Hedgehog or Fox: Which Are You?

"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

I did not find this quotation on my own. My attention was directed to it by Isaiah Berlin, one of my favorite essayists and political theorists. Berlin taught for many years at Oxford, wrote dozens of essays and books on the history of ideas. One of my favorites is a work of his entitled The Hedgehog and the Fox. Berlin died in 1997.

Many years ago, I read through everything I could find by Berlin while in search of a dissertation topic. Those were lost years; I was trapped in the stacks at Columbia wondering whether I should be a professor. That time ended when I concluded there was nothing, really, to profess.

I took notes on Berlin. During the Christmas break I was moving books from one room to another. I discovered my typewritten notes on Berlin. One hundred and twenty-plus pages. Grist for a mill than never produced grain. I've been leafing through the notes in idle moments, and it is pure pleasure.

Here's a quote from Berlin. Read through it. Linger over it. Then try it on for size. Once it fits, answer the following question: Are you a hedgehog or a fox? In the many years since I've read Berlin I've returned to this metaphor time and again. Call it a diagnostic tool to be used in gauging your intellectual temperament.

"[T]here exists a great chasm between those, on the one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system more or less coherent or articulate, in terms of which they think and feel -- a single, universal, organizing principal in which alone all that they are and say has significance -- and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some pyschological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripeal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, sseizing upon the vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one changing, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision."

Berlin classifies the following as hedgehogs: Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Dante, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Proust.

Among the foxes? Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Goethe, Joyce.

So, what are you?

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Comments (2)
Posted on January 20, 2010 at 1:53 am by andrew
Berlin apparently didn't read Anna karenina: tolst...
Berlin apparently didn't read Anna karenina: tolstoy's not a fox concealed as a hedgehog; he's pure hedgehog, as inexorable as a tumbling boulder: tolstoy's portrayal of Levin's redemption is not just the point of the book but the point of Tolstoy: love is the binding force of the universe even in the face of man's appetite for self destruction

Posted on February 25, 2009 at 1:47 pm by Robert Canright
Thanks for reminding us of Isaiah Berlin. He has e...
Thanks for reminding us of Isaiah Berlin. He has expressed valuable ideas and we don't think them through often enough.
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About Norm Pattis

Norm Pattis is a Connecticut based trial lawyer focused on high stakes criminal cases and civil right violations. He is a veteran of more than 100 jury trials, many resulting in acquittals for people charged with serious crimes, multi-million dollar civil rights and discrimination verdicts, and scores of cases favorably settled.

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I believe that the state is a necessary fiction and that failing to combat it is the first step toward tyranny.
– Norm Pattis


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