The hedgehog knows one big thing, but the fox knows many little things—Archilochus
Over twenty-plus years of teaching, I have collected several useful lines, phrases, conceptual frameworks, and gimmicks that serve as centering, organizational references when introducing students to the wonderful and largely unfamiliar territory of philosophy. The unity/plurality debate of the early pre-Socratics, Aristotle’s form/matter distinction, Descartes’ mind/body dualism, the simple basics of Darwin’s theory of natural selection—each of these can be used as sorting devices, kind of like the change-sorting machines of my youth, into which a conglomeration of confusing items can be poured, with a useful, preliminary organization emerging on the other end. None of these devices is intended to produce irrefutable truth; rather, they serve as rudimentary roadmaps to new terrain, each highlighting different aspects of what is to be explored.
In my experience the most effective of these devices, a tool that semester after semester turns out to be the gift that keeps on giving, is the simple hedgehog/fox distinction from Archilochus’ observation that “the hedgehog knows one big thing, but the fox knows many little things.” I am unaware of the context of this phrase in Archilochus or what he intends by it; I first came across the line in a famous essay by Isaiah Berlin, entitled (amazingly enough) “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” It is a lengthy essay primarily about Tolstoy’s theory of history as developed in War and Peace; Berlin argues that while the other competitor for the title of “greatest Russian novelist,” Dostoyevsky, was a hedgehog, Tolstoy was something like a fox trying to be a hedgehog or a hedgehog trying to be a fox (I forget which). But my interest in Archilochus’ observation was raised by the first two pages of Berlin’s essay, in which he suggests that the hedgehog/fox distinction actually identifies two very different ways of thinking about and investigating texts and the world at large. I have come to believe that the hedgehog/fox distinction is primal, hard-wired in each of us, and shapes each of our natural ways of addressing reality as fundamentally as the more familiar extrovert/introvert distinction.
Hedgehogs, on the one hand, are big picture, top-down thinkers who approach everything with an organizational scheme already in hand. Hedgehogs are attracted to permanence rather than change, to certainty rather than doubt, to clarity rather than fuzziness, to answers rather than questions. The hedgehog prefers conclusions to the process of getting to them, a clear map of the territory rather than wandering without specific direction or goals. The hedgehog brings the organizational scheme to the details, sifting through and sorting those details into categories that are largely already fixed. Hedgehogs generally organize everything they believe, indeed their whole world, around a small handful of basic, big ideas, and strive to keep these big ideas logically consistent with each other. Hedgehogs tend to be “either/or” in their attitudes toward everything.
Foxes, on the other hand, are small picture, detail-oriented, bottom-up thinkers. Foxes are attracted to open-endedness rather than closure, questions rather than answers, process rather than conclusion, skepticism and doubt rather than certainty and dogmatism. The fox tends not to have a well-developed organizational framework at the beginning of an investigation, letting organization and structure percolate from the bottom up rather than imposing structure from the top down. Foxes are far more willing to discard previous convictions and beliefs than hedgehogs are, and are endlessly fascinated by variety rather than similarity. In keeping with “knowing many little things,” foxes are not concerned when their various interests and beliefs do not fit seamlessly or consistently into a “big picture,” preferring a “both/and” attitude to the hedgehog’s “either/or.” Foxes are comfortable with inconsistency and disorder, both of which can be the bane of a hedgehog’s existence.
A quick example is instructive, taking us no farther than our current President and his predecessor. President George W. Bush was predominantly a hedgehog surrounded by fellow hedgehogs. Armed with big picture frameworks considered as self-evidently true, his hedgehog presidency proceeded with conviction and certainty, even occasionally in the face of details and facts that resisted categorization and even contradicted the pre-set categories of President Bush’s hedgehog agenda. Note that hedgehogery and conservatism are not synonymous, although they can and often do go together. Being a hedgehog is not about the content of what you believe—it is about how you frame and organize that content and, more basically, about how you see the world and process new information. To find a liberal hedgehog, one needs look only as far back as FDR.
President Barack Obama is a fox extraordinaire, so much so that he has the capacity to offend hedgehogs both conservative and liberal. From a hedgehog’s perspective, President Obama’s willingness to compromise, to be a pragmatist, to find common ground rather than draw lines in the sand—all fox traits—are signs of weakness to either be exploited or ignored. A willingness to let the truth show itself or even to create the truth going forward is an offense to those who believe that the truth tends to show itself clearly and then is to be defended uncompromisingly at all costs. Foxes such as President Obama see complications as opportunities to be taken advantage of and learned from rather than threats to be ignored or overcome. A noted journalist recently wrote an essay entitled “It’s Not Easy Being Barack Obama,” just as Kermit the Frog used to sing that “it’s not easy being green.” Indeed it must be difficult being President Obama. He’s trying to lead as a fox in a political world that increasingly is defined by hedgehog stances on both extremes of the political and social spectrum. Even an apparently dedicated conservative hedgehog such as former President Ronald Reagan had fox characteristics that would have served him poorly in today’s political climate. Continue reading