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Hedgehogs and Foxes: Who Ya Got?

It all starts with a Greek poet from the 7th Century BCE named Archilochus, who wrote that “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” 230 decades later, socio-political theorist Isaiah Berlin expanded this 12 word phrase into an essay entitled "The Hedgehog and the Fox", in which he examined what he saw as two styles of analysing the world, and in the 60 years since it's publication the metaphor has caught on.

When confronted with danger, the theory goes, hedgehogs can do one thing - roll into a ball, and present its spines to the threat. Foxes, by contrast, respond to danger in any of a number of ways, using whatever method is most applicable for the current situation - they can run, hide, or fight back. Applied to people, Berlin observed that "hedgehogs" tend to view the world through a particular lens, applying to their reality a grand theory that is based upon a depth of knowledge, producing a consistent, stable - they "know one big thing". Foxes "know many things", holding a breadth of knowledge that allows them to pick and choose between seemingly contradictory theories, ideas, and observations in order to evaluate individual instances, but at the cost of lacking a stable, overarching theory with which to view the world as a whole.

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When confronted with new information, hedgehogs find a way to fit it into their existing viewpoints, by either accepting or rejecting the conclusions of the information - should the conclusion contradict their current beliefs, hedgehogs do not mind seeking out additional information to either discount or confirm the data. Hedgehogs like closure, and although they do not respond well to dissonance, they are able to cope by relying on what they know, either as hard data or ideology. They are comfortable coming to concise, precise conclusions, and as a result are very confident in making predictions for the future, able to explain the complexity of the world in a brilliantly-simplistic way. This confidence in their grand theory can translate into superlative achievement - Berlin identified Plato, Marx, and Dante as hedgehogs, whose devotion to a unifying concept drove their pursuit of human truth. Physicists today, occupied with the search for a grand theory to unite what we know about macro and micro scale laws of the Universe, are very much the same.

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Illustration for article titled Hedgehogs and Foxes: Who Ya Got?

Foxes, by contrast, are comfortable accepting a level of uncertainty in viewing the world, able to take dissonant and contradictory ideas and treat them equally. Although foxes are reluctant to commit to one particular view or ideology, and instead prefer to hedge their bets and qualify their analyses, they accept complexity and respond well to challenges to what they know. As Berlin states, foxes are “scattered or diffused, moving on many levels,” and their analysis of the world can be dense or unsatisfying because of their aversion to ideological commitment. Nevertheless, foxes consistently out-perform hedgehogs in making predictions because of their commitment to intellectual-centrism - by cherry-picking ideas and information with no grand underlying theory, foxes tend to avoid the pitfalls of sticking too strongly to an ideology. Berlin identified Shakespeare, Herodotus, and James Joyce as foxes - their often-fragmented and always-multidisciplinary theories of human action reflected in their work.

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Many people tend to view one of these styles as better than the other, but I have tried to portray them both as objectively as possible. They certainly both have weaknesses and strengths, intellectually and ideologically, and as Berlin argues success can be achieved equally by foxes and hedgehogs. I've been turning this topic over in my head for a few days, and I'm interested in hearing what you, my noble GTers, have to say. So, dear friends, Hedgehogs vs. Foxes, who ya got?

For his part, Berlin insisted that the title was meant more as a humorous aside, a revision of Robert Benchley's "Law of Distinction", which states "There are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don't."

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