depth and variety of personal life within a wide, rich, ‘open’ social milieu, who hated the Germans (and in particular the ‘Russian Germans and German Russians’) of St Petersburg
J.W.D. Nicolello
I didn't get to read all of it before giving it away with three dollars to someone gathering bus fare in Hell's Kitchen. I mean he could have bought liquor with it, but if one is drinking poisonous vodka on an overcast Tuesday afternoon in Hell's Kitchen he needed it pretty bad. And at least he can read about Russians while drinking vodka via Isiah Berlin. Or maybe he was going to visit family in New Jersey. Either way I'm sure I'll have another copy in the mail in some days.
Marcus Lira
May 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy, history
Am I the only one who read "The Fox and the Hedgehog" and instantly thought of Sonic and Tails? It's really hard to concentrate on War and Peace when you really feel you should be breaking the sound barrier and clearing levels as you collect coins... Which is only fitting because, in a way, that's exactly what this book is about.

Isaiah Berlin focuses on tsarist Russia, long before Putin was born, although the tsar was a lot like Putin, except Putin isn't a tsar, mostly because tsars are now
Ben Peters
Sep 03, 2009 rated it liked it
If one reads only two books to understand Russian thought, Berlin's should be one of them. Berlin's essays line up Russian liberal intelligentsia for close, dazzling, and critical examination: Herzen, Bakunin, Belinsky, Turgenev, and most of all Tolstoy. His essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox," which argues that Tolstoy "was by nature a fox but believed in being a hedgehog" (read for more) is so successful I hasten to point to "A Remarkable Decade" (1838-1848) which reviews the emergence of the ...more
Richard Thompson
Aug 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing
For anyone interested in nineteenth century Russian history or literature or the roots of the October Revolution, this is a fabulous book. It is a book that I wish that I could have written. I particularly enjoyed the discussions of Herzen and Belinsky. I have read about them in other books and had a general idea of their importance, but I hadn't previously really understood them. I am inspired now to read some of their works, first of all Herzen's autobiography. I was also intrigued by the ...more
Sep 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
a brilliant exposition of the 19th century russian intelligentsia, set out in lucid, intelligent prose (something of a rarity nowadays).

berlin is an excellent expositor of the genealogy of ideas, their reception, dissemination, and lines of transmission. this is an essential companion for anyone slogging their way through the great russian novelists.

the only blemish is the 1973 essay "turgenev and the liberal predicament" which offers a barmy analogy between the situation faced by turgenev
My current standard for critical writing. Berlin is just masterly in his command of his subject, and he's able to convey that mastery to the reader. While for my own sake, I could wish he didn't use such complex syntax -- it can be a little too easy to get lost in his dense sentences -- I can easily understand why such complicated, nuanced concepts demand such writing. The essay on Tolstoy's historiography is fascinating, and has probably made me think more about my own attitudes and assumptions ...more
Jun 14, 2007 rated it really liked it
Like many people (I know because I had to wait through 8 holds at the Portland library), I decided to get this book after reading Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia. It is the perfect follow-up and it makes me want to read the plays again, now that I am slightly less ignorant. Although I did not read every essay, I now feel adequately prepared to enter the world of Bakunin, Herzen, Belinsky, and Turgenev. It will be difficult to read Bakunin and Herzen without hearing the voice of Berlin, telling me ...more
Ivan Mulcahy
Mar 09, 2013 rated it really liked it
In Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives the character played by Judy Davis, married to Sidney Pollock's character is electrifying wired and hyper-smart. Their sex life seems dire. She tries an affair with Liam Neeson. Then during sex she reflects that he's a hedgehog type, as defined by Isaiah Berlin in his essay in this book. Then crazy head that she owns, instead of trying to focus on the fucking, she thinks about every man she knows and tries to decide if they are either hedgehog type or fix type ...more
Author's Preface
Editorial Preface
Note on the Cover Photograph
Abbreviations and Conventions
Introduction: A Complex Vision, by Aileen Kelly

--Russia and 1848
--The Hedgehog and the Fox
--Herzen and Bakunin on Individual Liberty
--A Remarkable Decade (1. The Birth of the Russian Intelligentsia, 2. German Romanticism in Petersburg and Moscow, 3. Vissarion Belinsky, 4. Alexander Herzen)
--Russian Populism
--Tolstoy and Enlightenment
--Fathers and Children

Glossary of names, by Jason Ferrell
Concordance to the
Jan 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A wonderful collection of essays by a brilliant philosopher and thinker, it is a great introduction to some of the best Russian intellects, novelists, political thinkers, and poets of the 1840s-1880s: Belinsky, Herzen, Turgenev, Bakunin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and others. Berlin shares with us the unique place in time Russia was in before the 1917 revolution and the complex blend of art and politics of Russian thinkers. It is worth reading.
Geoffrey Rose
Dec 23, 2012 rated it really liked it
It's a great book in terms of understanding a.) 19th century Russian thought and intellectual culture and b.) Berlin's own views. Strangely, I found "The Hedgehog and the Fox" (an essay I've read several times before) one of the less enjoyable - perhaps less coherent in terms of argument - in this essay but overall, this was a delightful read and Berlin's insights are interesting and remarkable (he's made me want to pick up the Russians again). Highly recommended.
Dec 09, 2007 rated it it was amazing
austin pendleton told me to read this when i was working on the cherry orchard. i wasn't looking forward to it cause i figured it would be a big fat yawn, but damned if it wasn't wonderful. it's the kind of book you have to read with glasses on, so i got some fake glasses for my character and it made a lot of difference. that alone was worth it. i can't honestly say that i understood all of it, but the parts i did understand were great.
Oct 24, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A collection of brilliantly illuminating essay's on Russian political thought in the 19th century through the writings of among others Turgenev, Tolstoj and Alexander Herzen. Of immediate relevance and importance today because in a sense the problems and predicament in pre-revolutionary Russia still aren't solved and we still struggle with the tension between capitalism and socialism.
Nov 05, 2009 rated it it was ok
I actually couldn't get through this book. I tried hard though. Really hard. It's very academic and a little over my head as far as the amount of philosophy and Russian history/literature. I plan to mail this book ot a philosophy major friend.
Jul 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, philosophy
I loved, loved, loved this book! Here I discovered Herzen and the populists of 19th century Russia, and went on to do a degree course to find out more. Beautiful... and much of the literature he quotes is no longer available, so that gives it a double value. A book to treasure.
Oct 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Terrific. I'll now have to read some Herzen.
Nov 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing
"These essays, by possible the most brilliant and engaging intellect of our time, illuminate dazzlingly both the Russian mind and the role of ideas in history." -Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Fantastic collection of essays
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Sir Isaiah Berlin was a philosopher and historian of ideas, regarded as one of the leading liberal thinkers of the twentieth century. He excelled as an essayist, lecturer and conversationalist; and as a brilliant speaker who delivered, rapidly and spontaneously, richly allusive and coherently structured material, whether for a lecture series at Oxford University or as a broadcaster on the BBC ...more
“True pluralism, as Berlin understands it, is much more tough-minded and intellectually bold: it rejects the view that all conflicts of values can be finally resolved by synthesis and that all desirable goals may be reconciled. It recognises that human nature generates values which, though equally sacred, equally ultimate, exclude one another, without there being any possibility of establishing an objective hierarchical relation among them. Moral conduct may therefore involve making agonising choices, without the help of universal criteria, between incompatible but equally desirable values.” 4 likes
“Understanding men or ideas or movements, or the outlooks of individuals or groups, is not reducible to a sociological classification into types of behaviour with predictions based on scientific experiment and carefully tabulated statistics of observations.” 4 likes
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