'Isaiah Berlin's Neglect of Enlightenment Constitutionalism' by Jeremy Waldron at the conference on “Isaiah Berlin’s Enlightenment” this week comments that
One of the most important achievements of the Enlightenment is what I shall call Enlightenment constitutionalism. It transformed our political thinking out of all recognition; it left, as its legacy, not just the repudiation of monarchy and nobility in France in the 1790s but the unprecedented achievement of the framing, ratification, and establishment of the Constitution of the United States. It comprised the work of Diderot, Kant, Locke, Madison, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Sieyes, and Voltaire. It established the idea of a constitution as an intricate mechanism designed to house the untidiness and pluralism of human politics.
Yet Isaiah Berlin, supposedly one of our greatest interpreters of the Enlightenment, said almost nothing about it. The paper develops this claim and it speculates as to why this might be so. Certainly one result of Berlin's sidelining of Enlightenment constitutionalism is to lend spurious credibility to his well-known claim that Enlightenment social design was perfectionist, monastic, and potentially totalitarian. By ignoring Enlightenment constitutionalism, Berlin implicitly directed us away from precisely the body of work that might have refuted this view of Enlightenment social designA particularly feline "supposedly one of our greatest interpreters".
Waldron states -
I have a general claim to make about the Enlightenment and a particular claim about Isaiah Berlin.
The general claim is this: one of the most important achievements of the European enlightenment is what I shall call Enlightenment constitutionalism. It is massively important; it transformed our political thinking out of all recognition; it left, as its legacy, not just the repudiation of monarchy and nobility in France in the 1790s but the unprecedented achievement of the framing, ratification, and lasting establishment of the Constitution of the United States. Both of these are part now of our political world. They grew up in the Enlightenment. That is my general claim.
The particular proposition is about the work of Isaiah Berlin. Berlin, supposedly one of our greatest interpreters of Enlightenment thinking, had very little to say about this heritage of thought and these achievements. I have ransacked his work and I mean it: there is almost nothing on Enlightenment constitutionalism in his writings— some few rags and paltry blurred shreds of paper here and there; nothing of any significance.
You will balk at this proposition. You will say: what about the insistent theme in all of Berlin’s essays cautioning us against perfectionist projects and against the ideation of a perfect society in which all values will be integrated harmoniously and commensurably, and in which conflict among the solutions to each and all of the problems of mankind will be precluded by the unity of the standard that makes each of solutions rational. What about his warning? Isn’t that his verdict on Enlightenment constitutionalism?
No it is not. For in none of that does he really address the idea of constitutional structure, the possibility of institutionalized forms that will house rather than try to abolish human imperfection, protecting liberty and ethical pluralism and providing a modest institutional structure with which security and the general good can be promoted through representation and the rule of law, without anything approaching the hubris of totalitarian utopianism. Isaiah Berlin said nothing about that. He proceeded in his work as though all attempts at social and political design were on a par, and as though everything invested in the 18th century constitutionalist enterprise was beneath comment.
Why? Well, an unkind interpretation would be that Berlin remained silent about Enlightenment constitutionalism because it challenged—it was a most glaring counter-example to—his thesis about the dire consequences of Enlightenment rationalism. Having committed himself to this thesis at an early stage in his career, he was not about to endanger it by identifying the one strain of rationalist constructivism that offered to refute his central concern. I am sorry to say that one cannot read into this area without entertaining that hypothesis. But it is a frightful thing to say about a public intellectual. I think Berlin deserves our charity, and maybe the more charitable explanation is that he just wasn’t interested in law, constitutions, or institutional politics generally. For some reason he didn’t think that political philosophers should really be preoccupied with all that. I’ll say more about possible biographical explanations at the end of this talk.And away he goes