Croaked Timer

by Henry Farrell on June 6, 2009

That our group blog is named “Crooked Timber” is sometimes taken to suggest that we are all devotees of Isaiah Berlin, who popularized the phrase about the ‘crooked timber of humanity’ that our title riffs on. As it happens, we are no more all fans of Isaiah Berlin than we are fans of “Therapy?”: (I haven’t listened to them since Teethgrinder meself), but it probably behoves us to acknowledge that today is Berlin’s “hundredth birthday”: (or rather would be, if he were still alive). Princeton University Press has The Crooked Timber of Humanity and various other titles “for sale here”: for thems that are interested.



Antti Nannimus 06.06.09 at 7:48 pm


“Crooked Timber” is the best blog name ever. EVER!

It hits all the notes.

Have a nice day,


bert 06.06.09 at 8:44 pm

Kant, innit?
Btw, I thought Clive Crook missed a trick by failing to criticise your preening claim t0 run the circus. Following his example I will snub you at parties.


Bloix 06.06.09 at 9:09 pm

I very much enjoy Crooked Timber. I read it daily and profit from it. And as Antti says, it does have the BBNE (Best Blog Name Evah). So far be it from me to carp. But may I make a request? Perhaps one of the contributors who is a fan of Isaiah Berlin might have something to say about him. Then we could read it and be smarter than we were before.


kid bitzer 06.06.09 at 9:27 pm

i assumed it meant you were all doctrinaire kantians.

you *are*, all, doctrinaire kantians, aren’t you?


bob mcmanus 06.06.09 at 9:59 pm

Then we could read it and be smarter than we were before.

Nah. I have tried this and it doesn’t work.


Mrs Tilton 06.06.09 at 9:59 pm

Surely it remains Berlin’s birthday, and will so remain as long as there are sentient beings aware of our current dating system and the spot within it marking his birth, whether the great man himself is around to join us in conscious celebration of the fact or not?

But if Berlin were still able to commune with us, I feel morally certain that this is what he would say: Lions had better raise their game, or else they are going to be ritually, and deservedly, disembowelled in the Tests.


D Jagannathan 06.06.09 at 10:01 pm

I’m curious; do people commonly read Kant’s “Idea for a Universal History”?


Kieran Healy 06.07.09 at 1:30 am

Crooked Timber was nearly called The Grumbling Hive.


kid bitzer 06.07.09 at 3:05 am

wouldn’t have been as good.

mandeville’s story is an optimistic story of the emergence of order from disorder, and of virtue-like behavior from vicious motives.

if you’d called it the grumbling hive, the suggestion would be that something good was going to emerge out of the messy origins, something better than any of the flawed participants.

by going with crooked timber, you made it clear that it’s flaws at every level. a far better, more modest choice.


geo 06.07.09 at 4:35 am

Bloix: Perhaps one of the contributors who is a fan of Isaiah Berlin might have something to say about him.

Here’s something by a non-contributor who is not a fan of Isaiah Berlin:


Henri Vieuxtemps 06.07.09 at 8:18 am

Thanks, George.


bert 06.07.09 at 11:14 am

Yes, thanks George.

Two immediate and superficial responses.

– I think those passages about the imagined golden age read best if you have Rousseau in mind as Berlin’s principal target.
– I think famed eugenicist H.G.Wells is the sort of utopian it might be prudent to leave out of the argument you’re making.


Tom Hurka 06.07.09 at 11:17 am

Re #4:

Isn’t “doctrinaire Kantian” a pleonasm?


rea 06.07.09 at 2:29 pm

I thought it meant you were all historians specializing the in the European settlement of northern Michigan, where French missionaries established a mission and school in the late 17th Century at an Odawa village the French called L’Arbre Croche . . .


kid bitzer 06.07.09 at 3:09 pm


you may be right.

but we’ll want to distinguish them from the latitudinarian kantians, the let-it-all-hang-out kantians, the kantomantics, who do whatever the oracle tells them to, and the om-mani-kant-me-ans who just chant the opening lines of the critique over and over again waiting for illumination to strike.

as well as the groupies who care less about doctrine than about aping his hairstyle and dress.


engels 06.07.09 at 3:48 pm

I wonder if something like the following ought to be included in the next version of Daniel Dennett’s Philosophical Lexicon:

Bazhurka, n. Powerful internet weapon, capable of taking out entire, heavily dug in philosophical positions with a single cheap shot. “Damn it, Serge, he’s got a bazhurka. None of those Rawlsians, Wittgensteinians or Kantians stand a chance…”


Salient 06.07.09 at 3:52 pm

+1 Ambrose Bierce. I would buy a dictionary written by engels.


