3/3/11

Are you a hedgehog-blogger or a fox-blogger?

My teacher, Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik c. 1971 in a seminar at the Bernard Revel Graduate School mentioned a book by Isaiah Berlin with great enthusiasm. He then applied the concept of the two archetypes, hedgehog and fox, to describe the nature of the work of two medieval rabbis (I forget which ones, but I'll wager he said Rabbenu Tam was a hedgehog and maybe Rashi was a fox.)

So I went over to the library and read the book, as I often did when one of my teachers mentioned a volume with high praise.

The other day at the office I tried to explain the archetypes to a talented programmer, noting after summarizing Berlin's theory that said developer came across as a hedgehog. And right then I realized that apparently I lapsed into speaking Aramaic - or that was the look I got from my colleague.

Wikipedia has a nice precis of the book (it's just an essay really of 90 or so pages)...
"The Hedgehog and the Fox" is the title of an essay by Isaiah Berlin, regarding the Russian author Leo Tolstoy's theory of history.

The title is a reference to a fragment attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: πόλλ' οἶδ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ' ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα ("The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing"). In Erasmus Rotterdamus's Adagia from 1500, the expression is recorded as Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum.)

Berlin expands upon this idea to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea (examples given include Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Proust) and foxes who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea (examples given include Shakespeare, Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce, Anderson).

Turning to Tolstoy, Berlin contends that at first glance, Tolstoy escapes definition into one of these two groups. He postulates, rather, that while Tolstoy's talents are those of a fox, his beliefs are that one ought to be a hedgehog, and thus Tolstoy's own voluminous assessments of his own work are misleading. Berlin goes on to use this idea of Tolstoy as a basis for an analysis of the theory of history that Tolstoy presents in his novel War and Peace.

The essay has been published separately and as part of the collection Russian Thinkers, edited by Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly.

Some authors, for instance Michael Walzer, have used the same pattern of description on Berlin, as a person who knows many things, compared to the purported narrowness of many other contemporary political philosophers. Berlin's former student, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, has been dubbed a hedgehog by Berlin and readily admits to it in an interview after receiving the 2007 Templeton Prize.

Berlin expanded on this concept in the 1997 book The Proper Study of Mankind. Philip Tetlock, a political psychology professor in the Haas Business  school at UC, Berkeley, draws heavily on this distinction in his exploration of the accuracy of experts and forecasters in various fields (especially politics) in his 2005 book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?.
You can read the first ten pages or so at Questia or here.

And now we must, ask, fellow blogger, Are you a hedgehog-blogger or a fox-blogger?
(reposted from 7/08)

4 comments:

Iyov said...

Ah, an excellent topic for a post.

The Proper Study of Mankind is actually a collection of Berlin's "greatest hits" -- it is a terrific collection and includes the Hedgehog and Fox essay on Tolstoy.

Another great place to pick up the essay is in Berlin's collection Russian Thinkers. The latter book is something of an unofficial commentary to Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia trilogy.

I hope that sometime you will write about the experience of having Rav Soloveitchik as your teacher. I never met him, but of course I have read his writings, which I think must be quite different than seeing his teachings in person.

You probably already know this, but there are a number of Soloveitchik shiurim here. I haven't listened to them all, but this one seemed especially good.

Baruch said...

definately a hedgehog. Hard to articulate why this early in the morning, but I'm definately a hedgehog.

bryce said...

Great food for thought, Tzvee.
At first, I thought the "hedgehog and the fox" were similar to "Sinai and the Uprooter of Mountains," but I guess not.

Barzilai said...

Thanks for the reference. I just ordered a copy of "The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays" on Amazon, and I look forward to reading it.