Isaiah Berlin's legacy

History has a certain elasticity. Stretch a point too far and it will break. Deal in nothing but pinpoint pricks of fact and you will bore your audience rigid and lose them. Sometimes you have to bend it like Beckham to convey something important while keeping your audience (and yourself) engaged. The test is whether you score a goal: in football not a single point but rather a target 7.32 metres wide and 2.4 metres high. This was top of mind as I watched the games people played at the "Isaiah Berlin's Enlightenment" conference in Oxford, England, last month.

Isaiah Berlin was one of those complicated, hard-to-categorise academics straddling the intellectual, political and popular spheres. Was he a philosopher, a political theorist, or an historian of ideas? At various times, all of those things, though the last was ultimately the best fit. For a decade Berlin was Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, a chair he won notwithstanding his own doubts and those even of his referees. Biographer Michael Ignatieff quotes one referee agreeing with Berlin's self-assessment that he was no "ice-breaker" in philosophy, and another that some of Berlin's work was "too exciting" by prevailing academic standards. Nor had he yet - and nor would he ever - produce the "big book" which normally forms the cornerstone of major academic careers.

Yet Berlin was an "unquestionable success" in the chair, writes Ignatieff: "Those who heard him lecture never forgot the experience. The lectures he gave to packed halls of undergraduates between the autumn of 1957 and 1965, established him as one of the most exciting teachers in the Oxford of his day." Death has not dimmed interest in Berlin, not least because of the massive undertaking of Henry Hardy compiling, editing and publishing Berlin's scores of essays and vast correspondence. It is leading to a better but also more critical appreciation of his life's work, and the critics were out in force at that conference last month.

The opening paper was from the current Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, Jeremy Waldron. It was brilliant and it was devastating. Berlin had focused on one part of the Enlightenment to the complete neglect of the other - the Enlightenment constitutionalism so vital to modern democratic development. This had led to teaching about political institutions being neglected in his wake, Waldron charged. Now Britain faced an array of constitutional challenges (the Scottish independence referendum, profound challenges flowing from the European Union and so on) and where were the scholars to rise to them?

The second paper was by nuggety Germanist R.J. Reed, who didn't bother with the charm and dismembered Berlin's claims to scholarship on the Enlightenment in devastating detail, culminating in the story of Berlin allegedly seeking a footnote reference for Kant's famous "crooked timber of humanity" quote after 30 years of using it in his work. The critique was trenchant. Reed was like a climber scaling ''Mount Berlin'', ultimately, with this last charge, lethally sinking his pick into its summit.

The sporting metaphors have to end somewhere, and so did the criticism of Isaiah Berlin. After several more excellent but critical papers, Ken Koltun-Fromm began the fight back, effectively posing that, while Berlin may have not been the best footnoter in town, he may have had other strengths. Marian Hobson, introducing the intriguing idea of a Rococco Enlightenment, shifted the goal posts. Then Michael Ignatieff brought it home for the Berlin team, while disavowing he was Berlin's agent on earth. Ignatieff turned Waldron's charge back on Waldron himself. There were many strands to the Enlightenment, not just the two Waldron identified, Ignatieff said, going on to detail them. Wasn't Waldron doing exactly what he accused Berlin of, privileging one of the two he had identified instead of acknowledging they were only two of several?

Waldron v Ignatieff was the boxing match we had to have (no, you can never have too many sporting metaphors). When at the conclusion of his paper Ignatieff turned his head slightly sideways, inviting Waldron to counterpunch, the respectful gesture from one scholar to another was embraced and returned in kind. Waldron and Ignatieff modeled good scholarly values and behaviour in front of a connoisseur crowd. That Berlin, even dead, could induce this golden moment, shows the bell hasn't rung on his work yet.

Christine Wallace