Historical imagination and political pluralism
Isaiah Berlin’s interest for history as a discipline is pivotal to his work, especially by virtue of the complexity of his personal and cultural education. It leads him to explicitly understand the history of ideas as the highway to self-understanding, as a sort of genealogical research around his roots. In doing so, he takes seriously Robin Collingwood’s claim: «history is “for” human self-knowledge». In this paper, we aim to see how some of his philosophical views on history influenced his moral and political views on value pluralism. We will focus on three important presuppositions:
- There is, and ought to be, a sharp distinction between the methods of humanities and social sciences and those of natural sciences; in Berlin’s words, methodological monism is «one of the most grotesque claims ever made by human beings»;
- History plays a key role among the humanities, as a specific and autonomous field of knowledge to be studied by means of sympathetic imagination and the ability to mentally re-enact past events. This attitude gives rise to the conditions of possibility of a proper methodological dualism;
- The lack of historical awareness makes it impossible to imagine and pursue values different than those that dominate the present. In a certain sense, Berlin’s methodological dualism can be read as a “dam” against the scientific imperialism that the methods of hard sciences constantly tend to exercise over moral and political thought. For these reasons, historical imagination can be seen as an education for political pluralism. The conflict among competing values, sometimes subject to possible compromises and sometimes irreconcilable, is inevitable and continuous. We should distrust enthusiastic quests for scientific methods aimed at inspiring political action, since human condition is constantly characterised by the clash of different values, among which political actors have to responsibly choose.