Useful Concepts – #6 – Foxes vs. Hedgehogs

Apparently, there are two classes of people, those who divide people into two classes, and those who don’t.

Isaiah Berlin was in the former class when he brought the following fragment of the Ancient Greek Poet Archilochus to greater fame as a tool for classifying people:

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

The meaning and the translation of this fragment have been much discussed. (Berlin got the endorsement from Eduard Fraenkel, Maurice Bowra and E. R. Dodds for his translation – three of the leading Classicists, not just of Berlin’s time but of all times.) It was the publishing genius of George, later Lord, Weidenfeld who suggested The Fox and The Hedgehog as the title for a book. Initially it was an article with the less impactful title Lev Tolstoy’s Historical Scepticism.

Berlin suggested that the fragment about the fox and the hedgehog provided a way to “mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general.” Hedgehogs are those

“who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance.”

Foxes, on the other hand, “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory.”

Their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a 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 unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.

According to Berlin, “Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs.” While Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes.

For me the value of the fox-hedgehog classification derives not just from its usefulness for understanding individuals but also from its potential use as a tool for thinking.

We are in an age that encourages hedge hoggish behaviour: 20 minutes on the one big idea for a TED talk. Books that present one big concept that is superior to all concepts that have gone before. It’s all about flow argues one book, all about mindset another, all about grit the next, all about introversion, all about vulnerability, and so on. Everything is driven by habit, by willpower, by neurobiology, by the left and the right side of the brain, by the amygdala and the hippocampus. The best of these ideas fit some of the other ideas under their latest hedgehog concept. But standing next to each other, they have potential to make up a beautifully varied fox universe.

And what if the search for a single overarching concept itself gets in the way of thinking better about things? Say the old problem of why sometimes people act in a way they know they shouldn’t or fail to act in  a way they should? For example, they may have another piece of chocolate cake when they actually know it won’t be good for them. Or they don’t go to the gym when they actually themselves think they should? More than 2000 years ago the master of hedgehog philosophy, Plato, and the old fox, Aristotle asked themselves that question. They called the phenomenon “akrasia” and asked why it happens. It seems that over the millennia we have made little progress in answering what it is and what we can do about it.

We talk about willpower and weakness of will and ask what we can do about it. Some say, willpower is like a muscle. Yes, it can be trained by use, but it also gets worn out by use. If you resisted the bacon and eggs you wanted for breakfast you’ll find it harder to resist the cake at tea time. Some think low blood sugar levels literally cause weakness of will. Some think it’s about the alignment of first order desires (to eat cake) and second order desires (not being the kind of person who eats too much cake). Some think it’s about getting the right knowledge and perspective (the pleasure of eating cake due to its closeness looks bigger than the far away negative consequences of eating it). Some think it’s about conflicting psychological factors (deep down I don’t really want to be skinny anyway, so I’ll have that cake.)

And yes, what if there isn’t actually a single thing called willpower and a single thing called weakness of will where the latter is the lack or the opposite of the former. What if sometimes we are just too tired to do what we should do, sometimes we don’t have the right knowledge of the consequences of our actions, sometimes we are torn by different motivations and there is never a single unifying explanation?

If that was the case, then resisting the search for a hedgehoggish theory of everything might be more useful. Then having a catalogue of foxish possibilities and potential approaches may actually get us further.

Isaiah Berlin must have later thought that his parlour game of dividing people into foxes and hedgehogs had got out of hand and that people were reading too much into the Archilochus fragment. He even wrote in a letter “I am very sorry to have called my own book The Hedgehog and The Fox. I wish I hadn’t now.” Another blog post about the thing is probably the last thing he would have wanted. But from a fragment of ancient Greek poetry whose meaning we’ll never know, by the route of a book title its author wished he had never given it, we get a useful concept that, once we know it, we can never put completely aside.


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I'd love to know what you think about this!