Colin Danby 06.07.09 at 4:29 pm

then we have the pre-critical, the critical, and the post-critical


Tim Wilkinson 06.07.09 at 4:29 pm

6 – surely ‘unto eternity’?

Regarding today: assuming that it is indeed IB’s birthday (i.e. there has been no mistake about the date), it’s now too late for it ever not to have been. Of course you meant future anniversaries, but it’s at least very plausible that those will forever be constituted by annual periods of 24 hours, regardless of what else might happen. (Possibly related issue: does, e.g., ‘Year’ rigidly designate a fixed period of time?)

More importantly, would he have nothing to say on the Ashes?


kid bitzer 06.07.09 at 4:35 pm


right, but that trichotomy applies to all of the groups i listed, as well.

then there is also the derogatory term, “kantiast”, which one often sees misspelled.


des von bladet 06.07.09 at 7:39 pm

(Possibly related issue: does, e.g., ‘Year’ rigidly designate a fixed period of time?)

Leap-years, anyone?

I’m not normally much a prophet, but this I can tell you: come the Singularity the issue of the relation of calendars to the passage of time will be enough to make grown beings of pure information weep bitter, bitter info-tears.


Tim Wilkinson 06.07.09 at 7:53 pm

Yes, oops. Won’t mutate the rather numerous mutanda here.


lemuel pitkin 06.08.09 at 5:31 am

Here’s something by a non-contributor who is not a fan of Isaiah Berlin

Thirded or fourthed or whatever it is by now: this is a wonderful essay.

Why the fuck isn’t Scialabba a CT contributor tho? Seriously, it’s hard to think of someone who’d be a better fit…


Preachy Preach 06.08.09 at 8:45 am

Apropos of nothing – this was an ‘interesting’ little titbit from the trade journals I read for my job recently.

Oxford University used to have its own division of Commissioners and, until a recent Clerk put a stop to the practice, they would sit wearing full academic dress.

The archives of the division show that shortly after the war, the university Commissioners heard an appeal by Sir Isaiah Berlin who had received £200 from Sir Winston Churchill as payment for comments he had made on the Russian chapters in Sir Winston’s History of the Second World War. Sir Isaiah contended that this payment was not chargeable to income tax. The Commissioners agreed with him. The inspector expressed dissatisfaction but he appears not to have pursued the matter. Today the decision would have been overturned under the Human Rights Act because of the obvious appearance of bias by the Commissioners towards a fellow academic.

(To fill in the gaps for those not entirely familiar with the finer workings of the British tax system – the Commissioners referred to were the General Commissioners – who until recently were the first line of appeal in (simpler) income tax cases – and although never quite stated explicitly here, the decision is, to say the least, surprising, even for sixty-odd years back.)


Tim Wilkinson 06.08.09 at 1:06 pm

Scialabba’s peice n‘thed.

24 – the (lies about the) CIA funding business would have to come into any historical investigation into just how saintly the old charlatan really was, too. I often wonder how much his moniker was responsible for his wildly disproportionate reputation for wisdom (rather than just good prose and a well-stocked mind). If he’d called himself Andrew Sooter or something…?


bert 06.08.09 at 2:38 pm

Tim, part of the success of Scialabba’s piece is that he’s clear about what he disagrees with, and is generous about the rest. I don’t think you’ve quite struck that balance – squirrelly yid with a flowery name, harrumph…. But I get my online tone slightly off all the time, so judge not, that ye be not judged (Isaiah 94).
I do think that to make much out of that CIA/Encounter business you have to show that those involved were fully aware of what was going on and that money induced them to behave in a way they otherwise would not. In Berlin’s case you could perhaps argue the first charge, but not the second. He was a Cold Warrior, of course, but not of a dishonourable kind. You may have a different view, but whatever you conclude you need to calibrate your outrage to leave some room between Stephen Spender and, say, Gladio.


Tim Wilkinson 06.08.09 at 3:40 pm

bert @26 on (#25 on #24): Yes of course I agree on Scialabba, and the stuff about the CIA etc is indeed not relevant to the criticism of content, but it is to the sociology of the public intellectual and political propaganda.

