Sir Isaiah BERLIN (1909–1997)

Historian of ideas

Headington House, Oxford

Isaiah Berlin was a figure of towering intellect and one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. His major concern was the assertion of individual freedom against the tyranny of absolute systems whether of philosophers or regimes. He differentiated ‘negative’ liberty, freedom from the interference of others, from ‘positive’ liberty, the potential for self-realisation, good in itself, but easily commandeered by ideologues. ‘Value pluralism’ is another key phrase of his liberal philosophy.

Isaiah Berlin was born in Riga in 1909 into a Russian-speaking Jewish family. In 1921 the family came to England. Isaiah attended St Paul’s School and in 1928 went up to Corpus Christi College, Oxford where he took Firsts in Greats and PPE. He became a lecturer in philosophy and then Fellow of New College and also a Fellow of All Souls. During the Second World War he was attached to the British Embassy in Washington and responsible for sending influential despatches back to Whitehall.

In 1950 he returned to All Souls and in 1957 was elected to the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory. In 1966 he became the founding President of Wolfson College, the Oxford graduate college whose evolution owed much to his fund-raising skills and charisma. He remained there until his retirement in 1975. He had been knighted in 1957 and became FBA in the same year. In 1971 he received the Order of Merit.

In 1956, in his late forties, he married Aline Halban (a daughter of the de Gunzbourg banking family) and came to live at Headington House where he remained until his death in 1997. He is buried in Wolvercote Cemetery.

Headington HouseHeadington House (not visible from the road): the plaque is on the gate-post, shown below

Further reading:

  • Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty (OUP 1969), now incorporated in Henry Hardy (ed.), Liberty (OUP 2002)
  • Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (Henry Holt & Co., New York 1999)

Gate of Headington House


The plaque was unveiled at the entrance to Headington House, Old High Street, Headington on 7 June 2009 by Peter Halban, step-son of Sir Isaiah. The event was one of many worldwide celebrations to mark the centenary of his birth.

Berlin plaque

Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board



Historian of ideas

lived here

Oxford Jewish Heritage

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