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Russian Thinkers (Penguin Classics) Paperback – March 25, 2008

4.8 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

Among the seven essays collected in Russian Thinkers is perhaps Isaiah Berlin's most famous work, "The Hedgehog and the Fox," which begins with an ancient Greek proverb ("The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing") before taking on Leo Tolstoy's philosophy of history, showing how Tolstoy "was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog." The other half dozen pieces examine other Russian writers and philosophers, including Alexander Herzen, Ivan Turgenev, and Mikhail Bakunin--although the latter, Berlin says, "is not a serious thinker. There are no coherent ideas to be extracted from his writings of any period, only fire and imagination, violence and poetry, and an ungovernable desire for strong sensations." Few, if any, English-language critics have written as perceptibly about Russian thought and culture as the Latvian-born Berlin, and the history covered in Russian Thinkers is a unique elaboration of Berlin's theses concerning the impact of ideas upon culture. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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"Isaiah Berlin is an author without whom I could not have written these plays."
-Tom Stoppard, in The Coast of Utopia program
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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; 2 edition (March 25, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141442204
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141442204
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #355,466 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on March 26, 2000
Format: Paperback
It should be noted first that Isaiah Berlin knew his material backwards and forwards; the book bears the mark of exhaustive study. Russian Thinkers is a collection of essays on Russian luminaries, including Alexander Herzen, Belinsky, Tolstoy, Bakunin, and the populists (including Chernyshevsky). It would be helpful to have background knowledge about Russian history in this time period (mainly 19th century) before reading the book, but it is also intersting as a philosophical text, and Berlin expertly outlines the thought of these major figures. The main obstacle to reading this work may be Berlin's writing style, which is initially somewhat clunky (strangely, I found this to be the case mainly in his famous essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox"), but it does flow better once one gets used to it. Like all philosophical texts, though, what at first seems abstruse often proves rewarding and enriching. This book would be of interest to those who enjoy history or philosophy. (note: if you like this text, Personal Impressions is also worth a look)
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Format: Paperback
This study of Russian thinkers is profound and moving. Isaiah Berlin was capable of writing about 'ideas' and their ' development' in a constantly fascinating way. His most well- known essay ' The Hedgehog and the Fox' is in this volume and it seems that Berlin himself was one of those who knew many things and wanted to know many things. His political ideas also took the shape of recognizing conflicting value systems as having validity even when those came from within a single person. Here he writes about the great Russian social and political thinkers Tolstoy, Herzen,Belinsky , Bakunin , Turgenev with characteristic insight, irony and sympathy.

This is a volume anyone interested in the history of ideas should not miss.
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Format: Hardcover
This is one of these intellectual & spiritual odysseys of the mind that, after you've digested them, remain embedded in the protoplasm of your mental being. All the Russian 19th century greats (except Pushkin and Dostoevsky ) are here: Herzen, Belinsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Bakunin. In a book so saturated with ideas, it is not easy to make a pick- my favorite ones are:
-the hedgehog and the fox metaphor ("The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing"). Human beings are categorized as either "hedgehogs" (whose lives are embodiment of a single, central vision of reality according to which they "feel", breathe, experience and think- "system addicts", in short. Examples include Plato, Dante, Proust and Nietzsche.) or "foxes" ( who live rather centrifugal than centripetal lives, pursue many divergent ends and, generally, possess a sense of reality that prevents them from formulating a definite grand system of "everything"-simply because they "know" that life is too complex to be squeezed into any Procrustean unitary scheme. Montaigne, Balzac, Goethe and Shakespeare are, in various degrees, foxes.)
-precarious position of liberalism-something Berlin was well aware of. A "non-belief belief", liberalism certainly doesn't satisfy "deeper" human needs; also, it managed, following its very nature, to stay away from planned genocides & siren songs of totalitarian power. Yet- Berlin has failed (maybe due to the "history of ideas" nature of this compilation of essays) to answer more fundamental questions plaguing liberal mindset: is it fit to grapple with the 20th/21st century burning issues ?
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By A Customer on October 27, 2002
Format: Paperback
This book provides an excellent introduction to the history of Russian thought. I supplemented it with the pertinent chapters of Billington's "The Icon and the Axe" to piece together a general outline of the evolution of Russian political philosophy. Maybe I didn't pay enough attention to Berlin's own philosophizing, but then that wasn't my objective. I found one of his general observations about Russian thought to be particularly useful, i.e. the tendency to follow an idea through to its fullest consequences, no matter how extreme or objectionable. The book nicely sets the stage for how Marxism was able to take hold, showing that it was in some ways an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, intellectual development. The problem is, now that the book has allowed me to cobble together a general framework of Russian thought, the only possible next step is to start directly reading Hegel and Marx! And who wouldn't try to put off a daunting task like that?
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a very important book in my opinion, because it analyzes certain utopian ideas that produced chaos during the 20th Century, but remain popular today despite their horrible track record. Basically, this outstanding work of historical scholarship is about a group of Russian intellectuals who believed if they rid Russia of the monarchy, capitalism, and Russian Orthodox Church, life would be wonderful. So the Tsar and his family were killed, capitalism was wiped out, and the Russian Orthodox Church was suppressed. As we all know, paradise didn't ensue. Instead Russia ended up with the Gulag Archipeligo. How could so many brilliant intellectuals be wrong? Well, perhaps brilliant intellectuals aren't as brilliant as they imagine. If you want to understand the modern world, and the pitfalls of seemingly wonderful utopian ideas, this is the book to read. The author is a highly-respected historian, not a journalist slanting the facts in an effort to convince you to vote for his or her favorite candidate.
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