So, since you want to get into the history, Berlin does appear to have known what was going on and helped to devise actual lies to cover it up. I’d say secret propaganda funding is something rather close to a conflict of interest. It’s an interesting question to what extent that concept has relevance to a polemical writer (for such he surely was) rather than say a scientist who is trusted not to fabricate data. But if a notion of conflict of interest can be applied here, it precisely doesn’t rest on proving some utterly intractable counterfactual. Anyway, the question of influence, rather than just content, is very much a matter of how effectively his stuff was propagated.

Anyway, where do you get ‘cold warrior but not dishonourable’? How much does a genuine (though entrenched, possibly self-deceiving and recklessly overgeneralised) belief in the implacable enemy and the overriding need to combat it excuse? How much collateral damage is acceptable? Berlin didn’t just go on abut how nasty Stalinism was, did he. Anything to the left of him and his MI6 mates was the target. Was Ollie North’s noble cause corruption actually quite honourable perhaps? (And do I hear the word ‘equivalence’ being sharpened?)

As for your italicised gloss on my comments, WTF, I mean really, WTF????? I’m not having that. Luckily I’m not vulnerable to your attempt to up the ante with a grotesque smear (and yes, now I am outraged). OK, the name stuff is an utterly marginal, even slightly flippant bit of speculation, but the way in which writers take on the authoritative mantle of venerable public intellectual is very much a matter of PR, and the prophet/European-cultural-centre combo has a good ring to it, you will surely concede.

I thought the tone was rather jocular, myself, however much you may wish to portray it as some kind of splenetic rant.


Bloix 06.08.09 at 4:14 pm

Tim Wilknson, are you implying that he wasn’t born Isaiah Berlin? If so you’re incorrect.


bert 06.08.09 at 4:37 pm

Tim, I can understand your reaction, but I think it’s an overreaction.
Nobody’s grotesquely smearing you, and there’s more than enough in my comment for you to choose to react differently.
The suggestion that a refugee might have chosen an Anglo name for himself, and might thereby have foregone special treatment, is an awkward one. But I made explicitly clear that the problem was an inadvertent one of tone.
Much as I’d like to make amends for any offence, I won’t be defending Ollie North any time soon. I hope you won’t stay angry.


Tim Wilkinson 06.08.09 at 4:47 pm

#28 No.


Tim Wilkinson 06.08.09 at 5:13 pm

#29 I’m glad you can understand my reaction to having my (apparently rather naively) innocent speculation being re-written into the form of a racial/ethnic slur (metanoia about ‘just a matter of tone’ notwithstanding).

And yes I’m still – not so much angry – indignant and rather shaken. BTW Andrew Sooter is/was the name of a real person and chosen quickly and unreflectingly as an example of an uncultured-sounding and uninspiring name. If you wanted to warn me about (what I can now see might be) the overtones of the choice of name and the phrase ‘called himself’, or indeed the whole aside, you should have done so straight away.

Anyway, you can consider the subject well and truly changed.


josh 06.11.09 at 4:04 pm

Thanks for that remarkably graceful acknowledgment of Berlin’s birthday, Henry.
Tim Wilkinson — when you say “Berlin does appear to have known what was going on and helped to devise actual lies to cover it up”, what is the evidence for this (I’ve been through Berlin’s correspondence relating to the CCF and Encounter, and haven’t found it; but perhaps you know something I don’t)? And again, when you say “Anything to the left of him and his MI6 mates was the target” — again, what MI6 mates are you referring to? (Perhaps Berlin’s friend Stuart Hampshire, who worked in intelligence during the War — and was a life-long socialist? Or perhaps Herbert Hart, who worked for MI5 during the War?) And where’s the evidence of Berlin attacking everyone on the left of — well, what exactly?
I’ve done a fair amount of research on Berlin, and I think that the reading that sees him as either intending to attack all f0rms of socialism or of left-leaning critique of his own society, or that sees his arguments as necessarily leading to these conclusions, is unfounded. But that’s a matter for interpretation, of course; and one can have a useful argument about it (my colleague George’s piece is a good contribution to the other side of that debate; much of what he says seems to me either just,or at least plausible — though I do think his intimation that Berlin was rather pleased with himself is contradicted by the ample evidence of self-doubt that has since emerged in Berlin’s published correspondence). But the claims about Berlin’s involvement in the CIA, and his political actions more broadly, seem to be factual contentions. And they seem to be lacking in any sort of evidence in this discussion.
(By the way, on Berlin’s name: had his grandfather not been adopted by another relative, Berlin would have been known as Isaiah Zuckerman. One wonders how that would have affected the reception of his work.)

Comments on this entry are closed.