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Russian Thinkers (Penguin Classics)
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
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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46 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on June 15, 2002
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 ? Or- has it mutated into a dark parody of itself, making a pact with postmodern imperial power(s) as represented by X-Filesque military & financial "Free World" greedy elites which batten on the unenviable position of the much of the globe (Latin America, Africa, East Europe & the greater part of Asia) ?
-on strong side, essays on Herzen (Berlin's hero), Turgenev ("Fathers and Children" controversy) and Bakunin (juxtaposed to Herzen) are fresh, universal & not dated at all. Tolstoy is covered unsurpassably, and I doubt it can be done better. On the other hand, some essays, like those on Russia and 1848 revolutions, German Romanticism and Russian populism, although brilliantly weaven, are, in my opinion, more of historical interest than pertinent to our contemporary metastable anxiety condition.
Be as it may: this is an exquisite intellectual tapestry. Buy it.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
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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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
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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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on November 21, 2007
Format: PaperbackVerified 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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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 2008
Format: Paperback
Like every single book of Berlin's I ever read, starting with The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History, I enjoyed this one immensely. There is nobody quite like Berlin. Yes, his sentences seem never to end, but there is so much insight and quiet passion packed into every one of them that he really makes the reader feel he or she understands how these isolated desperate and frustrated Russians thought and why.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 16, 2007
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
All essays in this collection are remarkable but 'The Hedgehog and the Fox' is one of those essays that will take you on a trip to the relativity of truth and have you question both the physical and metaphysical through Berlin's eyes. There are many philosophical angles from which one can interpret Berlin's analysis of the Russian intelligentsia, the one that stands out the most is the question that defined nineteenth Russia, as well as Europe:'What is to be done?'

There are two strains of thought in the Russian intellectual circles of this time, the Slavophil movement and the Western-oriented intellectuals. Berlin notes that these were not organized political camps engaged in constant debates of any sort (as there was no political movement to speak of at this time in Russia) but rather unsystematic frames of thinking with which Russian intellectuals of the time identified.

The advocates of the Slavophil idea maintained that the salvation of Russia was to be found within Russia; that Russian lifestyle, Russian simplicity and modesty was superior to Western complex theories for the advancement of society. Berlin penetrates Tolstoy's consciousness and deciphers the characters and plots of War and Peace for what they represent i.e. the clash between Western scientific thought and the fundamentally Russian way of life. He argues that Tolstoy would have us believe that, in the end, it is the wise Russian General Kutuzov who wins, not because power or strategy had any significant consequence in the battle itself, but because he has not been infiltrated with Western military tactics and in part because he used his, to use Berlin's words "...Russian, untutored instinct..." and it is this Russian untutored instincts that Tolstoy wants to triumph over scientific rationality.

Western oriented intellectuals on the other hand, most of whom were in exile throughout Europe at this time, believed that the solution to Russia's problems could only come through the kind of reform being introduced in Western Europe, not necessarily the revolutionary kind, for Chadaaev the most ardent Western oriented mind in Russia at the time was by and far an ardent conservative who believed in aristocratic virtues, but a representational government like that of Britain.

Berlin engages Tolstoy in the center of nineteenth century European philosophical discourse on account of his views on simplicity (the hedgehog) and complexity (the fox) of both his work and personality (if we come to understand the simplicity to represent the adeptly Russian and the complexity to represent the ineptly Western European.) Tolstoy had managed or rather convinced himself that scientific theories are all assumptions and that if one is not exposed to these theories he/she has a better chance of knowing the truth, in Berlin's words "He [Tolstoy] believed that only by patient empirical observation could any knowledge be obtained; that this knowledge is always inadequate, that simple people often know the truth better than learned man, because their observations of men and nature are less clouded by empty theories, and not because they are inspired vehicles of the divine afflatus."

Berlin was a mastermind in interpreting and deciphering the Russian intellect, because his knowledge of Russia was unparalleled for his time, which is why this collection of essays is one of the best anthologies on the evolution of the Russian thought. Reading Berlin can sometimes be a frustrating experience because one feels that the interpretation of literature can only stretch to a certain limit and you wonder if indeed the author was trying to get to where Berlin is taking you or if is what Berlin wants to find in the subliminal nature of the author (in this case Tolstoy) and perhaps that's what attracts one to Berlin's brilliant mind.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon November 15, 2009
Format: Paperback
This is probably the best single collection of Berlin's essays. Berlin wrote a number of notable essays but this collection has a thematic integrity not found in most other collections. One unifying theme is that all essays in Russian Thinkers are concerned with 19th century Russian intellectuals. These essays are divided into 2 types; those devoted to analysis of individual writers and those analyzing broader currents in Russian intellectual history. A second theme featured in many essays, and an issue that greatly preoccupied Berlin, is the opposition of a pluralist view of human thought and life to ideas stressing a unifying or ideal view of human life and society. Berlin presents this opposition as a recurrent theme in Russian thought in the 19th century. Berlin's most sympathetic portrayals, those of Herzen and Turgenev, are of individuals committed to pluralist views. The most famous essay in this book, The Hedgehog and the Fox, is a justly celebrated analysis of Tolstoy as a thinker caught between these opposing approaches to life.

While the essays devoted to individual writers are probably the best known essays in this book but the broader and more historically oriented essays are equally interesting. Berlin's analysis of the difficult position of the small number of Russian intellectuals in a primitive and repressive society, the impact of German romanticism and Hegelian idealism, and the populist movement and how it prepared the way for the Leninist version of Marxism, are superb. Like all of Berlin's work, the quality of writing is outstanding. Berlin's command of and love for Russian literature, his own concern with the issue of pluralism versus idealism, and his evident sympathy for individuals like Herzen who shared Berlin's liberal pluralism, give these essays a personal dimension that adds to the quality of the work.

This is a very nice edition and the insightful introduction by Aileen Kelly is a very good introduction to Berlin's thought.
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18 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on October 8, 2002
Format: Paperback
Berlin is an interesting and I agree knowing commentator, but one gets the feeling that he understands there is something awry in Communism, but he's not quite sure what. His ideas of freedom are on the mark, but in the post-Communist world they don't quite get to the point. I highly reccomend papal biographer and political pholosopher George Weigel's recent commentaties, (available online). Liberalism was not and is not a sufficient answer to utopian ideology, which Berlin nevertheless correctly asserts will inevitably degenerate into totalitatianism. Even more, in the post-cold war world, relativism has usurped "true" freedom, which presents perhaps an even more dangerous problem than the Soviet one.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 24, 2009
Format: Paperback
In this collection of great essays, Isaiah Berlin examines the development of Russian intelligentsia; the circumstances that surrounded the formation of Russian philosophy and the role of ideas in the history of philosophy.
In one of the most enjoyable essays "the fox and the hedgehog", Berlin divides writers and thinkers into these two categories and focuses on Tolstoy's theory of history. My favorite subject is Russian philosophy and Berlin examines in great detail how Russian philosophers enriched and contributed to philosophy in Europe and the world.
Admittedly, Berlin's writing and thoughts are sometimes difficult to follow and the reader has to pause frequently to digest Berlin's big intellectual morsels. The most rewarding accomplishment my struggle with the small print in this book is that it increased my understanding of Russian philosophers, or as Berlin describes them: "Philosophers are adults who persist in asking childish questions."
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